Battle of the Russian voice assistants

Battle of the Russian voice assistants
All Russia's leading technology companies are developing their own voice assistants
By Dasha Fomina in Moscow August 5, 2019

We are slaves to the keyboard if we want to act with the growing range of smart devices but being able to simply talk to a virtual assistant is the technological manumission that is already a reality. It is also one area where Russia is on the cutting edge in the development race.

The global virtual assistant market is booming: Juniper Research expects “nearly 8bn digital voice assistants to be in use by 2023,” while Strategy Analytics is predicting that by that time the share of smartphones with voice assistants will grow to 90%. Smart speaker adoption rate also rose dramatically by March 2019: according to Voicebot.ai, 26.2% of the US adult population own a smart speaker.

And while the US and Europe are dominated by Amazon, Google and Apple, there are countries that follow a different path. Tech-savvy and progressive, they make the most of their local knowledge and innovate. Among such countries is China, whose smart speaker installed base is expected to rise to 59.9mn in 2019, Japan, which is predicted to quadruple its smart speaker market size to US $38bn by 2025 and Russia, where the monthly audience of Yandex’s home-grown voice assistant Alice surpassed 30mn.

June of 2019 was particularly rich in events for Russia’s voice assistant market. For the past two years, charismatic voice assistant Alice by Russia’s tech giant Yandex set the tone leaving behind local instalments of Siri and Google Assistant. But things are about to change with the launch of Tinkoff Bank’s voice assistant Oleg and the announcement made by Mail.ru Group, which is beta-testing its very own Marusya. So, together with Kirill Petrov of Just AI, we’ll break down the curious case of Russia’s AI market.

Alice by Yandex

In its home country, Yandex is like Google, Amazon, and Uber all wrapped in one. In 2017, the company launched Alice the voice assistant to organically intertwine with its ecosystem of country-wide services that comprises, a search engine, food delivery service, car sharing, and much much more. 

According to the figures released by Yandex, Alice is now used by some 35mn people monthly.

Available in Russian, Alice can do all the things one would expect from a digital voice assistant like searching for information on the Internet, answering simple questions, providing news highlights and weather forecast, helping access functions around your phone and entertaining content, and acting like a chit-chat bot.

This chit-chat feature paired with Alice’s distinctive character and quirky sense of humour is the key to the voice assistant’s growing popularity. Soon after its release, Alice went viral on Russian social media with screenshots of funny dialogues and videos of people talking to it. Alice memes and people trying to uncover its hidden skills on Youtube may not seem like much, but they encouraged people to use smart assistants and disrupted the way people communicated with them. 

Much of Alice’s audience comes from smartphone users, despite the fact that most devices have native digital assistants. Just like its cousins abroad, Russian virtual agent comes with Yandex. Station, the first smart speaker on the Russian market – some 40,000 of those were delivered in 2018. Yandex was also fast to launch Alice’s own ecosystem for third-party access - an open platform Yandex.Dialogs. This move encouraged companies like Papa Johns, McDonald’s, Nicorette, and Skoda among others to make use of Conversational AI in their marketing activities and build their set of skills for Alice.

So within just two years, Yandex not only set the bar for other digital assistants but also laid the path for others: both companies and people alike are eager to embrace Conversational AI.

Oleg by Tinkoff Bank

Introduced by Russia's largest internet bank and “provider of lifestyle services”, Оleg the digital assistant was only released in June. Sure, in many ways the new virtual agent will need to catch up to a more mature Alice, but it already doesn’t shy away from chit-chat and generally lives the concept “a friend who is always nearby”.

Created for finance and lifestyle-related tasks with a mission to help users navigate the Tinkoff ecosystem, Oleg recognizes and interprets commands, asks follow-up questions, fixes certain problems and speaks on a variety of topics.

But most importantly, Oleg is 100% home-grown - yes, a banking institution has built an AI-powered voice assistant from scratch. Since 2014, Tinkoff has been developing deep neural network models and voice technologies as part of its AI First strategy. The company also boasts its speech recognition technology with an accuracy rate of 95%, which works even in a sound-polluted environment. Besides, Tinkoff has its own biometric system, which works 99.99% of the time, and its own voice synthesis technology, based on WaveNet, Tacotron and Deep Voice neural models.

