Company / division: Echo/Alexa
Amazon Expands Program Paying Popular Alexa Developers (Aug 16, 2017)
Anker Debuts Cheaper Echo Dot Competitor Featuring Alexa (Aug 9, 2017)
Essential, Android founder Andy Rubin’s fledgling smartphone outfit, has announced additional funding from companies including Tencent and Amazon, but still refuses to say exactly when its smartphone will go on sale, saying only that a date will be announced in a week or so. It’s also announced that Amazon and Best Buy will be the retail partners for launch, while Sprint was announced earlier as the exclusive US carrier partner. If you’ve read any of my previous pieces on Essential, especially the first one, you’ll know how skeptical I am that an effort like this can succeed. The market is so mature at this point and the distribution and other battle lines so clear that breaking in with yet another Android phone will be a real challenge, one further exacerbated by what’s going to be limited distribution on the weakest carrier in the US. The funding is therefore intriguing, because it suggests these backers see something in the phone that I don’t. Importantly, it’s Amazon’s Alexa Fund specifically that’s making that company’s investment, something the Journal piece I’m linking to here doesn’t dig into at all, but which suggests that the phone will major on Alexa integration, something hinted at earlier by Andy Rubin as part of a statement about the phone’s ecumenical approach to voice assistants, but not made explicit. And backing from both Foxconn and Tencent is intriguing in the context of a phone that’s mostly being launched in North America for now. Recent conversations I’ve had suggest Amazon’s smartphone sales business is going very well, but of course many of its sales are of the kind of low-end prepaid handsets people buy outright anyway rather than the higher-end premium hardware Essential will be selling. I continue to be very bearish on Essential, but at least it sounds like we might finally see the hardware hit the market soon.
Amazon’s Alexa assistant has come to a couple of smartphones at this point, debuting on the Huawei Mate 9, but on those devices, it couldn’t respond to a voice command in the way the Echo devices can – invoking Alexa required opening the app. The HTC U11 changes that, by bringing an always-listening version of Alexa to a smartphone for the first time, but this review from the Verge makes clear just how big a challenge Amazon and Alexa still have in front of them in breaking out of the home. The biggest issue is that Alexa doesn’t work until the screen is unlocked, meaning that the always-on feature has a huge handicap. Beyond that, many of the features available in Echo devices are missing, and it’s added nothing to allow Alexa to provide functions people typically use voice assistants on the phone for, such as sending messages or making calls. All of this just confirms what I’ve been saying for some time now about Alexa, which is that it does fine in the home with a limited set of tasks and highly optimized hardware, but is useless out of the home and will struggle to compete with truly integrated assistants like Siri and the Google Assistant, which are baked into phones and their operating systems. It was theoretically possible that Amazon would get some Android vendors to give Alexa true first-party status and phenomenal performance on a phone, but that certainly doesn’t seem to be happening yet, which means that as Google and Apple enter and take share in the voice speaker market, their assistants will start to seem a lot more compelling, because they can be used both at home and out and about, eroding Echo’s two-year head start and the advantages that’s conveyed.
via The Verge
Siri Usage Reported to Fall as Alexa and Cortana Grow (Jul 12, 2017)
Amazon’s Alexa Now Has 15,000 “Skills” (Apps) (Jul 5, 2017)
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)
Dish Allows Alexa Voice Control of Set Top Boxes (May 22, 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)
Amazon previously invested in Nucleus, a company that makes a tabletop videoconferencing system for the home, and now the company’s CEO is angry because Amazon has just released the Echo Show, which he sees as very similar. Two quick things to say about this: firstly, if you take an investment from a company like Amazon, you have to go in with your eyes open. You have to know that the reason for the investment is that the company is interested in the technology, which might mean to an outright acquisition of your company (best case scenario) or might simply enable it to learn about it and do its own thing (worst case scenario). If you don’t know that going in, that’s your fault. Secondly, it’s not like the Echo Show is a pure clone – it’s first and foremost an Echo, a concept Amazon can quite fairly say it has pioneered, and only secondarily a videoconferencing system. Yes, that element was emphasized in its video and so on, but that’s because it’s a big part about what’s new and different from this device compared with its previous Echo devices. This device does far more than that, though, and anyone suggesting it’s some kind of clone is on the wrong track. It sucks to be Nucleus right now, but it should have known this outcome was a strong possibility from the start.
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.