Company / division: Echo/Alexa
Amazon Readying Launch of Echo Device with a Screen (Apr 27, 2017)
★ Amazon Scales Alexa Back-End by Opening Lex Voice and Text Service to All Developers (Apr 19, 2017)
So much of the focus of coverage of voice assistants and interfaces is on the dedicated consumer products which use them, and that’s natural: these are the most visible and measurable signs of a company’s success or failure in this space. And yet the scale of those dedicated voice product is still very small relative to smartphones, which carry their own voice assistants. And scale is vital if these products are to improve, because they require lots and lots of training to get better, and so the more users there are training them, the better they become. As such, I suspect the next phase of competition in this space is going to be about developer voice platforms at least as much as it is about first-party hardware and software, and we’re starting to see signs of this from the big companies in the space, including Google and Amazon. Today, Amazon announced that Lex, which is a back-end service that combines many of the technologies behind Alexa, is opening up to all developers. But critically, this isn’t just a voice platform – it supports text and voice processing, which means that many of the developers might use it in chat bots or other similar environments that have nothing to do with voice but still help train Amazon’s natural language processing tools. Google is doing similar things with its own voice processing technology, but it’s doubtful whether Apple will ever open its voice tools up in the same way. That’s not a huge deal, because it has massive scale in voice on smartphones alone, but it may make a bigger difference over time as these other platforms benefit not only from growing first party scale but increasing third party adoption and use too.
Amazon to Provide its Echo Mic Array and Related Technology to Select Hardware Partners (Apr 13, 2017)
This is a fun little comparison done by a user in the UK of the ability to the two major home smart speaker units to answer 54 questions. Google Home wins in the end, with 32.5 answered correctly, to 19.5 for Echo/Alexa. The questions were a mix of simple and challenging, and the user was in the UK and asked quite a few UK-specific questions, taking advantage of the fact that both devices recently launched there. But it’s a great illustration of both how Google has the existing skillset to do really well in this category, and also the fact that all these assistants have some way still to go to answer all the questions users might reasonably expect them to deal with.
What do you do if you have two separate hardware products for the home which are selling modestly but not fantastically and have some common elements? You combine them, of course, and so Google is apparently considering a future device which would bring the features of its Home and WiFi devices together in a single unit. That would lower the combined cost and depending on the price potentially also increase the attractiveness relative to either the standalone Home or WiFi devices as they exist today. Given that a single unit of either item today costs $129, it’s entirely feasible that Google could combine the two in a new unit that would still be price competitive with the Amazon Echo while offering a lot more functionality, so this is an interesting angle. But Google Home’s main challenges continue to be less about price and more about name recognition and distribution – the Echo captured the early interest in this space and quickly became the market, heavily leveraging Amazon’s retail distribution channel, while Google continues to struggle to get adoption for its version. Though this move may help spur sales, I don’t think it’s going to lead to the kind of step change Google needs to be a more meaningful competitor.
via The Information
Amazon puts Alexa inside its main iPhone app – VentureBeat (Mar 16, 2017)
Alexa’s single biggest flaw today is that it’s a shut-in: for the most part, it can’t leave the house. That means competing in a broad-based way with Siri and the Google Assistant requires getting onto smartphones, and now we have Amazon putting Alexa into the Amazon shopping app on iOS. Job done? Well, no. Because just having an app on a phone doesn’t mean people will use it. And if it’s buried inside a shopping app, that’s a steep hill to climb relative to just holding down the home button to summon Siri. On the one hand, I get the logic of putting Alexa in the Amazon app – it’s an app many of the company’s most loyal users already have installed and likely use frequently, but it also means it’s going to be several clicks away. I can see some parents with kids using it to keep them quiet with jokes, but it’s hard to imagine people using an Alexa buried in a shopping app as their main assistant while away from home. Integration within the smartphone and its operating system is the key here, which will be impossible on iOS but more feasible on Android, as we’ve already seen with Huawei and Lenovo’s integration plans.
