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
LG lures G6 shoppers with a free Google Home – Engadget (Mar 16, 2017)
The LG G6 is one of the first Android phones which will launch with the Google Assistant onboard, so there’s a logic to tying in the Google Home device as an add-on, though this is still a first for Google, which didn’t even bundle the Home with Pixel sales (it did bundle the Daydream View VR device with early sales, however). Promoting the Google Home as a good companion to other Android phones beyond the Pixel is important – both the installed base and future sales of those phones are going to be massively larger than the Pixel, and so most sales will go to these owners (or iPhone owners). This obviously echoes what a number of smartphone vendors have done in the past with other accessories, though usually ones more directly tied to smartphones, like smartwatches.
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.
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.
Now that I’ve finally got around to writing this up, it appears Google has patched the specific issue highlighted in this piece, but it’s still worth talking about for a couple of different reasons. For one, anytime you bring a virtual assistant into an existing conversation between two or more human beings, there’s a tension between the bot knowing as much as possible about each participant and using that to be helpful on the one hand, and avoiding exposing personal information about the participants on the other. Google appears to have screwed that up here in a way that could have been damaging or embarrassing for users, though it has now been patched. Secondly, this kind of thing can only happen when you collect and keep enormous amounts of data on your users in the first place – a company that neither collects nor retains such data in a profile could never expose it. It’s clear that Google didn’t intentionally do so here, but it was able to do so anyway because of its business model. Competitors such as Apple might argue that not collecting such data, or keeping it secured on a device rather than in the cloud, would make it impossible for a cloud service to share it with others. We’re going to have to work through lots more of these scenarios in the years to come, and the competition between companies that strictly preserve privacy and those that use personal data to improve services will be a critical facet of that evolution.
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.
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
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.
The number in the headline refers to the acquisition price of Viv, a virtual assistant startup which Samsung bought a few months back and is expected to integrate into the Samsung S8 launching later this month. To put that number in context, it’s around the same amount Apple was reported to have paid to acquire Siri, and tiny in the context of Samsung’s overall business – it generated $180 billion in revenue last year, along with $25 billion in operating profit. So Samsung can far more easily afford this investment than, say, Xiaomi can afford its comparably-sized investment in in-house chip capability. But it’s still a decent chunk of money from Samsung in a year when it also announced the much larger Harman acquisition. Far more importantly, we haven’t yet seen what Viv will do when integrated into a Samsung phone, and whether it’ll be as good as the early hype around the standalone product suggested.
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.
This, to my mind, is one of the bigger announcements coming out of MWC – that Google will finally allow other smartphone makers to use the Google Assistant, after several months of keeping it exclusive to its own Pixel smartphone. I described that decision at the time as representing a big strategic shift for Google, and probably a mistake, and the evidence since has borne that out. The Pixel has sold in small numbers, Amazon’s Alexa has extended its lead considerably as the voice platform of choice for hardware makers, and even at MWC itself Android vendors announced Alexa integration despite Google’s shift here. The good news is that it’s only been a few months, but the bad news is that this change in policy will come too late to hit the new flagships debuting at MWC, including the new ones from both Samsung and LG. It will likely become available later, but shipping as an integrated part of these new smartphones would have been much better. I’m betting that Google will continue to pay for this strategic misstep for some time to come – even once it’s available, OEMs will want to offer more differentiation than the Google Assistant allows them, which will continue to make Alexa an appealing alternative.
How Messenger and “M” Are Shifting Gears — The Information (Feb 22, 2017)
Facebook’s M assistant in its original conception was a virtual assistant a la Siri or Cortana which lived in Messenger, but one which was being trained by humans while it was available to a very limited number of users. Over time, it became clear that the process of handing off from humans to AI for the broad set of tasks M was supposed to be able to handle wasn’t going well, and it appears Facebooks somewhat went back to the drawing board on that. At the same time, the bot strategy within Messenger hasn’t gone well either, with limited developer and user adoption. Facebook now seems to have decided to combine these two failing projects into a new one which it presumably hopes will go better – M will pop up from time to time in Messenger conversions between friends to offer to complete certain tasks based on context. That’s probably a better, narrower use case for an AI assistant, but it also has serious potential to be creepy to users having what they will perceive to be a private conversation. And herein lies one of the biggest challenges with AI and bots – in order to be useful, they need to insert themselves into private conversations, which means they need to listen in on private conversations, much like Google’s advertising within Gmail has always been context based. In theory, only computers are eavesdropping, but that doesn’t stop people from objecting. I’m not convinced yet that this is the right answer either for Facebook’s M or bot strategies.
via The Information
“Just like Alexa” is a bit of a stretch here, because the whole point of Alexa’s ordering is that you know the products will come from Amazon. Google Home, by contrast, will order from a range of different Google Express merchants, only some of which are available nationwide. And because most people don’t have a Google Express account set up yet, they’ll have to do that first before they order anything. Lastly, unlike items bought using a Prime subscription, shipping will be charged extra after a short promotional period. Despite all that, this is obviously an area where Alexa has had unique capabilities and where Google Home has now closed the gap a little. By far Home’s biggest disadvantage is still its lack of awareness and distribution.
