Target and Google have announced a nationwide launch of their partnership to offer voice shopping from Target through Google Home (and eventually the Google Assistant on smartphones too). This follows on from Google’s earlier announcement with Walmart, and these partnerships feel very much like a new front in the escalating war between Google and Amazon. This also opens up potential new revenue streams for Google around voice, a medium far harder to monetize through advertising than its traditional businesses, and which Amazon is certainly going to leverage for e-commerce sales. On the other hand, an indirect relationship will make this a little more complex than a single-company solution – customers will have to train the Google Assistant to know which retailer to use for which items if they have several integrations set up. And of course for now shopping is still a minority use case for voice speakers, well down the list of actions people use regularly, though that may change over time.
Five major movie studios have banded together to join a successor to Disney’s Movies Anywhere service, which serves as a digital locker consolidating digital movie purchases across major retailers like iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Video, and Vudu. This is a pretty big deal, because the service was Disney only in the past and competed with UltraViolet, a competing platform. This partnership now brings together five of the biggest names in movies, and it’s fairly compelling – I just signed up and was able to consolidate my past purchases from iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Video into one big collection, which I can now view on various devices and even download for offline viewing on a phone. That’s important to me because even though I’ve tended to favor one particular storefront over the last few years, I have at various times acquired movies on other platforms for pricing, availability, or testing purposes, and they’ve been kind of lost on there. This therefore feels like the first time something like this might actually take off in a meaningful way.
I haven’t seen an official announcement around this, but Windows Central reports that Microsoft has quietly added support for four smart home vendors – Nest, SmartThings, Hue, Wink, and Insteon – to its Cortana virtual assistant. On the one hand, this is good timing with the Harmon Kardon speaker apparently getting ready for launch, but on the other it’s odd given the recent voice assistant partnership between Microsoft and Amazon, a big selling point of which was being able to control smart home gear through Alexa. In fairness, the latter still has much broader support for smart home ecosystems than Cortana, but Microsoft’s assistant now talks to several of the largest, and these plans must have been in the works for months now, certainly before the Alexa partnership was announced. At any rate, it’s going to be much simpler to control these devices directly through Cortana than through the awkward two-step process the Alexa partnership would require, and this is a good addition ahead of the launch of Cortana-based speakers.
via Windows Central
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.
A listing for Harman Kardon’s Cortana-powered speaker, which has been teased for nearly a year by Microsoft and its partner, has shown up on the Microsoft online store, priced at $200 and listed as going on sale on October 22nd. The marketing materials emphasize quality audio, with 360° sound, smart home control, and the ability to make hands-free calls using Skype, though that feature will cost money after an initial 6-month trial of Skype’s outbound calling feature. At $200, the cost is the same as the speaker Sonos announced yesterday, but since neither has been formally reviewed yet we can’t know how the audio quality compares, while Sonos differentiates in a big way by being part of a multi-room system. The price point, though, is indicative of the challenges of competing in this market if you can’t monetize in ways other than through the hardware itself, something that certainly applies to both Harman and Sonos. Amazon, on the other hand, and to a lesser extent Google, can afford to sell devices at or below cost because their ecosystems will benefit in other ways and through other revenue streams such as e-commerce or advertising. HP also has a Cortana speaker coming out soon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was priced similarly high.
via The Verge
Samsung and ADT have announced a partnership which will combine Samsung’s SmartThings home automation gear with the alarm company’s security system and optional monitoring service. Consumers will buy at retail and install the system themselves, while professional monitoring by ADT will be an optional extra. This is something of a theme in recent weeks, with Nest’s recent launch of a self-install security system (also with a partnership with an existing company for monitoring) and a separate announcement by smaller smart home company Ring. I continue to be skeptical about the broad appeal of self-installed smart home systems, but there clearly is a segment of the population that’s willing to self install and manage, and expanding into security makes sense for them. At the same time, most buyers are likely to continue to go with service-based approaches to both security systems and broader smart home gear.