At the moment of launching, Oleg's skills comprised transferring money to Tinkoff Bank and Sberbank accounts, making restaurant reservations, booking beauty appointments, searching for discounts, purchasing movie tickets, offering money advice and life-hacks, managing credit cards, changing personal information and much more. In the future, Tinkoff is planning to further integrate Oleg into its ecosystem, which spans travel, mobile, investment, insurance, and entertainment services.

To use the assistant now, one needs to launch the Tinkoff app, which might to a certain extent hinder its adoption. Still, the company is addressing that by making most of Oleg’s functionality is available in a hands-free mode.

So while Oleg is a relatively young digital assistant, it already has a competitive edge, that’ll take others great effort to surpass. Being able to identify a user's voice using biometric data and offering services where security is key, it can provide a smooth experience for customers without the perils of multi-step authorization.

Marusya by Mail.ru Group 

In June leading Russian tech company and Yandex’s main rival, Mail.ru Group tech holding, owner of Russia's two most popular social networks Odnoklassniki and VKontakte, announced it was beta-testing its very own voice assistant Marusya.

One can participate in the testing by leaving a request on the project’s website or getting an invite from other participants. The beta version of this app is available on the AppStore and Google Play. 

As of now, Marusya answers questions about the weather forecast, movie showtimes, and train tickets, puts on music and radio, and perform various other tasks. Mail.ru Group has not yet announced the launch date, but it says in the future, the assistant will be able to talk about news, order food and call a taxi.

While Marusya at this stage is a “dark horse” of Russia’s voice assistant market, for Mail.ru it can really become an excellent business opportunity for business growth. Unlike Yandex and Tinkoff, Mail.ru Group has the user base of both Odnoklassniki and VKontakte - Russia’s two most popular social networks and are more popular than Instagram and Facebook. A major part of their audience is young and progressive, so the company can organically drive it to Marusya. 

What will come out of this?

As the new digital assistants emerged, the Russian internet exploded with the videos of the three talking to each other, sometimes not in a particularly friendly manner. Russians are clearly excited about Oleg and Marusya. However, the two newcomers will have to struggle to snatch the leadership from Alice, which is basically a one-stop-shop for all things Yandex.

A more mature Alice exists on a variety of devices, including Yandex.Station, computers, smartphones, headphones and children’s watches, so this is something others will need to address. And if Tinkoff with its self-sufficient ecosystem might do fine without one, Mail.ru Group needs to consider a smart speaker release following Marusya. 

In its forecast, Deloitte noted that by the end of 2019, the number of voice-activated smart speakers will exceed 250mn devices. And analysing the dynamics of the industry, the forecast is to reach a billion devices sold already in 2023 worldwide.

Besides Yandex is most likely eyeing another growing trend: smart displays where something like Yandex.Station can connect to a TV via the HDMI port. Will Mail.ru Group also jump in on that, considering the amount of entertaining content it potentially has access to? We will have to wait and see. 

When it comes to games and entertainment, Mail.ru Group is sitting on a goldmine - all of those can be transformed into conversational interfaces, attracting huge advertising traffic, especially once payment mechanics are implemented.

The payment functionality within voice skills allows you to monetize a voice assistant and develop the ecosystem around it, increasing its appeal to third-party developers. For example, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa have implemented a model similar to the App Store and Google Play - with a proportion of revenue sharing from in-skill purchasing (purchase within the skill) in the ratio of 70% to 30%, where 70% of the income goes to the developer. 

So far, Marusya is tied only to Mail.ru's own services, but the company has already promised to open an ecosystem of skills for third-party developers.

While the problem of “skill discovery” is still a major one for most digital assistants, Yandex’s Alice included, with direct access to millions of social network users who are easily segmented, Mail.ru Group can be the one to solve it.

As for Oleg, its user base already consists of the bank’s clients whose personalities have been officially verified. Voice recognition technology helps process around one million calls, while a biometric system, trained on customer voice data, helps the call centre combat fraud. This gives Tinkoff an unprecedented competitive edge, by supporting information-sensitive operations on one hand and efficiently automating customer support on the other. 

Besides the Russian market is not reduced to these three: Google Assistant and Siri have come to Russia. Local corporations, including one of the three leading telecommunications operators, are rumoured to be working on virtual assistants of their own, and Chinese manufacturers are looking to enter the market.

As the market becomes more saturated, competition is sure to get tougher and players will need to get creative to survive. Will Yandex’s Alice keep its lead? Will Mail.ru Group successfully exploit its advantages? Will Tinkoff expand its presence beyond the banking app? Will other players find their niche? Right now there are no answers to those questions.

 

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