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  • Writer's pictureTravis Bogard

What do Podcasts, Voice Assistants, & AirPods have in common?

For the vast majority of human existence, voice has been the most used form of communication, yet for the past 20 years, text became a dominant form of communication in our lives. Voice usage, however, is quickly growing again. We believe part of this is due to the power of our voice, but there are also a number of other factors contributing to this shift.


In particular, we’ve seen 3 things happening over the past 20 years building up to this moment:

  • Podcasts have gotten us comfortable with async audio we can consume on-the-go

  • Voice Assistants have gotten us comfortable speaking to our devices.

  • AirPods and headsets are ubiquitous and can be seen on virtually every ear



Podcasts

Podcasts have enabled us to engage in news, stories, and all sorts of entertainment while on-the-go or doing other chores throughout the day. According to Statista, there are now nearly 120 million podcast listeners in the US. The prevalence of Podcasts has helped people understand how audio can be used while physically doing other tasks. The challenge with the text medium is that it relies on our hands and eyes for the interaction. These are the same tools we need to interact with the world around us. Audio on the other hand allows us to do both, unlocking new moments for interaction while untethering us from our screens.


Voice Assistants

In the early 2000’s Tellme Networks and a variety of other companies embarked on a vision of building voice portals, where all the information from the Internet would be available by simply speaking. Pre-VoIP and pre-smartphone, these experiences were made available through a phone number and accessed by millions of people. Mass adoption was accelerated by the availability of Siri on mobile phones in 2011 and Alexa in the home in 2014. These developments made voice assistants a house-hold name and experience (pun intended).


Reports state that nearly 40% of US internet users now operate a voice assistant at least once a month. I witnessed personally how my kids' first primary “computer” experience was asking Alexa questions instead of looking at or interacting with a screen.


This growth in voice assistant usage has gotten people comfortable talking to devices. The act of speaking out loud was an inhibitor early on for voice assistants and voice messaging. However, that hurdle has increasingly been overcome.


The AirPod-Era & Smart Speakers

Software + Hardware is the magic formula for new modalities to take off. The iPod enabled wider adoption of the Podcast, and Echo was the launch vehicle for Alexa, making the voice assistants immediately accessible with great quality. For voice to be captured and consumed on a large scale, it needs hardware that is readily accessible and easy to use.


In recent years, we’ve seen a huge growth in bluetooth headsets, which serve as the foundation for enabling on-the-go voice. Statista reports: “Sales of true wireless hearables (TWS) were forecast to increase to 310 million units worldwide by 2021. With Apple leading the market with over 40 percent shares among the TWS vendors as of 2020.” In fact the AirPod business alone is bigger that many tech companies.



I refer to this as the AirPod Era, which is the next fundamental shift in computing after the Mobile Era and Desktop Era, which will enable truly on-the-go experiences that are voice-first.


This growth goes hand-in-hand with the growth of ambient computing playing out in the home, which also tracks closely with the growth of the smart speaker market. When tied together, it is estimated that we currently have 4.2 billion voice-assistant enabled devices in the world, with that number expected to double over the next 4 years. This means voice experiences will be accessible anytime and anywhere for most people in the world.


You add these 3 factors together combined with the fact that voice is so fundamental to the human communication experience, and it’s no wonder why we are seeing voice experiences explode in popularity.


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