Microsoft has today announced that it’s killing off its own streaming music service, Groove Music, and will be partnering with Spotify instead as the latter builds an app for Windows 10 and the Xbox One. This isn’t a huge surprise – Microsoft’s various incarnations of music streaming services have never done as well as its base of Windows users should have enabled them to – but it’s an admission of how completely Microsoft has failed when it comes to consumer content services, where it’s basically a non-player. That, in turn, is indicative of Microsoft’s continued challenges as a consumer ecosystem, especially relative to Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, which dominate much of consumer time and content consumption. Microsoft’s consumer presence is largely limited to its de facto standard status as a maker of paid productivity software and increasingly free standalone productivity apps on mobile platforms, alongside its search and gaming platforms. None of that engenders much positive loyalty to Microsoft from consumers, and it generates very little revenue for the company on the consumer side. And yet it continues to try to straddle the consumer and enterprise worlds in a way few have ever managed to do successfully. Giving up in music is a logical and sensible step, but it’s certainly not going to get Microsoft any closer to cracking the consumer market. Meanwhile, it’s yet another channel – albeit likely not a big one – for Spotify to sign up more streaming music subscribers.
via The Verge
The Street reports that Facebook’s soon-to-be-launched subscription offering for news publishers won’t have some key newspapers on board at launch, notably the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Financial Times. It will, though, apparently have the Tronc and Hearst Newspaper Groups, the Economist, and the Washington Post as launch partners. The former group, notably the Times and Journal (and parent company News Corp) have been among the most skeptical about all of Facebook’s news initiatives, and among the most distinctive brands in news, so it’s not a huge surprise that they won’t be on board, but it’s still a bit of a blow. I’d argue, though, that Facebook doesn’t need broad support from newspapers for this program in the same way as an aggregation app like Apple News does, simply because articles from those publishers will still be shared and in some cases posted on Facebook and in some cases carry Facebook ads, they just won’t be monetized through subscriptions. Since Facebook won’t be taking a cut anyway, that doesn’t actually matter all that much.
Ford and Lyft have announced a partnership under which Ford cars will begin running as part of Lyft’s network, first with human drivers and eventually with autonomous technology doing at least some of the driving. This is just the latest in a series of deals Lyft has done around autonomous driving, with previous ones including Drive.ai, nuTonomy, and Waymo, while it also works on its own autonomous technology effort. Ford, meanwhile, has been very clear about the fact that it sees ride sharing as the initial application for its autonomous driving efforts, but of course doesn’t have a ride sharing service of its own to test it with – partnering with Lyft is one way to accelerate that effort while also learning things that could be applied to its own effort if it chooses to go that way. Ford is the second car manufacturer to partner with Lyft overall, with GM an investor and early partner, though that partnership has definitely seemed looser recently. This is the key thing with pretty much all Lyft’s partnerships: they could all turn into something really interesting, but none of them commits the companies to do anything specific over the long term, which leaves Lyft vulnerable to being left at the altar by its various partners if they decide to go in a different direction.
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 Begins Selling Apple TV Hardware Again (Sep 26, 2017)
Amazon has quietly begun selling Apple TV hardware again, as part of the thawing in relations between the two companies. Apple has already announced that an Amazon video app is coming to the Apple TV shortly, so this is the first half of that two-part move, suggesting that the other shoe should drop soon. As I said a few months back, though some have suggested there was some tit-for-tat in Apple and Amazon’s frosty relations, the reality is that the barriers to playing nicely were all on Amazon’s side – the company could have built an app for the Apple TV as soon as the platform launched an App Store, but chose not to. I assume that was because of the App Store cut, but that’s been a feature on iOS too, and hasn’t stopped Amazon from launching video apps for that platform. Regardless, it’s likely that Apple has made some concessions on the App Store cut, and that that’s finally got Amazon on board as one of the last holdouts from the Apple TV, which should further increase the appeal of that hardware platform for those willing to pay the Apple premium to get their Transparent or Man in the High Castle fix.
