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At CES 2019, Alexa and Google Assistant will howl. The rest will whimper

The two top dogs will use the show to draw in more mainstream customers.

Claudia Cruz/CNET

The world's largest tech show has become center stage for the digital assistant wars.

Amazon Alexa was the belle of the CES ball two years ago when the e-commerce giant unveiled a long list of product integrations that included Ford vehicles and Whirlpool appliances. Not to be overshadowed, Google the following year constructed a large, eye-catching stage and announced four new Google Assistant-powered smart displays.

Which brings us to CES 2019, kicking off next week. There, Amazon and Google are expected to make big splashes designed to show the rest of the tech industry that they -- not the other guy -- have the best platform for operating our smart homes, connected cars and voice-powered offices. Making their cases will be especially important at CES, since the show has become a who's who for the smart home and automotive industries, two major growth areas for voice assistants.

But while both have extended the reach and influence of voice computing, both also need to broaden their messages and showcase their voice assistants' capabilities. That work could persuade more consumers that they need smart speakers as much as they need smartphones.

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Currently, 32 percent of Americans own a smart speaker while 77 percent have smartphones, according to Adobe and Pew Research, showing there's much more room for voice to expand Smart speaker adoption has been growing at a healthy clip, but drawing in new customers may get harder, with increased consumer concern about data privacy and a regular trickle of negative anecdotes about Alexa malfunctioning. Also, Adobe reported the No. 1 reason people don't own a smart speaker is that they feel they just don't have a use for one.

"If the industry can convince those that do not own a smart speaker to get one, we believe the effects can be exponential," in sparking new uses in gaming, shopping and search, Adobe Analytics' Heidi Besik wrote last month.

Here's what to expect from the leading voice-assistant players at CES this year.

Amazon Alexa: The market leader

The online retailing kingpin will likely keep up its strategy of announcing lots of new Alexa partnerships to demonstrate its market dominance and highlight the versatility of its voice assistant.

Amazon may also use its now sprawling devices portfolio to help retain its lead. That could mean using CES to unveil new integrations or features for its Fire TV streaming devices, Amazon Key in-home delivery service or Ring home-security gadgets. But don't expect a long list of new Amazon-branded devices. The company introduced many Alexa-powered devices in September at its own Seattle launch event.

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At CES, Amazon is all about unveiling new partnerships, like this one with Toyota last year.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

And while Amazon's playbook of using a large volume of announcements to show voice supremacy has worked well in the past, the company now faces a lot more competition. In mid-2017, Amazon controlled just over 70 percent of the US smart speaker market, eMarketer reported. The research firm last month predicted that number will drop to 63 percent in 2019 as competitors catch up. The Google Home speaker, for instance, should reach 31 percent; other speakers, including the Apple HomePod and Sonos One, will account for 12 percent. (Some consumers use multiple brands, accounting for a total that's higher than 100 percent.)

It's why Amazon needs the CES spotlight focused on Alexa and not on some rival voice assistant.

Google Assistant: The fast-following No. 2

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One of the four smart displays Google unveiled with its partners at CES last year.

Josh Miller/CNET

If any company can make Amazon nervous about its future in voice, it's Google.

The search giant introduced its first smart speaker in late 2016, two years after Amazon unveiled the Echo, but has quickly captured almost a third of the US smart speaker market. Google has also copied some of Amazon's best ideas -- coming out with a cheap, pint-size speaker called the Google Home Mini to rival the Echo Dot, and introducing its own smart displays to compete against the Echo Show.

Now Google is signaling big plans for CES 2019, saying it'll triple the size of its presence from last year. The company may introduce more partnerships as well as smart-home features from its Nest team to help keep pace with Amazon.

But while Google has made big strides, it's unlikely to dethrone Alexa in the next few years.

Samsung Bixby: A lot of potential

Samsung, the world's biggest smartphone maker, has been working its way into voice via its Bixby assistant. It started by bringing Bixby to its Galaxy S8 in 2017, and even created a dedicated Bixby button on the side of the phone. It also unveiled a smart speaker in August, called the Galaxy Home, which hasn't gone on sale yet. In late 2017, the company said it would start adding Bixby into its refrigerators and smart TVs.

Samsung has been talking up its plans to make Bixby a more important piece of its future. But so far, it's well behind Amazon and Google in voice assistant smart-home devices, features and partnerships. It may even be too late to catch up.

The company is typically a big player at CES, so it may use the show to keep pushing awareness of Bixby. It'll be a challenge to stand out, though, against the two top dogs.

The rest of the pack: A scramble for relevance

Apple's Siri pioneered voice computing on phones and remains a notable player in the market. But Siri has fallen far behind the competition, and Apple's HomePod remains an also-ran in smart speakers as the company focuses on iPhones, its main profit driver. In addition, Apple rarely has a public presence at CES, preferring to host its own events. All these factors point to Siri likely being irrelevant at the upcoming show.

Microsoft's presence at CES in recent years has focused mostly on supporting its PC partners' new devices, so it's unlikely to make a big Cortana-related announcement at the show. Although an early player in voice computing, the software giant hasn't pushed Cortana development, keeping its voice assistant a minor player.

Facebook may make some noise this year, using CES to promote its Alexa-powered Portal smart display.

Then there's IBM. Given that CEO Ginni Rometty has a coveted CES keynote speaker spot this year, we may hear news about Watson, though it will likely be focused more on businesses rather than consumers.

For any of these companies hoping to hold its own at CES -- and many don't even want to play that game -- coming out from under Amazon and Google's massive shadows won't be easy.

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