Narrative: Amazon is Ahead in Voice

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    Narrative: Amazon is Ahead in Voice (Dec 27, 2016)

    Updated: January 11, 2017

    Ever since the launch of Amazon’s Echo home speaker, two related narratives have emerged: voice is the way we’ll engage with our gadgets in future, and Amazon is far ahead of the competition here. I think both those narratives are overblown, and I’ll explain why.

    Firstly, Amazon obviously didn’t invent the voice UI – it’s been around for decades in both reality and science fiction, and even in the context of our smart devices has been one of a number of built-in ways in which we interact with our devices at least since the launch of Siri on the iPhone 4s in 2011. But voice isn’t and can’t be the only way we interact with our devices – there are still far too many scenarios where it’s either inappropriate or ineffective, because of ambient noise, privacy concerns, bothering others around us, and so on. The home is clearly one scenario where these barriers are less likely to be present, but in almost all others these come up frequently. As such, voice will continue to sit alongside touch and other interfaces, rather than becoming the one or even the dominant way we interact with our devices.

    Secondly, Amazon’s Echo is very effective, but only where it exists. It works well precisely because it’s unencumbered by the challenges that hamper performance of voice interfaces on small portable devices like smartphones and smartwatches. It has several microphones and a large speaker, and the whole device is designed around voice interactions. That makes it very good at recognizing speech, but that skill set is almost impossible to replicate in a smaller device. It’s not that Amazon is better at voice recognition than Apple or Google are, it’s that it’s put voice recognition on a device that doesn’t have to fit in your pocket or on your wrist. I’ve found Google’s Home to be at least as good on this point, and I’ve no doubt that were Apple to release a Siri Speaker, it would perform equally well.

    The challenge is that the Echo as a device and Alexa as a capability may as well not exist when you leave the house, and that’s where Google and Apple still have a huge advantage when it comes to voice assistants and personal digital assistants in general. Theirs are ubiquitous, whereas Amazon’s is home-bound. I tend to think people are going to want to use the same assistant everywhere they go, rather than learning to use and training two separate assistants at home and on the go. So the question becomes whether Amazon will be able to find ways to make Alexa mobile faster than Google and Apple can achieve mainstream adoption of their equivalent devices for the home. That seems far from a foregone conclusion, because Alexa needs to be not just present but baked in on a mobile device if it’s to compete with Siri and the Google Assistant, and it’s hard to see that happening on a scale that makes a difference.

    In short, then, the prevailing narrative that voice is going to dominate future interactions and Amazon has already won in voice is overblown and misleading. The best we can say is that voice will be one of several important user interfaces, and that Amazon has a very good entrant in one particular category of personal digital assistant – speaker-based ones for the home. Beyond that, it’s still a wide-open field with Apple and Google the clear leaders in mobile personal assistants and everyone else an also-ran.

    Samsung’s new virtual assistant will make using your phone easier – The Verge (Mar 20, 2017)

    Samsung has somewhat unexpectedly taken the wraps off its virtual assistant Bixby ahead of next week’s Galaxy S8 launch, where I’d expected it to be the main event from a feature perspective. Based on how Samsung is describing the feature, though, I think it’s merely trying to defuse some hype by downplaying expectations of what Bixby will and won’t be. (The hype was fueled in part by Samsung’s acquisition of Viv, which was a more traditional virtual assistant that Samsung acquired last year, but Bixby appears to be something less.) The description from Samsung is somewhat vague, but I think the approach actually has a lot of merit: every other assistant promises to be just that, implying a broad-based ability to meet needs, which inevitably leads to disappointment and frustration when it falls short, over-promising and under-delivering. Samsung looks like it will come at this from the opposite end, starting small and building up functionality over time, app by app, in a way that the voice interface is able to handle everything the touch interface does in the same app. That, incidentally, should be good for accessibility, something Android devices have always done less well than iPhones. But the big limit there as with Bixby overall is that if third party developers don’t support it, it won’t be very useful, and it the S8 ships with the Google Assistant users may just choose to use that instead. I’m very curious to see next week exactly how Bixby is invoked and how it compares to the more traditional assistant model. Samsung doesn’t have a great reputation in software and services, and I’m skeptical that it will get this right.

    via The Verge

    Google Home is playing audio ads for Beauty and the Beast – The Verge (Mar 16, 2017)

    This feels like an extremely stupid move for Google. Though Google claims this wasn’t an ad, that’s utterly disingenuous, and inserting ads this early in the Google Home lifecycle (if ever) is a huge mistake – this is just the kind of thing that will put people off buying a Google Home, especially because it fits a narrative of Google only being interested in advertising. This is a hardware product, for which users have paid a decent price, and it shouldn’t be playing ads, especially without an opt-out – there is no indication that users would hear ads in any of the marketing material. I just tried my own Google Home to see if it would play this message, but it didn’t, suggesting that Google may have stopped playing the message. If so, good, but it never should have happened in the first place, unless Google wants to kneecap its own product this early in its competition with Amazon’s Echo.

    via The Verge

    Amazon puts Alexa inside its main iPhone app – VentureBeat (Mar 16, 2017)

