Amazon Expands Program Paying Popular Alexa Developers (Aug 16, 2017)
Anker Debuts Cheaper Echo Dot Competitor Featuring Alexa (Aug 9, 2017)
Xiaomi Announces $45 Smart Voice Speaker (Jul 26, 2017)
When the Samsung Galaxy S8 devices were preparing to launch, some were caught off guard by the fact that the English language version of its Bixby voice interface wouldn’t be available when it went on sale. Later, Bixby was released as a limited public beta in the US, and today it’s going to be available as an update to all US owners of the devices, roughly three months after the devices went on sale. At launch, Samsung faced a conundrum: ship a version that wasn’t ready and risk people’s first experiences with Bixby putting them off for life, or delay one of the headline features of the phone for several months, and in the end it plumped for the latter. That was smart, and there seems to have been little backlash about the delay from users (perhaps suggesting they mostly don’t care about it). Reviews based on the early beta release suggested there were some big issues and bugs, but the Journal piece linked here is more positive about it. The big issue remains Samsung’s framing of Bixby as an interface rather than an assistant, after years of smartphone users being trained to see the two as essentially synonymous. But Bixby is definitely not a broad assistant: it can’t answer questions about the world (or in many cases your slice of it), but is very good at controlling device functions and settings, at least within Samsung’s own apps. My brief testing suggests Bixby still pretty glitchy, even in the setup process. The list of third party apps offering Bixby integration hasn’t got much longer since my testing of the device at Samsung’s launch event, and that will be another key challenge here: an assistant that only works for some apps but not others ends up not being very assistive: consistency is the key, something that other assistants have demonstrated through their inconsistency too. If users do adopt Bixby for the things it can do, it’s likely they’ll do so alongside the Google Assistant, which can handle most of the rest, but I could also see many users giving up on Bixby and using just Google’s tool as the one voice interface most likely to help them get things done on their phone. Relatedly, there are reports today that Samsung won’t in fact be making a Bixby voice speaker, something it was reported to be working on earlier, and which I had said made little sense in the context of Bixby as an interface rather than an assistant.
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)
Alibaba Announces $73 Voice Speaker (Jul 5, 2017)
Samsung Reportedly Working on Bixby-Powered Home Speaker (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.