Company / division: Echo/Alexa
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.
Ecobee Launches Thermostat with Alexa (May 3, 2017)
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.
Amazon Readying Launch of Echo Device with a Screen (Apr 27, 2017)
Amazon has announced a new device in its Echo family called the Echo Look, which assumes a different form factor, adding a still and video camera to features of the standard device for $20 more. For now, the focus is fashion advice: the camera can take full-length photos or videos of the user, acting like a full-length mirror at a basic level but also offering fashion advice through machine learning tools trained by fashion experts. I say for now, because once you have a camera in an Echo device it could be used for many other things too – indeed, when reports and pictures of this device first surfaced people assumed it was a security camera, and there’s really no reason why it couldn’t be. And several of these devices together could be very useful for motion sensing and other tasks as part of a smart home system over time too. But Amazon’s also smart to start specializing the Echo a little, with a particular focus on women, as I would guess a majority of sales of Echo devices to date have gone to men. I’d bet we’ll see other more specialized devices in time, but also other uses for this camera as it gets software updates. And this also starts to get at a real business model for Echo, which so far hasn’t done much to boost e-commerce sales but could now drive clothing revenue through sales of both third party apparel and Amazon’s own growing line. And what Amazon learns from the Look and its associated app can be fed back into the core Amazon.com clothes shopping experience too, improving recommendations in the process. But of course all this comes with downsides: not only do you have a device in your home that’s always listening, but you now have a device with a camera, which could feasibly be hacked remotely to take pictures or video of you. And Amazon will store the images it captures indefinitely, creating a further possible source of problems down the line.
via The Verge
★ 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.