Amazon has added basic voice recognition and personalization features to its Echo devices, as a partial response to the Google Home’s similar feature. As in other areas, Amazon has a weakness here compared with Google in that it has no real background profile information on the individual users in a household, something it’s starting to change with recent family features (and the teen account feature announced earlier today). As such, its voice recognition feature will only enable limited personalization, focused on Amazon’s own services and not third party features like calendars, which is where Google Home’s equivalent feature (and Google services in general) excels. This makes Amazon’s new feature a good start, but far from a fully-fledged response to Google in this department, while it continues to be ahead in other key areas following its recent hardware and software upgrades.
via The Verge
A reviewer at Android Police reports that he discovered the Google Home Mini unit he was testing was recording nearly everything he said while in its vicinity, because the device erroneously thought he was holding down the button which acts as an alternative to its wake word. Google has now pushed a software patch which disables that button entirely for the time being, to ensure that doesn’t happen to others. Given that many people already feel uncomfortable with the idea of an always-listening device in their home, the idea that it could be recording and transmitting to Google’s servers everything that’s being said because of a bug will not instill confidence. This is something of a nightmare scenario for these devices, and the fact that Google turned off a feature of the device to fix it indicates just how seriously it’s taking the issue. Reviews of the Mini have dribbled out here and there and have mostly been positive, while this is the first mention I’ve seen of this issue, but it’s certainly not a great start for the Mini.
via Android Police
Microsoft is bringing its Cortana virtual assistant to Skype, over a year after it first demonstrated some of the features at its Build developer conference in 2016. Whereas Cortana does act in some settings as a voice assistant like Siri and the Google Assistant, it’s worth remembering that Microsoft uses the Cortana name to refer to all the underlying AI capabilities too, and that’s what’s being implemented here. The integration is text- rather than voice-based and limited to messaging rather than voice or video interactions, and Cortana will offer up smart replies in messaging conversations and also offer useful information like movie and restaurant reviews. In some ways, this is a different spin on the Context Cards Snapchat added today, and very much along the same lines as Facebook’s current implementation of its M assistant within Messenger – offering context-based suggestions within existing human-to-human interactions. This is part of Microsoft’s broader push to get its AI into every corner of its products and services, but will hampered by the overall stagnation of Skype as a communication platform – though it clearly has some messaging users, it isn’t the default messaging platform for the vast majority of the population, at least in their personal lives.
I haven’t seen an official announcement around this, but Windows Central reports that Microsoft has quietly added support for four smart home vendors – Nest, SmartThings, Hue, Wink, and Insteon – to its Cortana virtual assistant. On the one hand, this is good timing with the Harmon Kardon speaker apparently getting ready for launch, but on the other it’s odd given the recent voice assistant partnership between Microsoft and Amazon, a big selling point of which was being able to control smart home gear through Alexa. In fairness, the latter still has much broader support for smart home ecosystems than Cortana, but Microsoft’s assistant now talks to several of the largest, and these plans must have been in the works for months now, certainly before the Alexa partnership was announced. At any rate, it’s going to be much simpler to control these devices directly through Cortana than through the awkward two-step process the Alexa partnership would require, and this is a good addition ahead of the launch of Cortana-based speakers.
via Windows Central
A listing for Harman Kardon’s Cortana-powered speaker, which has been teased for nearly a year by Microsoft and its partner, has shown up on the Microsoft online store, priced at $200 and listed as going on sale on October 22nd. The marketing materials emphasize quality audio, with 360° sound, smart home control, and the ability to make hands-free calls using Skype, though that feature will cost money after an initial 6-month trial of Skype’s outbound calling feature. At $200, the cost is the same as the speaker Sonos announced yesterday, but since neither has been formally reviewed yet we can’t know how the audio quality compares, while Sonos differentiates in a big way by being part of a multi-room system. The price point, though, is indicative of the challenges of competing in this market if you can’t monetize in ways other than through the hardware itself, something that certainly applies to both Harman and Sonos. Amazon, on the other hand, and to a lesser extent Google, can afford to sell devices at or below cost because their ecosystems will benefit in other ways and through other revenue streams such as e-commerce or advertising. HP also has a Cortana speaker coming out soon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was priced similarly high.