Amazon makes it cheaper to host Alexa skills on AWS – ZDNet (Mar 16, 2017)
This is clever tie-in by Amazon of two of its valuable assets: its Alexa skills engine and its AWS cloud infrastructure. It’s offering developers of Alexa voice skills a better deal on hosting through AWS as a way to remove the barriers to developing smarter and more sophisticated skills for its Echo devices (and the small number of third party devices using Alexa). Amazon has touted its number of third party skills repeatedly since launching them as a sign of Echo and Alexa’s capability, but the reality is that many of those skills are very basic, and the model is clumsy to use. If it’s able to attract better skills to the platform, those numbers will start to be more meaningful as signifiers of the platform’s capabilities.
Apple’s Siri learns Shanghainese as voice assistants race to cover languages – Reuters (Mar 9, 2017)
One of the things that’s often missed by US writers covering Amazon’s Alexa and its competitors is how limited it still is in language and geographic terms. It only speaks English and German and the Echo range is only available in a handful of countries. Siri, meanwhile, just got its 21st country and 36th language, which reflects a long-time strength of Apple’s: broad global support. Apple News is a notable exception, which is only available in a few countries and one language, but almost all of Apple’s other products are available in a very long list of countries and territories, often longer than for other competing services. The article here is also interesting for the insights it provides into how each company goes about the process of localization, which is quite a bit more involved than you might surmise.
This is a good counterpart to the Time article from last week about Amazon working on voice identification in their respective home speakers. It points out the complications in providing such a feature, not least that heavy processing to make voices clearer will also tend to distort them and therefore make it harder to recognize and distinguish speakers. The article also makes clear, though, that these challenges are far from insurmountable, which leads me to believe that Amazon or Google or both will eventually figure this out. In fact, whichever does figure it out first could have a big advantage, because for a lot of the most useful features (calendar, emails, etc) individual profiles are critical. So much so that Google misleadingly included that exact use case in its I/O launch video last year.
via Fast Company
Amazon plans to release new Alexa devices that can make phone calls and work as intercoms – Recode (Mar 3, 2017)
This is a slightly different spin on the WSJ article from a few weeks ago about Amazon and Google looking to add phone call capability to their home speakers. For one thing, this article suggests new hardware, rather than merely a software upgrade, though it’s not clear why, given that these devices already have all the necessary hardware elements for phone calls (speakers, microphones, and connectivity). One reason might be the intercom functionality that’s mentioned in the article too – again, if that’s audio only it wouldn’t necessarily require new hardware, but if there’s a video component, that obviously would. And that would also jive with the reports from yesterday about Amazon working on a video camera for the home. It’s increasingly feeling like Amazon is using Echo and Alexa as a Trojan horse to other things in the home, and we’re just starting to see the real potential here. That’s interesting, because in and of itself a voice speaker isn’t that threatening to other established players like Apple and Google, but if it becomes something more, that presents a more ecosystem-level threat, which is much more serious.
I’ve been wondering when we’d see Amazon get deeper into the home automation business, and it looks like some sort of camera might be the answer, and fairly soon. The Echo is often described as a smart home enabler, but I’ve argued that it’s actually a fairly dumb device – it merely passes commands back and forth without knowing anything about the state of your home or being able to intelligently take any actions on its own. If Amazon had a camera (or several of them) in your home, however, it could start to know whether anyone is home or not, and do other clever things, which could enable a smarter approach to home automation in future. I’m still skeptical that the home automation market can advance much further out of the early adopter segment without a services model – that feels like the key to broader adoption, and I can’t see Amazon offering that directly, though it would be an interesting fit with its new third party home services business.
via The Verge
Amazon Echo May Get Voice ID Feature – Time (Feb 28, 2017)
From the first time I heard about Google Home at I/O last year, I assumed it would have multi-user support, and yet it didn’t. Now it sounds like it’s Amazon that may bring this feature to its home speaker first, which is yet another example of how Google seems to be punching below its weight in this fight. Google is all about individual user accounts: email, calendar, to-do lists, YouTube subscriptions, Android device identities and lots more are all tied up in personal accounts. Amazon, by contrast, probably works mostly at the level of the household, with families sharing Prime shipping and video accounts. So it’s ironic that Amazon would be the first to market with something that provides individual identification by voice. At the same time, I think there are going to be severe limitations around voice identification that may well make it inappropriate for anything security related – voice recordings are much easier than fingerprint cloning, for example. And in both the household I grew up in and my own home now, there were several people with very similar voices – it will be very important for Amazon (and Google) to be able to tell apart even voices with shared genes.
