Apple, Siri, Google/ITA, and the growing potential of mobile voice recognition to alter the travel search landscape

With the passing of Steve Jobs, the impact he and Apple have had on our lives and technology is well-documented, but what’s taken a temporary back seat in Apple news, albeit for good reason, is the new iPhone 4S and its clear focus on Siri’s voice recognition platform.

How could this impact travel? About 18 months ago in Spring, 2010, when Google first announced the ITA acquisition, followed by the controversy of Fairsearch and DOJ proceedings, I identified a convergence of forces that could enable Android voice search integration with ITA’s QPX airfare technology (click link to see original analysis) and shift the travel landscape further (see graphic at right).

Potential voice search partner paths (from October, 2010 Google-ITA deck)

I also noted the potential of Apple’s integration with Siri to enter the market, though it would still need the fare query platform, and now that Siri has launched and been somewhat of a revelation (usage has reportedly been 10x what even Apple anticipated), could we now be on the verge of another serious potential player in travel search and demand fulfillment?

This time last year, voice search was projected to be 15% of all searches by 2015, but that did not seem to account for what Apple could do. Android searches were already 25% voice, so along with Microsoft’s voice integration through Windows Phone, Xbox Live, Kinect, and coming Windows 8 platforms, natural language voice engagement is finally going mainstream, and that 15% may end up being quite an underestimate.

Siri tells you she doesn’t do flights – yet

We’re not there yet, but imagine when she does respond to a basic voice query such as, “I want to fly from Seattle to Boston from December 21st to December 28th on American Airlines.”

They could both be effective, but Siri is different than Google’s search model – Siri’s personal assistant model with its pleasant “personality” is engineered to deliver you directly to your desired answer – or transaction point.

But pleasant “personality” aside, make no mistake, the cold business truth is that Apple is mapping it toward high-opportunity transactional industries – like travel.

Could the impact shift the travel search landscape? Could Apple push Google to disintermediate its own travel search advertising model? As we’re seeing from advertiser pushback to its new online flight search tool that refers travel searchers directly to airline sites, Google is facing some tough decisions on whether and how to disrupt its own advertising model.

Travel is still a commerce category that needs innovation

We’re currently witnessing the dynamic online information, advertising, and social media ages of travel, but travel is still fundamentally a commerce category. Inspiration and planning tools are nice, and the inspirational demand-generation approaches of LivingSocial and Groupon are quite intriguing if they can evolve beyond the immediate daily deal model, but transactions make money, and the beauty of Expedia and others is that they gave consumers the ability to cut inefficient offline search and intermediary steps and costs and go directly to the transaction.

So could natural language voice help cut inefficient online steps and costs? Current online booking UI’s and Google’s blue links were great advancements, but still create friction. GDS’s create friction and cost.

Ownership of mobile, voice and fare platforms platforms could be game-changing

The interesting advantage to be noted when Google first announced the ITA acquistion was that Google would own all three platforms necessary to integrate seamless voice-driven search for domestic airfares – Android mobile/tablet, speech, and ITA. The focus has been on air, but also imagine if hotel platforms are integrated.

We identified that Apple owned two platforms, but Siri would not launch until now, and Apple needs the third element – travel platform/supplier partners. With $27 Billion in cash / short-term investments and incredible market currency, it could easily acquire the third platform, and with ITA swallowed up, could smaller competitors such as Vayant be the flight search answer? How about hotels?

Microsoft also owns two of the platforms, and while some might say Bing Travel is underwhelming, keep in mind Microsoft has $57 Billion in cash/short-term investments, a strong incentive to spend on search, mobile and tablet share, 35 Million Xbox Live members, an install base of perhaps 15 Million Kinects after this holiday season, and hundreds of millions of Windows users.

By the way, Amazon just acquired a voice platform for its new Kindle lineup, too.

Is it going to happen?

The technology and cost barriers are high to develop user-acceptable speech technology, and Google, Apple and Microsoft will offer robust APIs that OTAs and travel suppliers could integrate. Though the commercial models are not yet formed, what is clear is that among the major mobile platforms, we’re continuing to move along the path of voice integration that could alter travel search as we know it, while existing intermediaries likely cannot replicate it and must invest just to market their mobile apps in the first place.

Even more interesting, could GDS data structures adapt to receive voice object inputs? Likely not in any reasonable timeframe, and voice is a potentially good candidate for airlines to connect directly with consumers – but can Farelogix integrate with voice object inputs?

Finally, would consumers bypass home screen voice search to download, activate and use more cumbersome mobile applications even if they integrate with speech APIs?

So what’s going to happen? It remains to be spoken, but keep listening.

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One response

  1. […] Therefore answering my own question from a follow-up article when Siri launched, “Would a business traveler on the run want to be able to say… […]

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