via The Verge
Amazon Launches Echo Devices and Alexa in India (Oct 4, 2017)
On the same day as Google added to its Google Home hardware lineup and added new software features, Amazon announced a new market for its own devices and software: India. Throughout Google’s event today, it talked about the “seven Google Home markets”, whereas Amazon now has four: the US, the UK, Germany, and now India. India’s an interesting choice because Echo and Alexa aren’t even available in Canada or Australia yet even though those are likely far bigger markets and much easier to adapt to than India from an English language perspective. This is therefore just the latest sign that Amazon is taking a dramatically more aggressive approach to India over recent weeks and months and prioritizing it above other more obvious markets for some of its products. The addressable market in India is likely relatively small, limited to relatively wealthy English speakers (the Echo devices are going to cost quite a bit more than in the US, as do other western gadgets), but it will obviously help tie customers there into the Prime ecosystem, something Amazon is very keen on in general and recently in India in particular.
Here’s a roundup of some of the smaller announcements Google made today, including the Pixelbook Chromebook, PixelBuds wireless earbuds, and an intriguing AI-powered camera called Google Clips. The Pixelbook is true to the original Pixel Chromebook from Google, which was equally bizarrely positioned as a premium device in a category which is mostly appealing for its low cost. It’s added some hot recent trends like convertibility and a $99 pen, ChromeOS has added Android app support, and Google is debuting its Google Assistant on a laptop here as well. None of that is likely to overcome the inherent funky positioning of a $999-plus Chromebook, and it’ll continue to be a marginal device. That Google should continue to compete here rather than entering the smartwatch market directly feels funny given how much more the Android Wear ecosystem needs first party hardware from Google than ChromeOS does.
The PixelBuds earbuds are in the “neckbud” category rather than the truly cordless earbud category Apple’s AirPods dominate today, and I think that’s fine – I’m wearing BeatsX on a plane as I write this, and continue to like these better than AirPods, and I think this category has a lot of value. The earbuds are priced the same as AirPods, and as with those buds, come with a voice assistant built in, though Google’s big differentiator is real-time language translation, which was successfully demoed on stage. Of course, most of us only rarely (if ever) need such a function, so this is more of a gimmick than a useful feature for now, but it’s a great gimmick.
Lastly, Google’s big surprise at today’s event was one of the last things it unveiled, which is a small standalone camera which is designed to unobtrusively capture pictures and video in the home, powered by AI which will determine when and how to take them. That’s a brand new concept, though it obviously competes to some extent with both Samsung’s Gear 360 line and cameras from the likes of GoPro, whose stock took a big hit today. In reality, of course, this product likely won’t sell in any big numbers because the category doesn’t exist, because it’s priced at $250, and because Google doesn’t have the presence or history in hardware to launch a new category, and it’s best seen – like the real-time translation feature in the PixelBuds – as evidence of Google’s AI chops, and as something which might therefore come to other Google products in time and thereby reach a broader audience.
Google today announced both larger and smaller versions of its Google Home device, while adding software features to its existing hardware, as part of its second generation hardware launch event in San Francisco (see here for my comment on the Pixel 2 smartphones it also announced). It’s a busy time for voice speaker announcements, coming a week after Amazon’s big update of its Echo line, and the same day as Sonos’s voice speaker launch, but we now have a much clearer picture of how the lineups of major vendors will be positioned to finish out the year and going into next year.
Amazon has a pretty mature product line now, but still no direct entry in the premium audio space, a segment it seems willing for now to cede to partners and competitors. Apple is entirely focused on the high end market, with its HomePod priced at $349 and coming in December, while Sonos is trying to find a niche between these two markets with its $200 Sonos One speaker and a neutral approach to voice assistant and music ecosystems. Lastly, we now have Google pursuing a good, better, best strategy like Amazon, but with its best much more focused on premium audio than Amazon’s new Echo Plus, which seems more geared towards smart home support and costs far less.
