The team behind Viv hopes to change how we interact with just about everything — and build a new economic model for the Internet along the way.
About halfway through a 90-minute exploration of Viv, the recently debuted and much heralded next-generation smart assistant platform, I started to experience a bit of deja vu. Here were two highly intelligent and credentialed founders, animated by a sense of purpose and a shared conviction that there Had To Be A Better Way, extolling the virtues of a new platform that, if only it were to be adopted at critical mass, would Change The World For the Better. It reminded me of my early days covering Apple in the 1980s, or Google in the early aughts. And I found myself believing that, in fact, the world would be a better place if Viv’s vision prevailed.
But that’s a very big “if.” What Viv is trying to create is a platform shift on the scale of Google search or Apple’s app store — a new way to interact with the Internet itself. Yes, the interface is an intelligent agent that you talk to — much like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. But for Viv to truly flourish, the Internet would need to reorganize around a new economic model, one that looks dramatically different than the current hegemony based on the big five of Search (Google), Commerce (Amazon), Social (Facebook), Enterprise (Microsoft), and Mobile (Apple/Google).
These five horsemen of the Internet* represent the most powerful cabal in business today, and they won’t easily yield control of their domains to a hot-shot startup, regardless of its pedigree (the founders and many of the team worked at Apple on Siri).
The technology industry has ossified into an oligarchy, one that gets in its own way when it comes to breakthroughs. Viv is a proof of concept that ladders to one of our most fundamental beliefs: There’s got to be a better way.
Then again, Yahoo, Lycos, AOL, and Excite initially dismissed Google, which went on to create a new hegemony based on the open web of links. And the founders of Microsoft, IBM, and Intel initially dismissed Apple, which went on to create not one, but two new hegemonies, first on the Graphical User Interface (which Microsoft appropriated), and later on the mobile phone and its associated ecosystem of apps (which Google is now appropriating).
I’ve been writing about the larger shift Viv might represent for more than eight years, railing against the “chiclet-ized” world of mobile apps, and calling for a new model of “meta services” that connect the best of the open web with the best of mobile apps (peanut butter and chocolate is my imperfect metaphor). Imagine a world where every app could talk to every other app, and those conversations were animated by a deep and contextual intelligence that understood not only your intent, but also the myriad intents of every actor on the network.
That’s exactly the experience Viv wants to enable, and in its tantalizing demos, it seems to conjure that world from the thin air of our current infrastructure — ask it to send $20 to your friend Adam for the drinks last night, and presto, Viv parses and then executes your request.
How? Well, the logic is actually not that complicated. Everything you need to execute your desires is already available through your phone and its associated apps and APIs: Your calendar knows about the drinks last night, your contact database knows who Adam is, and your Venmo app can pay Adam. Viv not only understands and parses your speech (thanks to at-scale, in-the-cloud natural language technology from Nuance), it also writes a program to do your bidding in real time (that’s the tricky bit), and it executes that program to complete your task.
If you want to really understand Viv, stop comparing it to its limited ancestors, and start thinking about the dawn of search, when Google was young and the web was a hot mess.
It’s hard not to compare Viv to Siri, and not just because its founders Dag Kittlaus, Adam Cheyer, and Chris Brigham all worked there. On its surface Viv is an intelligent assistant, just like Siri (or Cortana, or Alexa, or “OK Google”). But if you want to really understand Viv, stop comparing it to its limited ancestors, and start thinking about the dawn of search, when Google was young and the web was a hot mess.
The Internet before Google rose to dominance was kind of a sh*tshow. There were tens of millions of web pages, but no reliable way to find exactly the product, service, or information you were looking for. Given this, we relied instead on the imperfect proxy of destination portals — places like Yahoo (initially a directory of websites), Amazon (initially a bookstore), and AOL (initially an ISP and walled-garden information service).
Along comes Google, which not only obviated the directory, but quickly became an essential platform for commerce and information services. Because Google identified and ranked websites based on their relevance to user input — the almighty search query — Google was able to dismantle the status quo of portals and replace it with a self-reinforcing economy of distributed sites, each competing for a share of Google’s all-powerful search traffic.
As Google rose to dominance, every single entity on the Internet re-organized itself to feed Google’s algorithms, creating a virtuous cycle that built the modern web.
Then came the iPhone and apps, and with them a new center of gravity for commerce. The “desktop web” began to fade in importance as the world went mobile, and business rushed to mine value by renting plots of land inside a new walled garden controlled by Apple. This new framework always struck me as madness — I was in the room when Steve Jobs railed against the “orifices” of carriers who monopolized access to mobile phones, and I always found it ironic that Apple became the largest orifice of them all with its iTunes App Store. A majority of value on the Internet now passes through the twin orifices of either Apple or Google, with the muscular sphincter of Facebook pushing value through the chain (via app install and lead gen ads, natch).
A majority of value on the Internet now passes through the twin orifices of either Apple or Google, with the muscular sphincter of Facebook pushing value through the chain.
Viv’s vision is to find a third way, one that will, at scale, obviate both search and the app store. Let that sink in: If Viv really works, it will leapfrog the essential differentiation of both Apple and Google — companies with a combined market cap of more than a trillion dollars.
How? Using the exact same mechanism that gave rise to Search and App Stores: A virtuous cycle driven by a shift in consumer behavior (from pecking at chiclets on a phone to sophisticated natural language queries), and an associated shift in how and on which platform businesses integrate their services. Viv is in essence a query collection and distribution machine, just like search. And it plans on using the guts of mobile apps to “get shit done.” Brilliant.
But if you want to track Viv’s success or failure, there’s really just one metric to pay attention to: How many developers integrate with it. Viv lives or dies on integrations — it’s one thing to orchestrate a few cool examples for a demo using open APIs from Uber, Venmo, or Expedia. It’s quite another to boil the Internet’s ocean. Now that its proven its technology can work, the real task ahead is convincing a critical mass of developers to view Viv as a new channel for customers, and then “Viv-ify” their services through API integrations. For this very reason, Kittlaus and his team have focused Viv’s external messaging on how Viv provides “intelligence as a platform,” rather than its more press-friendly profile as “a smarter version of Siri.”
To nab developers, Viv needs distribution—the chicken to every integrations’ egg. Imagine Viv installed as a service on all Samsung phones, for instance, or across Comcast’s Xfinity services (I’m guessing Viv is imagining just such a world). Viv is playing a high stakes game of poker with a sophisticated group of companies, many of which both compete with and depend on the Big Five.
I’m rooting for Viv, but there are very long odds against the world conspiring to create a third way past Apple and Google. Both companies have reportedly attempted to buy the company, and if Viv draws closer to its goal, the acquisition price, and the potential obstructive behaviors of the Big Five, will only increase.
But the very fact that Viv has a path forward is encouraging in and of itself. The technology industry has ossified into an oligarchy, one that gets in its own way when it comes to breakthroughs. Viv is a proof of concept that ladders to one of our most fundamental beliefs: There’s got to be a better way.
(For a great early look at Viv, read Steven Levy’s piece in Wired back in 2014).
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*(yes, Internet with a big “I”)