    Alexa’s single biggest flaw today is that it’s a shut-in: for the most part, it can’t leave the house. That means competing in a broad-based way with Siri and the Google Assistant requires getting onto smartphones, and now we have Amazon putting Alexa into the Amazon shopping app on iOS. Job done? Well, no. Because just having an app on a phone doesn’t mean people will use it. And if it’s buried inside a shopping app, that’s a steep hill to climb relative to just holding down the home button to summon Siri. On the one hand, I get the logic of putting Alexa in the Amazon app – it’s an app many of the company’s most loyal users already have installed and likely use frequently, but it also means it’s going to be several clicks away. I can see some parents with kids using it to keep them quiet with jokes, but it’s hard to imagine people using an Alexa buried in a shopping app as their main assistant while away from home. Integration within the smartphone and its operating system is the key here, which will be impossible on iOS but more feasible on Android, as we’ve already seen with Huawei and Lenovo’s integration plans.

    via VentureBeat

    Amazon makes it cheaper to host Alexa skills on AWS – ZDNet (Mar 16, 2017)

    This is clever tie-in by Amazon of two of its valuable assets: its Alexa skills engine and its AWS cloud infrastructure. It’s offering developers of Alexa voice skills a better deal on hosting through AWS as a way to remove the barriers to developing smarter and more sophisticated skills for its Echo devices (and the small number of third party devices using Alexa). Amazon has touted its number of third party skills repeatedly since launching them as a sign of Echo and Alexa’s capability, but the reality is that many of those skills are very basic, and the model is clumsy to use. If it’s able to attract better skills to the platform, those numbers will start to be more meaningful as signifiers of the platform’s capabilities.

    via ZDNet

    Apple’s Siri learns Shanghainese as voice assistants race to cover languages – Reuters (Mar 9, 2017)

    One of the things that’s often missed by US writers covering Amazon’s Alexa and its competitors is how limited it still is in language and geographic terms. It only speaks English and German and the Echo range is only available in a handful of countries. Siri, meanwhile, just got its 21st country and 36th language, which reflects a long-time strength of Apple’s: broad global support. Apple News is a notable exception, which is only available in a few countries and one language, but almost all of Apple’s other products are available in a very long list of countries and territories, often longer than for other competing services. The article here is also interesting for the insights it provides into how each company goes about the process of localization, which is quite a bit more involved than you might surmise.

    via Reuters

    Why Amazon Echo And Google Home Can’t Tell Who’s Talking–Yet – Fast Company (Mar 7, 2017)

    This is a good counterpart to the Time article from last week about Amazon working on voice identification in their respective home speakers. It points out the complications in providing such a feature, not least that heavy processing to make voices clearer will also tend to distort them and therefore make it harder to recognize and distinguish speakers. The article also makes clear, though, that these challenges are far from insurmountable, which leads me to believe that Amazon or Google or both will eventually figure this out. In fact, whichever does figure it out first could have a big advantage, because for a lot of the most useful features (calendar, emails, etc) individual profiles are critical. So much so that Google misleadingly included that exact use case in its I/O launch video last year.

    via Fast Company

    Sonos Playbase: A TV Speaker With Internet Access, But Without Mics | Variety (Mar 7, 2017)

    This product isn’t a huge surprise, and in fact it seems that a lot of Sonos fans (and observers) are actually disappointed in it. To me, it feels like this is the last product from the old strategy at Sonos before it begins embracing voice control and other features it’s been talking about in recent months. It’s a logical counterpart to the Playbar that Sonos already makes for wall-mounted TVs, and is basically the same product in a different shape, to sit under a TV on a stand instead. Sonos is in an interesting and challenging period at the moment where it’s talking about the future but very much still delivering products from the present (and even past). It’s going to have to move fast to avoid being left behind by a whole set of connected and smart speakers from competitors – I suspect there are growing numbers of people who will sacrifice a little audio quality for a whole home audio system they can control with their voices.

    via Variety

    Amazon plans to release new Alexa devices that can make phone calls and work as intercoms – Recode (Mar 3, 2017)

    This is a slightly different spin on the WSJ article from a few weeks ago about Amazon and Google looking to add phone call capability to their home speakers. For one thing, this article suggests new hardware, rather than merely a software upgrade, though it’s not clear why, given that these devices already have all the necessary hardware elements for phone calls (speakers, microphones, and connectivity). One reason might be the intercom functionality that’s mentioned in the article too – again, if that’s audio only it wouldn’t necessarily require new hardware, but if there’s a video component, that obviously would. And that would also jive with the reports from yesterday about Amazon working on a video camera for the home. It’s increasingly feeling like Amazon is using Echo and Alexa as a Trojan horse to other things in the home, and we’re just starting to see the real potential here. That’s interesting, because in and of itself a voice speaker isn’t that threatening to other established players like Apple and Google, but if it becomes something more, that presents a more ecosystem-level threat, which is much more serious.

    via Recode

    Amazon Echo May Get Voice ID Feature – Time (Feb 28, 2017)

    From the first time I heard about Google Home at I/O last year, I assumed it would have multi-user support, and yet it didn’t. Now it sounds like it’s Amazon that may bring this feature to its home speaker first, which is yet another example of how Google seems to be punching below its weight in this fight. Google is all about individual user accounts: email, calendar, to-do lists, YouTube subscriptions, Android device identities and lots more are all tied up in personal accounts. Amazon, by contrast, probably works mostly at the level of the household, with families sharing Prime shipping and video accounts. So it’s ironic that Amazon would be the first to market with something that provides individual identification by voice. At the same time, I think there are going to be severe limitations around voice identification that may well make it inappropriate for anything security related – voice recordings are much easier than fingerprint cloning, for example. And in both the household I grew up in and my own home now, there were several people with very similar voices – it will be very important for Amazon (and Google) to be able to tell apart even voices with shared genes.

    via Time