Facebook Signs Deal with NFL for Highlight Videos (Sep 26, 2017)
Given that the live TV rights for major US sports are pretty much all sewn up for years to come, the major online platforms have been relegated to pursuing other rights, including second-tier sports (and e-sports), sports rights outside the US, and meta content including highlights and sports-centric talk shows. The latest example of that comes from Facebook, which has paid the NFL for the right to show highlights to its users immediately after games end, as well as doing a deal for NFL-created shows for its new Watch tab for video. The highlights deal kicks in immediately and the overall contract is for two years. This feels like one of the more promising deals Facebook has signed – I’m really not convinced anyone wants to watch long-form sports (like pretty much all US sports with their massive ad loads) through a social network, but highlights seem much better suited to both mobile and social contexts, because they’re very shareable and digestible in small chunks. I already regularly see highlights from various sports in my Facebook feed, but they’re almost all videos from within articles hosted off Facebook – this deal would bring the content into the platform and therefore enable monetization through advertising. As I said yesterday in the context of YouTube’s enhancements, Facebook’s video ad tools are still very rudimentary in comparison, but at least it now has ways to show ads in videos. The challenge with highlights is going to be that they’re so short and so widely available, I wonder whether anyone will want to stick around beyond the mid-roll ad break.
Apple has quietly switched the search back end for its Siri voice assistant and what used to be called Spotlight search to Google, after relying on Bing for several years. Bing will continue to provide the image search results in Siri, but is otherwise being replaced by Google. That’s a fascinating turn of events after several years of Apple removing Google from various elements of its built-in systems, from switching to its own maps to elimination the YouTube app to offering a variety of alternative default search providers in Safari, to this use of Bing behind the scenes. Although there’s obviously been some speculation that money was a factor here, and it may well have been, I suspect this ultimately comes down to wanting to provide the best possible experience in these various settings, and that means using Google. That’s ultimately the same reason that Apple hasn’t switched away from Google as the default search engine within Safari in Western markets – Google is the gold standard, and everything else still comes up short. I do wonder if this is part of a quiet renewal of the longstanding relationship between the two companies, which always prompts speculation about Apple replacing Google as the default. That certainly seems less likely now, as Apple in its brief public statement on this news has emphasized the need for consistency across experiences within iOS and macOS, suggesting that Google is here to stay as the default search option in Safari. That’s a big win for Google and a big loss for Microsoft, for which Apple’s partnership was a rare bright spot on mobile, while it continues to take decent share on the desktop by virtue of Windows’ dominance there.
Facebook has announced that it’s partnering with Nielsen to provide advertisers with a combined measurement of brand lift for campaigns that run across both Facebook and TV. That provides a consistent set of metrics for advertisers that use both platforms, but more importantly it puts a big dent in the idea that Facebook and TV are at war, a narrative the media seems keen to perpetuate but which Facebook itself has repeatedly downplayed. While it’s certainly the case that Facebook is chasing some of the same ad dollars as TV, and Facebook has even made the case that TV ads are less effective than Facebook ads, it’s also pushed back against the idea that it’s trying to kill TV advertising. This partnership suggests that Facebook is realistic about the fact that most advertisers are going to continue to run ads both online (including on its platform) and on TV, and that it can best support those advertisers by making it easier to measure the performance of campaigns in both media. It’s also making the argument that campaigns that run in this way actually see better results than those which only run in one place.
