Company / division: Echo/Alexa
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
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.
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.
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.
Google Pulls YouTube from Amazon’s Echo Show Device (Sep 27, 2017)
Amazon announced last night that Google had pulled its YouTube app from the former’s Echo Show device, the company’s first screen-based voice speaker. YouTube was one of very few video options available on the Echo Show, with Amazon’s own Prime Video being the main alternative. YouTube videos would show up in response to certain searches, especially ones relating to video, and although I doubt anyone bought an Echo Show solely to use YouTube, losing it is a blow to the company. There’s a certain irony that this breach in the relationship between Amazon and Google has occurred in a week when we’ve seen signs of detente between each of these two companies and Apple, with Amazon again selling Apple TV hardware and Apple replacing Bing with Google as the search engine in Siri and OS-level search in its devices. I joked on Twitter that it’s almost as if there’s some universal equilibrium of big tech companies not playing nicely with each other that has to be maintained.
Of course, this is all part of the broader ongoing competitive dynamic between these various companies, which all need each other to varying degrees but often place limits on their interactions in areas where they can afford to do so. Though Amazon says the decision was unilateral and unexplained, Google said the implementation of YouTube on the Echo Show violated its terms of service, which makes you wonder whether the companies launched in a hurry and agreed to settle terms later, or whether Amazon simply built the YouTube app without Google’s input and hoped it wouldn’t mind. My guess is that the ToS violation in question here revolves around the lack of options for managing a YouTube account – I sent my Echo Show back after testing it for a review, but if I recall correctly, many of the standard YouTube features on other platforms were not available there, which was reflective of the Echo Show’s broad limitations on interactivity and functionality, something I pointed out in my review. YouTube was in some ways very much behind a platform wall which Amazon erected in front of it, and it seems Google finally decided it had had enough.
It’s worth remembering that Google and Amazon compete directly across several areas and have limited their cooperation in several others as a result: they compete in voice assistants and devices, for starters, but also in cloud services, in product search, in tablets (albeit indirectly), in grocery deliveries, in TV boxes, and so on. And as a result there have been limits to their cooperation – Amazon stopped selling Chromecast devices a while back and generally doesn’t participate in the Google Shopping feature alongside other major retailers, and appears to have resisted adding Chromecast features to its video apps. It’s possible that Google pulling YouTube was a way to exert pressure to get Amazon to sell Chromecast devices again as it has Apple TV devices – the timing likely isn’t coincidental. And Google certainly has far more leverage in this spat than Amazon – the Echo Show is a meaningless contributor to YouTube’s overall success, but the presence or absence of YouTube on the Echo Show is a much bigger deal for that device and its appeal. I don’t think Google will be in any hurry to settle the dispute unless it’s able to extract some concessions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that includes Amazon selling Chromecasts again.
via The Verge
Amazon is adding voice control features to its mobile music apps for iOS and Android to give users more ways to control their music even when they’re not using an Echo or other Alexa-enabled device. That’s a logical place to extend Alexa functions given that music playback is a major use for voice speakers, and the symbiosis between the two has already made Amazon Music a much more widely used service over the last couple of years that it would have been otherwise. A recent survey I ran suggested that under 20% of US Prime subscribers use the music feature, but even at 20% that would be millions of users in the US alone, and I would guess many of those are likely Echo users. Adding a voice feature to a third party app still isn’t nearly as convenient as invoking it from an external button or a voice command from the lock screen, but for those committed to Amazon’s ecosystem, this is still a useful value-add. We’re going to see the connection between voice and music become considerably stronger over the next few years, with Apple’s entry into voice speakers through the HomePod as well as Sonos’s announcement next week. A big question is whether voice becomes an important way to drive playback on mobile as well as in the home – voice assistant use on mobile remains fairly low overall and high mostly in specific circumstances like while driving, but that could change as assistants get more sophisticated in understanding commands relating to music, something Apple’s clearly been working on lately.
The Financial Times reports that Amazon is working on two new hardware categories: Alexa voice assistant-enabled glasses, and home security cameras which would integrate with Alexa hardware in various ways. The home security camera seems by far the less surprising of the two, given that it’s one of the bigger existing smart home market segments and a logical extension of what Amazon is doing with its Echo line (including the Echo Look, which already incorporates a camera). But it’s the voice-enabled glasses that are both surprising and somewhat baffling as a concept, especially because there’s no ostensible connection between glasses – a primarily vision-oriented product – and Alexa, a product centered on the ears. It sounds like the glasses are a way to hide bone-conduction audio in a less nerdy way than a bluetooth headset would, but for those who don’t normally wear glasses, aren’t they at least as nerdy, not to mention conspicuous? There’s arguably some logic to using bone conduction as a technology because it doesn’t block the ear in the same way as earbuds and headphones, but I’m really not convinced that glasses are the best way to deliver that experience. It’s also worth noting by way of context that Amazon has arguably never had a successful personal consumer device. Its one earlier attempt – the Fire Phone – was a huge failure, and all of its other devices are arguably less personal and more shared devices, often with fairly uninspiring industrial design which makes me skeptical that Amazon knows how to create appealing personal products. Given that the FT says both of these products could launch by the end of the year, I guess we’ll see the details soon enough, but I’m enormously skeptical on the glasses though the cameras seem like they’ll sell well, albeit now with stronger competition from Nest.
via Financial Times
★ 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
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