It’s fascinating to see Google come in above Apple in its pricing for the Google Home Max, at $400, suggesting it’s not going to be dragged down the pricing slide with Amazon but wants to make real margin on its products in the category. Given how much complaining I’ve seen about Apple pricing itself out of the voice speaker market, this new announcement certainly adds an interesting wrinkle. Of course, Google is also providing a cheaper speaker at $50 to compete more directly with the Echo Dot from Amazon, and is smartly focusing there as in its core Google Home product on design which will fit much better (and more subtly) in a home environment. Google should take significantly more share than it did last year with this new range of devices, especially the Mini, and it already took decent share with the first generation products. All in all, this is a great set of announcements from Google that should do pretty well, with the possibility of more to come in the speaker-with-screen segment early next year.
Sonos is finally jumping on the voice speaker bandwagon, both in terms of Alexa control of existing Sonos hardware via devices consumers already have, and by integrating Alexa and the Google Assistant directly into its speakers. The growth of the voice speaker market has emerged as something of existential threat to Sonos, and it has needed to respond for a while now. The Alexa implementation is really good, allowing users to control Sonos speakers without the awkward syntax required by a lot of third party skills on Alexa. That’s going to be key for making the integration really usable.
On the voice speaker side, Sonos is starting small, with an update to its cheapest speaker at the same price as in the past. I would guess that the same functionality will be coming to the rest of the lineup in the next year or so, but Sonos hasn’t announced this yet. Starting with Alexa integration makes sense, given that it’s the most widely deployed voice assistant in home speakers today, but adding Google Assistant will help broaden the appeal to those familiar with it from their smartphones.
Sonos’s claimed differentiators in this space are quality and ease of use of multi-room audio, agnosticism with regard to assistants, and openness with regard to music services. That leaves Sonos caught in something of a pincer movement between Apple, which will also focus on premium, multi-room experiences, and Google and Amazon, which offer cheaper, more open alternatives. Sonos’s true differentiation is therefore fairly subtle, emphasizing the ease of use of its multi-room functions and likely its price against Apple’s HomePod, at least until it launches voice support across its more expensive speakers. Proving its feature superiority is going to be tough in a retail environment, and Sonos will likely have to lean heavily on its brand and existing customers here.
Google is Reportedly Working on an Echo Show Competitor (Sep 29, 2017)
This report from TechCrunch appears to be based to some extent on the same tip I mentioned both in yesterday’s item and on the podcast last night: it suggests that Google is working on a competitor to the Amazon Echo Show. It sounds like it would run key Google apps and serve as a smart home hub, and might also run Netflix, while the screen is expected to be similar in size to the Echo Show’s, at 7 inches. This is still a small slice of the overall voice speaker market, one which needs to prove itself more as a strange hybrid of stationary tablet and voice speaker with a display. Videoconferencing is one of the features Amazon’s promoted most with regard to the Echo Show, and it sounds like Google’s device will support that too, but of course we all have many devices capable of that function already, and the additional utility of having that device always in the same place is limited. Google’s leaked Home Mini and rumored Home Max seem much more promising in the near term.
If there are two big recent trends in voice assistants, they’re control of music and control of TVs. Every major company in this space is making announcements about these two areas, with Amazon adding voice control to its music apps and then Alexa to its new Fire TV box, Apple preparing the music-centric HomePod for launch, and Sonos prepping an event next week which is also likely to be music-oriented. In that context, then, it’s no surprise that the latest set of devices to get Google Assistant support are those running Android TV, of which there are currently very few, notably the gaming-centric Nvidia Shield and Sony’s Bravia TV sets. The Nvidia Shield support was actually announced way back at CES in January if I recall correctly, but support is only rolling out now. More broadly, Apple TV and Amazon’s Fire TV already support voice control, while there’s also an Alexa integration with DISH’s satellite service, and Comcast offers its own native voice control through its remotes, so this is becoming table stakes for a TV interface. The specific voice functions Android TV supports seem roughly on par with those offered on other platforms, though perhaps a bit more limited.