This AdAge report on BuzzFeed’s coming Twitter live morning show is long on facts and short on analysis but nonetheless provides some interesting detail. It sounds like the show will be roughly an hour long and focused on covering the day’s news in a fairly lightweight and Twitter-centric way, and will feature four two-minute ad breaks featuring 30-second commercials. Because it’s BuzzFeed there will also be some sponsored editorial content within episodes, and because it’s Twitter some of the ads and related content will also be parceled up as shorter-form content for the platform. This is all, of course, part of Twitter’s broad expansion into live video with many different partners, and a good test of whether people actually have the time and inclination to watch something like this on Twitter, which I suspect for most people is something they dip in and out of rather than something they have permanently “on” in the way they might do with Twitter. The time slot reference in the article is vague – it merely says 10am, but doesn’t state which time zone that refers to, while earlier articles had suggested an 8am slot, which would put it extremely early in western time zones. 10am ET would certainly make more sense, catching at least some of the country in the pre-work slot when they’re more likely to be able to watch a live show than when they get to work.
The Financial Times reports that Google is working on an AI-based tool that will help publishers identify possible subscribers for their newspapers. This is a somewhat fleshed-out version of a report from a month ago on Bloomberg, which had fewer details but said Google was testing a number of different approaches. As a reminder, the context here is the tension between news organizations and both Google and Facebook over business models, the increasing power of the internet companies, and the challenges of selling online subscriptions and building brands when search and social serve as channels for so much news consumption. As I’ve said before, Facebook began taking this tension seriously some time ago and pouring oil on troubled waters, but it seems to have taken Google longer to come around, and it’s still mostly at the testing stage in its efforts. Putting AI to work in the service of solving the problem is a classic Google move, but it remains to be seen how effective that will actually be. Certainly, the publishers quoted by the FT seem heartened but not yet won over by Google’s new approach.
via Financial Times
BlackBerry and Delphi today announced a partnership which will see the latter use the former’s QNX operating system as a secure foundation for its autonomous driving system. What’s not clear from either the press release the companies issued or the CNBC report linked below is what operating system Delphi’s platform has been built on until this point, because it’s not brand new and the company has been talking about releasing it to car manufacturers in 2019. At any rate, as far as I can tell QNX will join Intel and its Mobileye subsidiary as partners around the system, which focuses mostly on pulling in sensor data and making sense of it, rather than complete control of the car. QNX is already a widely used operating system within the car industry and BlackBerry has spent a lot of time hardening it and demonstrating its ultra-secure credentials since its acquisition several years ago, something that’s likely to become increasingly important as cars become more and more like connected computers. Investors clearly see the partnership as a boon for BlackBerry, whose shares rose quite a bit after hours today, but Delphi is only one of a number of manufacturers building similar systems for smaller car manufacturers, while larger automakers will likely mostly build their own. Further competition in this space will come from companies like Waymo, who will develop their own sensor and sensor fusion technology to go with their autonomous driving software and therefore offer something more like a complete package in time.
Fox and Twitter Partner Around New and Returning Shows (Sep 20, 2017)
Fox Television and Twitter have announced a partnership around new and returning shows, which will see some episodes as well as new content broadcast through Twitter’s live video platform. Empire, one of the most popular shows on broadcast TV, will have a live pre-show featuring interviews and other material broadcast live on Twitter, while another returning show, The Mick, will have a mini-marathon broadcast on Twitter, and new show Ghosted will have its premiere episode broadcast live on Twitter four nights running this week. It’s an interesting attempt to create buzz and additional audiences on Twitter around shows which are currently watched almost entirely through traditional channels and more established streaming services, and will serve as a good experiment for both companies. In a world where much of viewing is moving on-demand, forcing live streaming feels a little contrived, and I’m curious to see how viewers respond to that. The Mick marathon will be shown fairly late in the evening, while Ghosted will debut in an early evening slot on Twitter, presumably to avoid conflicting with Fox’s own primetime lineup, though the Ghosted premiere it precedes the network premiere by a week and a half. We’re going to see lots more of this kind of experimentation over the next little while, and I’m guessing much of it will fall flat, but no doubt some useful concepts will come out of it, and the fan-type shows like the one Fox and Twitter are building around Empire seem the likeliest to take off, both because they’re exclusive to the platform and because other networks have already run these successfully – notably AMC’s Talking Dead.