If only the device you use as a voice assistant had phone functionality built in! I’m being facetious, but it’s interesting to watch Amazon and Google potentially working backwards from a non-phone device to something capable of making calls. This is a logical extension of a voice search for a local business – I already regularly do this using Siri, especially while driving, and it’s very useful. As with yesterday’s Nest story, this is a great illustration of the benefits of software-based products – you can provide meaningful additional functionality through an update and suddenly the device you already have becomes more functional. I would guess that Amazon would need a partnership for local business search, whereas Google of course has that functionality in house – it’s in domains like this that Google has an advantage over Amazon despite the latter’s early big lead. I’m very curious how far out these efforts are – unusually, the WSJ is reporting on both companies’ efforts at once here, but they may well be at quite different stages of development. And of course Google famously stayed out of the phone business when it launched Google Fiber because of all the regulatory headaches and fees that go along with being a fully-fledged phone provider – it might try to stop short of going that far this time around too.
Reviews for the Tap were mostly pretty negative when it came out, because it was like the Echo without its best feature: hands-free usage. Requiring a button tap to invoke Alexa basically ruined the experience for many of the reviewers, but this new software update rectifies that when the device is connected to WiFi. I’m guessing it runs down the battery quite a bit faster when it’s always listening, so users will probably want to have it plugged in when in this mode, and the mic array isn’t as impressive in this cheaper device than in the Echo either. But this is now on paper the same functionality as the Echo for $50 less than its list price, which isn’t bad. The Dot, however, continues to be by far the most cost effective way to get into the Amazon Alexa ecosystem, at $50 per unit, and that’s why it’s the best seller in the lineup by far.
via The Verge
Another chapter in the bizarre saga of Google’s various voice and assistant technologies. Now was Google’s proactive non-voice assistant play for years, while Google Voice Search handled the voice aspects. With the launch of the Google Assistant, it was logical to assume that it would displace this combination, and yet its still not clear whether that will actually happen. Google is discontinuing the Google Now Launcher as part of the GMS bundle OEMs use to pre-package various Google apps and services, but isn’t replacing it with an Assistant-based launcher, and gives OEMs the option of not replacing it with anything within their own launchers. So, Now dies as part of GMS (and in the Google Play Store) but there’s no official communication still about when Assistant might be made available broadly to OEMs. Google’s decision to make the Assistant exclusive to the Pixel at launch was a massive strategic shift, and has arguably cost them significantly in the voice platform race against Amazon, and it continues to provide very little clarity on its future as part of Android for OEMs.
via Android Police
Apple opened up Siri access to certain categories of developers last year as part of iOS 10, but Siri on the Apple Watch has remained a first-party-only affair. That will change with iOS 10.3, which is rolling out to developers today and offers developers in a subset of four domains the ability to integrate their Apple Watch apps into Siri on the Watch. Apple’s focus in the last year or so has been about putting Siri on essentially every device it sells – a counter to Amazon Echo and Google Home’s single device approach – and making Siri smarter by allowing it to control more third party functionality, albeit in a much more tightly controlled way than Alexa’s Skills approach or even Google’s recent opening up of the Assistant with Actions on Google. These two fronts – third party integrations and the range of devices supported – will be critical as these various companies compete in the voice assistant space, and this small step is part of that much bigger picture.
via Business Insider
Alexa and Google Assistant have a problem: People aren’t sticking with voice apps they try – Recode (Jan 23, 2017)
Call this a rare bit of cold water poured on the hot topic of voice assistants and especially Amazon’s Alexa. The data here suggests that the third party “Skills” available through Alexa have essentially zero staying power, with most abandoned very quickly after the first use. I suspect that’s partly down to the awkward syntax you have to use to invoke Skills on Alexa, and partly down to the fact that most of the Skills are novelties at best, with many providing very little utility at all – the number of Skills available is one that Amazon likes to tout and reporters dutifully report, but is largely meaningless while this is the case. In addition, none of this really says anything about the usefulness or sticking power of the built-in functions, and that would be a great subject for a survey. I would guess that people stick with the core functions a lot more than these Skills, or return their devices because they’re not using them – the latter was my own eventual outcome when testing the Echo.
Google expressed its displeasure to Huawei re allowing Amazon’s Alexa to be built into its U.S. flagship phone – Amir Efrati (Jan 17, 2017)
Amir is a reporter with The Information, and has done sterling work lately on Alphabet and Google. This little scoop was only released in a tweet rather than expanded on in an article, but it raises a couple of important issues that affect both Amazon and Google. Firstly, Amazon needs to get Alexa onto smartphones if it’s to achieve ubiquity for users, and Android is really the only option for integration. Secondly, Google will put increasing pressure on its OEMs not to install assistants that compete with the Google Assistant, but it hasn’t yet made that assistant broadly available for OEMs to use, while Alexa is freely available. There’s a three-way conflict brewing here between the two giants and Google’s OEM partners, and it probably won’t be pretty for any of them.