Google is Reportedly Working on a Premium Google Home Max (Sep 28, 2017)
9to5Google reports that Google is working on a premium speaker for its Google Home range, tentatively named the “Max”, which could either appear alongside the recently leaked Google home Mini at next week’s hardware event or show up sometime later. Such a device would be the first sign that either of the two major players in the voice speaker market today is interested in participating in the premium audio space directly – Amazon beefed up the audio capabilities in its own devices at yesterday’s event, but they’re still not aiming to compete with high-end speakers. Given the recent announcements from partners using Google Assistant and Alexa in the premium segment, I had assumed both companies would cede that market to others, but it appears that Google at least is somewhat serious about participating directly. That’s in keeping with the premium positioning of its other hardware products, with the Pixel and Pixelbook both targeting the pricier end of their respective categories. And it makes sense if Google wants to avoid merely attracting the lower end of the market as it has largely done with Android, though it will make life even harder for Sonos if both Apple and Google get into the premium segment. (If all this is of interest to you, you might be interested in my column today for Techpinions, which dives rather more deeply into yesterday’s Amazon announcements). Lastly, I heard from a tipster today who suggested Google is also working on a couple of Home devices with screens, and that this was part of the reason it pulled YouTube from the Echo Show – I haven’t been able to confirm that yet, but it’s an interesting thought.
Amazon today held what many publications described as a “surprise” event (in that Amazon embargoed the very existence of the event) to announce broad updates to its Echo line of devices, as well as a new version of its Fire TV box. The announcements represent a maturing of the Echo product line, which went from three main entries to five, now with a good, better, best approach to pure speakers and small and large options for speakers with screens. I’ve just created this image for the column I’m writing for Techpinions for tomorrow, and it’s a good overview of the Echo lineup before and after today’s announcements. Amazon also announced two new accessories: the Echo Connect, which acts as a bridge between an existing landline phone and Alexa calling, and Echo Buttons, the first of a new category of accessories called Alexa Gadgets, which will serve as companions to Echo and other Alexa-enabled devices, offering additional functionality (the Buttons are envisaged as interfaces for family members playing voice games, for example).
What we’re seeing from Amazon here is a consolidation of its early leadership in the voice speaker category, re-emphasizing its desire to dominate that market, if necessary through pricing hardware at or below cost. It engaged in some clever positioning around the pure speaker space by moving its core Echo product down in price by $50 while significantly improving its industrial design and audio performance, and introducing a new tier at $150 under the Echo Plus name. The Echo Plus also serves as a smart home hub in its own right rather than merely using cloud services and APIs to control devices through existing hubs, which is an interesting step forward but will require smart home gear to integrate with it in new ways. Amazon also announced Alexa integration in BMW cars from the 2018 model year onwards and Minis from mid-2018 onwards, which is another step in taking Alexa out of the home, albeit one which will take many years to reach a meaningful proportion of cars on the roads. Lastly, Amazon updated its Fire TV box, now in a quasi-dongle form factor, with 4K and HDR support and an Alexa remote (but not the always-on feature in the box itself which had been rumored), and at a slightly lower $70 price.
Both the timing and content of Amazon’s announcements today are a big thumb of the nose towards Google, which of course is holding its fall hardware announcement next week, and in the context of the secrecy around today’s event, I wonder if Google got wind of it yesterday and decided to rain on Amazon’s parade ever so slightly with its yanking of YouTube from the Echo Show. The only big move in the voice speaker space we’re expecting next week from Google is a smaller device to compete with the Echo Dot, so Amazon just wiped the floor with those announcements, making its own hardware more price competitive even at list price and adding new options for discerning customers. All of this also makes life a little tougher for both Sonos and HomePod, with Sonos announcing its first voice-enabled hardware on the same day as Google’s event next week. Audio performance on basic voice speakers is now getting good enough that both Apple and Sonos need to demonstrate significantly superior performance and better experiences with multi-room audio to compete.
