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
Janko Roettgers at Variety has done a great bit of analysis on the impact of the removal of YouTube from the Echo Show on sales and reviews of the devices. What he found is that the sales ranking in Amazon’s bestseller list seems to have fallen significantly over the past week or two. That’s not surprising given that as I said when the news was first announced, YouTube was a somewhat integral part of the value of the device’s screen, and Amazon had far more to lose from the end of the partnership than Google. It’s still not clear what exactly prompted the end of that relationship – right at the end of the Variety piece, there’s a quote from the Google executive who manages its competing Home portfolio there, in which he says the company is still evaluating the speaker-with-screen segment. So that competition may or may not have prompted it, and I’m still inclined to believe that it may have been a tit-for-tat against Amazon for scheduling a big hardware unveiling the week before Google’s own.
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.
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.
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.
Droid Life appears to have obtained images and pricing for three of the hardware products Google is expected to unveil at its October 4th hardware event. It has four separate posts on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, a Chromebook called the Pixelbook, and the Google Home Mini, which is exactly what it sounds like. The Pixel 2 models seem to lean heavily on the design of the first versions from a hardware design perspective, with some minor changes and some new color options, with the smaller one being made again by HTC and the larger one by LG, as reported earlier. It looks like Google will embrace this year’s super premium pricing for larger flagships, too, with an $849 starting price on the XL, although it’ll offer monthly financing (whether directly or through a partner is not clear) as well. The Pixelbook is the predicted successor to the original Pixel, a high-end Chromebook, though this time with a screen that folds over the keyboard to become a clunky tablet, and an optional pen, while it retains the premium pricing. So that’s more or less in the Surface ballpark and a more expensive and laptop-like alternative to Apple’s iPad Pro line. Lastly, the Google Home Mini is exactly what you’d expect, borrowing from the Google Home’s slightly softer design relative to Amazon’s fairly industrial looking speakers in a smaller and cheaper form factor.
We’ll have to wait for the event itself to see all the software and feature details – these leaks are pretty much exclusively about external features and pricing – but I half wonder whether Google has allowed some of these details to leak out ahead of Friday’s iPhone 8 launch to give at least some potential buyers pause before jumping into a new iPhone. Given the breadth of the leaks, though, I suspect it’s more likely a rogue employee looking for some attention and/or notoriety. As with the iPhone leaks, I think this kind of thing benefits all of us very little while trampling on the hard work of many who’ve been prepping these devices for launch.
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.
Samsung held a press conference for Korean media today to promote the Note8 smartphone it recently launched and in the process made several announcements. It said that it saw 650k preorders for the Note8, which is strong by Note standards but highlights what a marginal phone the Note is in the grand scheme of things relative to a device like the iPhone or Samsung’s own Galaxy S line. It also said it plans to introduce a bendable smartphone – ostensibly under the Note brand – next year, though the timing is up in the air, and reiterated plans for a Harman Kardon-branded smart voice speaker. None of this is likely to have made much of a dent on a day when Apple dominated consumer tech news, and the Note preorder number is likely the biggest announcement for today, signaling unsurprisingly healthy sales for a device launched into a market with significant pent-up demand after last year’s Note7 fiasco.
★ Amazon and Microsoft Announce Cortana-Alexa Integration (Aug 30, 2017)
Microsoft and Amazon have officially announced that their respective assistants will begin working together later this year, news broken by the New York Times along with interviews with the companies’ CEOs. Of the four major voice assistants, these two are arguably the weakest, for all that the prevailing narrative is that Amazon is ahead in voice. As a reminder, Amazon has perhaps 15-20 million users of its Alexa assistant today, while Microsoft has 145 million regular Cortana users, Google has hundreds of millions of Android devices in the market with some form of its voice assistant technology, and Apple has nearly a billion Siri-enabled devices in use, with 375 million monthly active users as of June. More importantly, both Amazon and Microsoft are bound to a single category of devices today: home speakers for Amazon and PCs for Microsoft. Yes, both have smartphone apps too, but they’re very much second class citizens behind the built-in assistants available from the lock screen on the two major smartphone platforms. So the coming together here makes a certain amount of sense on that basis.
However, this doesn’t solve that fundamental problem of getting first party status on smartphones, and the integration the companies will offer will at least at first be both awkward and limited. Users of either assistant will have to invoke the other using double commands (“Cortana, open Alexa…” or vice versa) before even speaking their request. The integration itself will likely focus on smart home control from Cortana and personal information management through Microsoft’s apps from Alexa, filling an important gap in Amazon’s portfolio given that it lacks its own broadly-used calendar, contacts, reminders, or other PIM apps. In theory, the integration will get less awkward at some point down the line, with each assistant deciding on the fly which underlying AI to use to process a request, but in practice that seems challenging.
For today, it’s relatively straightforward given that the two assistants excel in different domains, but Microsoft’s partners are about to launch the first Cortana-powered speakers and other home devices that will compete more directly with the Amazon Echo, and the overlaps between their capabilities will only grow over time. So who will decide which AI handles which requests? Will this integration only live as long as the companies can agree on that? Or will the lead assistant in each case grab the tasks it wants and leave the dregs for the other? Meanwhile, both Google and Apple will make inroads into the home speaker space in the coming months, allowing them to provide more ubiquitous voice assistants and erode Amazon’s early lead in the home voice market. To summarize, though the logic behind a deal here is reasonably sound, it’s likely to be strained over time and less relevant as the two larger voice platforms expand in the home.
Note: for non-subscribers, I’ve temporarily opened access to the “Amazon is Ahead in Voice” narrative evaluation linked below, so you can go and read (or watch a video on) the broader context for this move and why I say above that Amazon is one of the weaker rather than stronger players in this market.
via New York Times