Welcome to the Voice Wars

A petty spat between Amazon and Google could be the opening skirmish of tech’s next big conflict.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Google, Amazon and Thinkstock.
They both want control of the voice-enabled internet. More combatants are coming.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Google, Amazon and Thinkstock.

You can’t always tell that a war is starting when the first shots are fired. It’s the response, the escalation, the deepening enmity, and the entrenchment of positions that turn an initial exchange of fire into a bloody, drawn-out conflict.

This week, Google moved to block users of Amazon’s Fire TV and Echo Show devices from watching YouTube. That might sound like a minor skirmish between a pair of tech companies jostling for position in outlying territories. But it could also be the start of something much bigger: a struggle for dominance of a far less open internet in which no one—consumers least of all—wins.

We’ve seen these kinds of platform wars before. First there was Microsoft: It controlled much of what people did on their computers, both at home and at work, and it systematically squashed competitors. Then came the internet boom, a 1998 federal antitrust suit, the rise of Google, the resurrection of Apple, and the smartphone revolution. As the battle for tech supremacy shifted to the mobile arena, Microsoft lost its edge, and the smartphone wars began. Ultimately, Apple and Google divided the mobile operating system landscape while Apple and Samsung split the hardware spoils. In the meantime, there was a brief yet intense clash among social networks, with Facebook crushing first MySpace, then Google, and then everyone else who tried to challenge it.

There are now five great powers in the technology industry—Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft—and while they all compete with each other in various ways, each basically controls one realm. Apple rules mobile devices; Google, the web; Facebook, social media; Amazon, e-commerce; and Microsoft, enterprise software. That basic alignment has held for a few years now.

But the field is always shifting in subtle ways, and this week some fresh fighting broke out on a relatively new front—one that could reshape the tech landscape as dramatically as the dawn of smartphones a decade ago or the rise of the consumer Internet a decade before that.

Google had originally pulled YouTube support from the Echo Show—basically Amazon’s Echo smart speaker with a screen attached—in September, sparking a testy exchange of press releases. Amazon found a workaround two weeks ago, directing Echo Show users to the main YouTube website. Now Google has blocked even that path and raised the stakes by pulling YouTube from the Fire TV as well—a far more popular Amazon product. The fight is getting ugly fast.

Who’s to blame depends on whose finger is doing the pointing. “Google is setting a disappointing precedent by selectively blocking customer access to an open website,” Amazon said in a statement. But if you ask Google, it was Amazon who started it. Here’s the statement from Mountain View:

We’ve been trying to reach agreement with Amazon to give consumers access to each other’s products and services. But Amazon doesn’t carry Google products like Chromecast and Google Home, doesn’t make Prime Video available for Google Cast users, and last month stopped selling some of Nest’s latest products. Given this lack of reciprocity, we are no longer supporting YouTube on Echo Show and FireTV. We hope we can reach an agreement to resolve these issues soon.

When I asked Amazon why it doesn’t sell the Chromecast or Google Home, the company declined to comment. Which makes it pretty clear that the reason has nothing to do with what’s best for Amazon customers and everything to do with its increasingly bitter corporate rivalry.

To recap: Amazon, an e-commerce company with hardware, software, and content ambitions, refuses to carry Google’s hardware in its online store. Google, an online search company with its own hardware, software, and content ambitions, retaliates by blocking its content from Amazon’s hardware. When all the big tech companies compete in almost every space, this sort of dustup might seem inevitable.

But to view this as a simple dispute over who can sell what on whose site, or who can watch what on whose device, is to miss the bigger picture.

Both companies are putting their reputations and products at risk in this fight. Already, neither side looks good, and any damage they inflict on each other is likely to benefit competitors such as Netflix, Roku, and perhaps most of all Apple. So why are they doing it? Why should Amazon care so much if some people buy Google products on its platform, and why should Google care so much if some people watch its videos on Amazon’s platform? On its face, neither activity would seem to threaten either company’s core business—and each would seem to benefit its own customers, along with those of its rival.

The answer is that we’re on the precipice of a new platform war, and both companies know it. It’s a war between voice interfaces: Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant. There are others involved, including Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. But neither of those companies has yet launched hardware that puts its voice assistant front and center, as Amazon’s Echo devices and the Google Home do. Amazon has the early edge, thanks to the Echo’s popularity. But Google believes it can win in the long run because its A.I. is more advanced than anyone else’s.

To capitalize on its first-mover advantage, Amazon is using the power of its e-commerce platform to heavily promote Alexa-powered devices, including the Echo and Fire TV streaming media players. Refusing to sell the Chromecast or Home appears to be part of that strategy.

In response, Google has allied itself with Amazon’s biggest rival, Walmart, which now sells the Home but not the Echo. That makes a lot of sense for Walmart, too: Amazon’s devices are designed to sell people products from Amazon, not Walmart. So the nation’s largest retailer has its own vested interest in hindering Amazon’s voice ambitions. In return, Google will sell Walmart products on the Home.

Voice platforms might seem today like a niche market compared to mobile operating systems. But they’re growing fast—not only on smart speakers and streaming media devices, but in cars, on smartwatches, and of course, on smartphones themselves. And whoever controls them may exert even more influence over users’ choices than Apple or Google did via iOS and Android. That’s because voice interfaces don’t lend themselves to choosing among various apps or scrolling through lists of options when you want to buy or watch something. So the company that makes the software gets to decide who sells you something, who plays your streaming music, or whose videos you watch by default.

On one level, Amazon is right: It’s outrageous that Google would block access to a public website on Amazon devices. But in the long run, voice-powered devices are a far greater threat to consumer choice and the open web. And Amazon has already shown that it won’t hesitate to use them to further its own interests.

So Google is right to be worried. And now that Google is retaliating, Amazon is right to be worried too. When Apple releases its HomePod, they’ll both be worried because it’s a safe bet that the company will use the same kind of tactics against both of them. And now we can all be worried about a world in which the biggest tech companies have more power than ever to restrict our choices, and justify it by blaming one another. Isn’t competition wonderful?