Google Pulls YouTube from Amazon’s Echo Show Device (Sep 27, 2017)
Amazon announced last night that Google had pulled its YouTube app from the former’s Echo Show device, the company’s first screen-based voice speaker. YouTube was one of very few video options available on the Echo Show, with Amazon’s own Prime Video being the main alternative. YouTube videos would show up in response to certain searches, especially ones relating to video, and although I doubt anyone bought an Echo Show solely to use YouTube, losing it is a blow to the company. There’s a certain irony that this breach in the relationship between Amazon and Google has occurred in a week when we’ve seen signs of detente between each of these two companies and Apple, with Amazon again selling Apple TV hardware and Apple replacing Bing with Google as the search engine in Siri and OS-level search in its devices. I joked on Twitter that it’s almost as if there’s some universal equilibrium of big tech companies not playing nicely with each other that has to be maintained.
Of course, this is all part of the broader ongoing competitive dynamic between these various companies, which all need each other to varying degrees but often place limits on their interactions in areas where they can afford to do so. Though Amazon says the decision was unilateral and unexplained, Google said the implementation of YouTube on the Echo Show violated its terms of service, which makes you wonder whether the companies launched in a hurry and agreed to settle terms later, or whether Amazon simply built the YouTube app without Google’s input and hoped it wouldn’t mind. My guess is that the ToS violation in question here revolves around the lack of options for managing a YouTube account – I sent my Echo Show back after testing it for a review, but if I recall correctly, many of the standard YouTube features on other platforms were not available there, which was reflective of the Echo Show’s broad limitations on interactivity and functionality, something I pointed out in my review. YouTube was in some ways very much behind a platform wall which Amazon erected in front of it, and it seems Google finally decided it had had enough.
It’s worth remembering that Google and Amazon compete directly across several areas and have limited their cooperation in several others as a result: they compete in voice assistants and devices, for starters, but also in cloud services, in product search, in tablets (albeit indirectly), in grocery deliveries, in TV boxes, and so on. And as a result there have been limits to their cooperation – Amazon stopped selling Chromecast devices a while back and generally doesn’t participate in the Google Shopping feature alongside other major retailers, and appears to have resisted adding Chromecast features to its video apps. It’s possible that Google pulling YouTube was a way to exert pressure to get Amazon to sell Chromecast devices again as it has Apple TV devices – the timing likely isn’t coincidental. And Google certainly has far more leverage in this spat than Amazon – the Echo Show is a meaningless contributor to YouTube’s overall success, but the presence or absence of YouTube on the Echo Show is a much bigger deal for that device and its appeal. I don’t think Google will be in any hurry to settle the dispute unless it’s able to extract some concessions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that includes Amazon selling Chromecasts again.
via The Verge
Amazon is adding voice control features to its mobile music apps for iOS and Android to give users more ways to control their music even when they’re not using an Echo or other Alexa-enabled device. That’s a logical place to extend Alexa functions given that music playback is a major use for voice speakers, and the symbiosis between the two has already made Amazon Music a much more widely used service over the last couple of years that it would have been otherwise. A recent survey I ran suggested that under 20% of US Prime subscribers use the music feature, but even at 20% that would be millions of users in the US alone, and I would guess many of those are likely Echo users. Adding a voice feature to a third party app still isn’t nearly as convenient as invoking it from an external button or a voice command from the lock screen, but for those committed to Amazon’s ecosystem, this is still a useful value-add. We’re going to see the connection between voice and music become considerably stronger over the next few years, with Apple’s entry into voice speakers through the HomePod as well as Sonos’s announcement next week. A big question is whether voice becomes an important way to drive playback on mobile as well as in the home – voice assistant use on mobile remains fairly low overall and high mostly in specific circumstances like while driving, but that could change as assistants get more sophisticated in understanding commands relating to music, something Apple’s clearly been working on lately.
