One of Amazon’s big missteps with its launch of calling and messaging features through its Alexa assistant was the assumption that its users would be happy to receive calls and messages from anyone who had their number, without the ability to block or screen those contacts first. It’s now issued a partial fix, which allows users to block others from calling or messaging them, but still doesn’t appear to have moved to a double-opt-in model under which a user would have to accept someone’s request to connect first before communication can occur. That means it still opens users up to calls and messages from exes and others in way many won’t be comfortable with. That’s how this should have worked from the beginning and the model Amazon should be adopting now.
★ Apple Announces HomePod Home Audio System with Siri (Jun 5, 2017)
Amazon Adds Reminders and Named Timers to Alexa (Jun 2, 2017)
★ Apple Starts Manufacturing Its Siri Speaker (May 31, 2017)
Samsung’s Bixby Further Delayed in US to End of June (May 31, 2017)
Though the original headline on this piece focuses on the e-commerce aspect, the actual content of the article makes clear that Google has every intention of serving up ads too. Google launched Shopping on Home a while back, so hearing that Google intends to monetize through e-commerce isn’t a huge surprise, but it’s interesting to hear confirmation from Google that this is its main focus, because though this is obviously a strength and a motivator for Amazon in this space, it clearly isn’t Google’s main focus. However, as I said, advertising is clearly a big part of that picture too, and it sounds like ads will mostly be served up as they are in other Google search products: alongside organic results when people are looking for something specific. The big question, then, is how that’s done – the first screen of classic Google search results has now been taken over by ads, something that only takes a scroll to get past, but that same experience on a voice device that majors on providing a single answer won’t fly. Linear interfaces like voice assistants can’t take up users’ time with ads before they get to the organic results. So despite these comments, there’s still lots we don’t know about how Google is going to make additional money from Home. And then there’s the point I made previously about the fact that charging real money for a device like this breaks the usual implied contract of free services coming with ads – users won’t have the same expectation of an ad-supported business model on a device like Home that they do with a free online service.
Dish Allows Alexa Voice Control of Set Top Boxes (May 22, 2017)
★ Google Makes Assistant and Home Announcements at I/O (May 17, 2017)
Amazon Announces Alexa Notifications for Apps Coming Soon (May 16, 2017)
Amazon has announced on its developer blog for Alexa that notifications will soon be coming to the platform for Skills (apps) developers which want to proactively serve up information to users (Amazon will also use the platform to deliver updates for Amazon.com orders). This is both an interesting new opportunity for Amazon and Alexa and a potential minefield. On the one hand, every developer wants to proactively re-connect with users rather than merely passively wait for users to re-engage on their own, especially on a voice-only device where there’s no visual prompt or reminder that the app even exists. But on the other, that could lead to fairly spammy behavior from some apps akin to what we already see from some smartphone apps – notifications are a Pandora’s box of possibilities which have many legitimate uses but are also often abused and quickly get out of control. It will have to be very clear to users how they turn these notifications on and off, how many they receive and what for, and so on, something that’s going to be a little tougher to manage on a voice-only device than on a smartphone. It’ll arguably be the best fit on the Echo Show, where users can interact with and control the notifications a little more easily. Both Amazon and its developers will want to tread very carefully in rolling this out.
Amazon Fire TVs Announced by Westinghouse at CES Go on Sale (May 16, 2017)
The Verge has been talking about a future Windows feature called HomeHub since December, but this week has some images that are designed to show how HomeHub will work in practice, and it’s likely we’ll see this revealed officially at Build this week. HomeHub is a somewhat family-centric virtual assistant for Windows 10, which will combine Cortana voice features and more visual features on a sort of always-on home screen. It looks like Microsoft sees this feature both as something that PCs will offer and as something that will be available on dedicated devices. The Verge is that it suggests Microsoft sees all these devices being effectively full Windows 10 PCs, which feels like a huge mistake given how streamlined these devices can and should be. Even though Microsoft has evolved in its culture and strategy in very positive ways over recent years, things like this make you realize how tied to its past strategy of putting Windows everywhere it still is. At the very least, this ought to be running the more streamlined Windows 10 S it announced last week. But I’m all for tech which helps families stay organized – something I’ve argued more tech companies need to be working on. Given the launch of Echo Show this morning, Microsoft will have a concrete competing example of the same concept to go up against, which will likely raise the bar for whatever it announces. It’s also possible we’ll have Apple’s version of this to look at by the time the next version of Windows ships in the fall, further raising the stakes.
via The Verge
A tiny, low-res picture of what might be Amazon’s Echo with a screen emerged today, and leaker Evan Blass followed up with a much higher-resolution version later in the day. The device looks vaguely like an old fashioned portable TV set, with a screen above a speaker grille, and a fairly substantial body behind the two. As I’ve said before, this form factor makes a ton of sense for Amazon for a variety of reasons, but it rather undermines the idea that voice and not touch is the next user interface. There’s also a certain irony in the prospect of Amazon announcing an Echo with a screen while Apple announces an Echo competitor without one in the space of a few weeks, as is presently rumored. The reality is that standalone voice assistants fill a useful role, but most people will want their assistants and devices to span several categories, including those with both voice capability and screens.
Ecobee Launches Thermostat with Alexa (May 3, 2017)
★ Apple Siri Speaker Could Debut at WWDC in June (May 1, 2017)
KGI, which as I’ve noted before has a decent track record on future Apple products, says there’s a 50/50 chance that Apple’s entry in the connected home speaker market could debut at WWDC next month. There’s scant detail in the report other than that Apple’s speaker will have better audio hardware than the Echo, which has been criticized as being sub-par as a speaker despite its effectiveness as a voice-activated assistant device. I would certainly expect such a device to combine Siri, AirPlay, HomeKit device control, and possibly some kind of WiFi connectivity, but it’s very unlikely Apple could do all that well and still make its usual margin at the $130-180 price point that the full Echo and Home devices sell for. It’s more likely this would be sold in the range of the larger Sonos speakers (which Apple has been selling in its stores for the last little while), which would mean $300-500. That puts it in a different category from what’s out there today, which wouldn’t be unusual for Apple but would put it well out of impulse buy territory for most people and limit sales quite a bit. One big question is whether Siri is yet good enough for such a speaker, and what upgrades Apple might have in store for Siri at WWDC this year to help it get there. As I’ve suggested in the past, Siri’s shortcomings are at least in part hardware-based: more often than not, the problem is wrongly interpreting what’s said because of the tiny mics being used for voice recognition, and a big device should help a great deal with that. But Siri can also be frustrating even when it does understand what you say, and its more conversational elements are still pretty limited, which could be a big shortcoming on a device without an alternative input mechanism. I’m sure Apple will have some other special sauce in mind so this isn’t just another Echo or Home but something a bit different. But there’s a good chance this ends up being yet another new product category for Apple which sells a few million a year and which critics therefore contend is a flop, while it quietly generates a decent amount of revenue and profit for Apple (see also the Apple Watch and AirPods).