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.
Amazon Adds Reminders and Named Timers to Alexa (Jun 2, 2017)
★ Apple Starts Manufacturing Its Siri Speaker (May 31, 2017)
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)
Back in December, Microsoft announced its equivalent of Amazon’s Alexa platform for third parties in the form of its Cortana Skills Kit and Cortana Devices SDK. A week later, Harman Kardon announced its was working on a speaker that would feature Cortana, and said it would launch in 2017. Five months later, the two companies have provided a name (Invoke), pictures, and some capabilities for the device, but there’s still no specific launch date (beyond “Fall 2017”) or pricing. On paper, the Invoke looks a lot like Echo in both its design and its capabilities (it even has an Echo-like 7-mic array), and the main difference is that it will do Skype voice calls, which is something that’s been rumored for both Echo and Google Home but isn’t yet supported by either. One advantage Harman would have over Amazon or Google in this space is that it’s a speaker maker, so it may well have better audio quality in its version than those companies have in theirs, something that’s been a shortcoming in this category so far. And of course, it’s interesting given Samsung’s ownership of Harman Kardon that this speaker is running neither of the assistants Samsung itself supports – its own new Bixby assistant or the Google Assistant – though this partnership obviously began before the Samsung acquisition closed. Pricing is an interesting question: whereas Google and Amazon both have broader ecosystems which benefit from such a device and therefore justify subsidizing or selling it at cost, Harman obviously needs to make money on it, so it may end up being priced higher (as Apple’s version likely will be too). Lastly, we might see other ecosystem devices using Cortana announced at Microsoft’s Build developer conference this week.
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).
Amazon is giving developers of Skills (apps) for Alexa new speech tools which should help them create interactions where the assistant sounds more human through the use of pauses, different intonation, and so forth. Amazon already uses these for Alexa’s first party capabilities, but third party developers haven’t had much control over how Alexa intones the responses in their Skills. This should be a useful additional developer tool for adding a bit more personality and value, but I wonder how many developers will bother – new platform tools like this are always a great test of how engaged developers are and how committed they are to creating the best possible experience rather than just testing something out. I’ve argued from the beginning that the absolute number of Skills available for Alexa (now at 12,000) is far less meaningful than the quality of those apps, and many of them are very basic or sub-par, likely from developers trying something out as a hobby without any meaningful commitment to sustaining or improving their apps. On the other hand, the smaller number of really serious apps for Alexa should benefit from these new tools.
One of Amazon’s big advantages in building scale for its Alexa assistant has been its opening of the underlying platform to third party hardware vendors, and the resulting hardware was arguably the big story of CES this year. Google, by contrast, has only opened up its Assistant very slowly to third parties, instead favoring its own hardware for the first six months or so. That’s now starting to change as it not only makes the Assistant available in Android but now also starts opening up an SDK for third party hardware makers, albeit in a fairly closed fashion for now. One thing it’ll want to make sure of is that the resulting hardware meet some minimum standards, something Amazon has done very little to enforce.
via Ars Technica