Apple has quietly switched the search back end for its Siri voice assistant and what used to be called Spotlight search to Google, after relying on Bing for several years. Bing will continue to provide the image search results in Siri, but is otherwise being replaced by Google. That’s a fascinating turn of events after several years of Apple removing Google from various elements of its built-in systems, from switching to its own maps to elimination the YouTube app to offering a variety of alternative default search providers in Safari, to this use of Bing behind the scenes. Although there’s obviously been some speculation that money was a factor here, and it may well have been, I suspect this ultimately comes down to wanting to provide the best possible experience in these various settings, and that means using Google. That’s ultimately the same reason that Apple hasn’t switched away from Google as the default search engine within Safari in Western markets – Google is the gold standard, and everything else still comes up short. I do wonder if this is part of a quiet renewal of the longstanding relationship between the two companies, which always prompts speculation about Apple replacing Google as the default. That certainly seems less likely now, as Apple in its brief public statement on this news has emphasized the need for consistency across experiences within iOS and macOS, suggesting that Google is here to stay as the default search option in Safari. That’s a big win for Google and a big loss for Microsoft, for which Apple’s partnership was a rare bright spot on mobile, while it continues to take decent share on the desktop by virtue of Windows’ dominance there.
The Financial Times reports that Amazon is working on two new hardware categories: Alexa voice assistant-enabled glasses, and home security cameras which would integrate with Alexa hardware in various ways. The home security camera seems by far the less surprising of the two, given that it’s one of the bigger existing smart home market segments and a logical extension of what Amazon is doing with its Echo line (including the Echo Look, which already incorporates a camera). But it’s the voice-enabled glasses that are both surprising and somewhat baffling as a concept, especially because there’s no ostensible connection between glasses – a primarily vision-oriented product – and Alexa, a product centered on the ears. It sounds like the glasses are a way to hide bone-conduction audio in a less nerdy way than a bluetooth headset would, but for those who don’t normally wear glasses, aren’t they at least as nerdy, not to mention conspicuous? There’s arguably some logic to using bone conduction as a technology because it doesn’t block the ear in the same way as earbuds and headphones, but I’m really not convinced that glasses are the best way to deliver that experience. It’s also worth noting by way of context that Amazon has arguably never had a successful personal consumer device. Its one earlier attempt – the Fire Phone – was a huge failure, and all of its other devices are arguably less personal and more shared devices, often with fairly uninspiring industrial design which makes me skeptical that Amazon knows how to create appealing personal products. Given that the FT says both of these products could launch by the end of the year, I guess we’ll see the details soon enough, but I’m enormously skeptical on the glasses though the cameras seem like they’ll sell well, albeit now with stronger competition from Nest.
via Financial Times
Variety’s Janko Roettgers has been putting two and two together in the form of various job postings and LinkedIn profiles and posits that they add up to Roku working on a smart voice speaker, likely to work alongside either its own hardware or its platform partners’ TVs. The context, of course, is both Apple and Amazon offering voice interfaces for their TV boxes, while Roku’s own efforts are fairly thin in this area. Janko suggests Roku might be working on a companion device which could be sold as an accessory to TVs, but the functionality could presumably also be built into Roku’s own TV boxes in future. Voice control of TVs is starting to become a bigger deal, with not only Amazon and Apple’s direct efforts, but Chromecast integration with Google Home, and third party partnerships like DISH’s integration with Alexa, which is supposed to be very good. Comcast, too, offers pretty decent voice features on its X1 set top box platform. So, even though Roku’s focus going forward is less on hardware and more on its platform, it realizes it needs to build certain hardware features if it’s to remain competitive. I would argue, though, that this doesn’t require Roku to build its own voice assistant, and it would probably get to market faster with a better product by building on top of Alexa, although of course that means ceding some control to one of its biggest competitors. Alexa is, at least familiar to many users, whereas Roku would be starting essentially from scratch, with no potential at all for creating an assistant people could use outside their living rooms.
In related news today, Roku has raised its IPO target, now planning to raise $252 million, up considerably from the first figures it released with its S-1 filing.