Narrative: Amazon is Ahead in Voice
Each narrative page (like this) has a page describing and evaluating the narrative, followed by all the posts on the site tagged with that narrative. Scroll down beyond the introduction to see the posts.
Narrative: Amazon is Ahead in Voice (Dec 27, 2016)
Updated: April 21, 2017
This narrative was the subject of the Weekly Narrative Video on April 21, 2017. You can view the video on YouTube here, or see it embedded below.
Ever since the launch of Amazon’s Echo home speaker, two related narratives have emerged: voice is the way we’ll engage with our gadgets in future, and Amazon is far ahead of the competition here. I think both those narratives are overblown, and I’ll explain why.
Firstly, Amazon obviously didn’t invent the voice UI – it’s been around for decades in both reality and science fiction, and even in the context of our smart devices has been one of a number of built-in ways in which we interact with our devices at least since the launch of Siri on the iPhone 4s in 2011. But voice isn’t and can’t be the only way we interact with our devices – there are still far too many scenarios where it’s either inappropriate or ineffective, because of ambient noise, privacy concerns, bothering others around us, and so on. The home is clearly one scenario where these barriers are less likely to be present, but in almost all others these come up frequently. As such, voice will continue to sit alongside touch and other interfaces, rather than becoming the one or even the dominant way we interact with our devices.
Secondly, Amazon’s Echo is very effective, but only where it exists. It works well precisely because it’s unencumbered by the challenges that hamper performance of voice interfaces on small portable devices like smartphones and smartwatches. It has several microphones and a large speaker, and the whole device is designed around voice interactions. That makes it very good at recognizing speech, but that skill set is almost impossible to replicate in a smaller device. It’s not that Amazon is better at voice recognition than Apple or Google are, it’s that it’s put voice recognition on a device that doesn’t have to fit in your pocket or on your wrist. I’ve found Google’s Home to be at least as good on this point, and I’ve no doubt that were Apple to release a Siri Speaker, it would perform equally well.
The challenge is that the Echo as a device and Alexa as a capability may as well not exist when you leave the house, and that’s where Google and Apple still have a huge advantage when it comes to voice assistants and personal digital assistants in general. Theirs are ubiquitous, whereas Amazon’s is home-bound. I tend to think people are going to want to use the same assistant everywhere they go, rather than learning to use and training two separate assistants at home and on the go. So the question becomes whether Amazon will be able to find ways to make Alexa mobile faster than Google and Apple can achieve mainstream adoption of their equivalent devices for the home. That seems far from a foregone conclusion, because Alexa needs to be not just present but baked in on a mobile device if it’s to compete with Siri and the Google Assistant, and it’s hard to see that happening on a scale that makes a difference.
In short, then, the prevailing narrative that voice is going to dominate future interactions and Amazon has already won in voice is overblown and misleading. The best we can say is that voice will be one of several important user interfaces, and that Amazon has a very good entrant in one particular category of personal digital assistant – speaker-based ones for the home. Beyond that, it’s still a wide-open field with Apple and Google the clear leaders in mobile personal assistants and everyone else an also-ran.
Target and Google have announced a nationwide launch of their partnership to offer voice shopping from Target through Google Home (and eventually the Google Assistant on smartphones too). This follows on from Google’s earlier announcement with Walmart, and these partnerships feel very much like a new front in the escalating war between Google and Amazon. This also opens up potential new revenue streams for Google around voice, a medium far harder to monetize through advertising than its traditional businesses, and which Amazon is certainly going to leverage for e-commerce sales. On the other hand, an indirect relationship will make this a little more complex than a single-company solution – customers will have to train the Google Assistant to know which retailer to use for which items if they have several integrations set up. And of course for now shopping is still a minority use case for voice speakers, well down the list of actions people use regularly, though that may change over time.
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
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.
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.