SEATTLE • As he browsed digital store shelves last month in search of an aromatherapy diffuser, entrepreneur David Berger had a single requirement for his wife's Christmas gift: It had to work with Amazon.com's Alexa software.
"She's really into making the house smell beautiful, and I'm really into Alexa," said Mr Berger, who lives in Connecticut. "So this is a great gift for both of us."
Voice-activated digital assistants are racing from novelty to mainstream computing device.
More than a quarter of US adults will use one regularly next year, according to research company EMarketer, and they are increasingly ordering them to dim the lights, control the television and thermostat and, yes, turn on diffusers to waft scents around the house.
A recent survey found that when shoppers consider buying a smart-home device, they care less about the brand than whether it's compatible with smart speakers sold by Amazon, Alphabet's Google and Apple.
The diffuser that Mr Berger bought - sold by a little-known brand called Dularf - is one of some 28,000 items that now work with Alexa, according to Amazon, up from 4,000 at the beginning of last year. Google in October boasted of 10,000 such compatible devices.
Controlling smart-home devices with a voice command remains aspirational for most people. That is why companies keen to kick-start the nascent market are gearing up to make their case this week at CES in Las Vegas. The show runs from tomorrow until Friday.
JUMPING ON THE VOICE WAGON
Everyone in the smart-home industry is on the voice-control bus.
MR BRAD RUSSELL, who tracks Internet-connected home devices for Parks Associates, a research firm.
The annual tech expo in recent years has been dominated by announcement of new products, from cars to bathroom mirrors, designed to make use of voice software.
"We're in a gold rush right now," said Mr James McQuivey, who tracks consumer technology trends for Forrester, a researcher.
By the time Amazon released the Echo speaker widely in 2015, the company was working to entice a range of hardware makers to make their network-enabled thermostats, light bulbs and televisions compatible with Alexa. Amazon released a set of programming tools for developers the following year.
Google, which released its own smart speaker in 2016, took a similar approach, offering software tools for developers to link up with Google Assistant.
Taken together, Amazon and Google probably accounted for at least four of every five smart speakers sold in the US last year, surveys show. Worldwide, the two accounted for about 60 per cent of sales during the third quarter, according to research firm Canalys.
"Everyone in the smart-home industry is on the voice-control bus," said Mr Brad Russell, who tracks Internet-connected home devices for Parks Associates, a research firm. "They start with Amazon, then they go to Google, and maybe they do Apple."
Thermostats built by German start-up Tado are compatible with about a dozen smart-home platforms in the US. But chief product officer Christian Deilmann said the company is increasingly focusing its energies on Amazon, Google and Apple, which have the brand power and ecosystems to potentially attract millions more consumers.
Tado's sales surged after it passed the certification programmes that verify compatibility with voice software, Mr Deilmann said.
Tado also benefited from the marketing muscle and cash that US giants are dishing out to extend their lead. For example, Tado thermostats are prominently displayed next to Google Home speakers in some European stores.
Amazon, meanwhile, contributed to a US$50 million (S$68 million) round of venture capital funding raised by the Munich company last year.
A heavy dose of marketing will be required to persuade consumers that turning on a ceiling light with a voice command is really more convenient than flipping a switch.
Amazon, Apple and Google also will have to assuage fears that inviting an always-listening gadget into the home could imperil personal privacy.
Consumer surveys show that most people still use smart speakers for music, simple questions or setting alarms, not controlling the parade of Internet-enabled gadgets heading to CES show floors this week. Voice shopping, part of Alexa's early pitch given Amazon's expertise in online retail, hasn't taken off so far.
That doesn't dissuade early adopters like Mr Berger, who turned a personal interest in programming Alexa to answer questions from Airbnb guests into a business building voice-software management tools for hotels.
"People want it to change their lives more," he said. "That's why they're literally searching for 'Alexa-enabled' when they're looking for Christmas presents."