“Just like Alexa” is a bit of a stretch here, because the whole point of Alexa’s ordering is that you know the products will come from Amazon. Google Home, by contrast, will order from a range of different Google Express merchants, only some of which are available nationwide. And because most people don’t have a Google Express account set up yet, they’ll have to do that first before they order anything. Lastly, unlike items bought using a Prime subscription, shipping will be charged extra after a short promotional period. Despite all that, this is obviously an area where Alexa has had unique capabilities and where Google Home has now closed the gap a little. By far Home’s biggest disadvantage is still its lack of awareness and distribution.
If only the device you use as a voice assistant had phone functionality built in! I’m being facetious, but it’s interesting to watch Amazon and Google potentially working backwards from a non-phone device to something capable of making calls. This is a logical extension of a voice search for a local business – I already regularly do this using Siri, especially while driving, and it’s very useful. As with yesterday’s Nest story, this is a great illustration of the benefits of software-based products – you can provide meaningful additional functionality through an update and suddenly the device you already have becomes more functional. I would guess that Amazon would need a partnership for local business search, whereas Google of course has that functionality in house – it’s in domains like this that Google has an advantage over Amazon despite the latter’s early big lead. I’m very curious how far out these efforts are – unusually, the WSJ is reporting on both companies’ efforts at once here, but they may well be at quite different stages of development. And of course Google famously stayed out of the phone business when it launched Google Fiber because of all the regulatory headaches and fees that go along with being a fully-fledged phone provider – it might try to stop short of going that far this time around too.
Reviews for the Tap were mostly pretty negative when it came out, because it was like the Echo without its best feature: hands-free usage. Requiring a button tap to invoke Alexa basically ruined the experience for many of the reviewers, but this new software update rectifies that when the device is connected to WiFi. I’m guessing it runs down the battery quite a bit faster when it’s always listening, so users will probably want to have it plugged in when in this mode, and the mic array isn’t as impressive in this cheaper device than in the Echo either. But this is now on paper the same functionality as the Echo for $50 less than its list price, which isn’t bad. The Dot, however, continues to be by far the most cost effective way to get into the Amazon Alexa ecosystem, at $50 per unit, and that’s why it’s the best seller in the lineup by far.
via The Verge
Billboard does an annual Power 100 ranking of the most important/influential execs in the music industry. Coming at this from a tech angle, there are several notable companies on the list: Spotify’s Daniel Ek takes the top spot, several Apple folks are at #4, Amazon at #12, iHeartMedia at #19, YouTube at #30, Pandora at #34, Facebook is at #54, and various others are scattered through the second 50. Amazon’s ranking is surprisingly high, but is entirely due to Billboard’s perception of Echo and Alexa’s role in transforming music, as illustrated by Billboard’s interview with Jeff Bezos and Amazon Music head Steve Boom. I think the take here is a little overblown, but there’s no doubt Echo and Alexa are changing the experience of music for the small minority of people who use them. YouTube’s relatively low ranking is surprising given how important a channel the site is for the music industry, but of course its relationship with the labels and artists is complicated. This kind of ranking exercise is always somewhat arbitrary, but it’s interesting to get a music industry take on the tech companies and their relative importance here.
Alexa and Google Assistant have a problem: People aren’t sticking with voice apps they try – Recode (Jan 23, 2017)
Call this a rare bit of cold water poured on the hot topic of voice assistants and especially Amazon’s Alexa. The data here suggests that the third party “Skills” available through Alexa have essentially zero staying power, with most abandoned very quickly after the first use. I suspect that’s partly down to the awkward syntax you have to use to invoke Skills on Alexa, and partly down to the fact that most of the Skills are novelties at best, with many providing very little utility at all – the number of Skills available is one that Amazon likes to tout and reporters dutifully report, but is largely meaningless while this is the case. In addition, none of this really says anything about the usefulness or sticking power of the built-in functions, and that would be a great subject for a survey. I would guess that people stick with the core functions a lot more than these Skills, or return their devices because they’re not using them – the latter was my own eventual outcome when testing the Echo.