★ Apple Announces HomePod Home Audio System with Siri (Jun 5, 2017)
Amazon Adds Reminders and Named Timers to Alexa (Jun 2, 2017)
★ Apple Starts Manufacturing Its Siri Speaker (May 31, 2017)
Though the original headline on this piece focuses on the e-commerce aspect, the actual content of the article makes clear that Google has every intention of serving up ads too. Google launched Shopping on Home a while back, so hearing that Google intends to monetize through e-commerce isn’t a huge surprise, but it’s interesting to hear confirmation from Google that this is its main focus, because though this is obviously a strength and a motivator for Amazon in this space, it clearly isn’t Google’s main focus. However, as I said, advertising is clearly a big part of that picture too, and it sounds like ads will mostly be served up as they are in other Google search products: alongside organic results when people are looking for something specific. The big question, then, is how that’s done – the first screen of classic Google search results has now been taken over by ads, something that only takes a scroll to get past, but that same experience on a voice device that majors on providing a single answer won’t fly. Linear interfaces like voice assistants can’t take up users’ time with ads before they get to the organic results. So despite these comments, there’s still lots we don’t know about how Google is going to make additional money from Home. And then there’s the point I made previously about the fact that charging real money for a device like this breaks the usual implied contract of free services coming with ads – users won’t have the same expectation of an ad-supported business model on a device like Home that they do with a free online service.
★ Google Makes Assistant and Home Announcements at I/O (May 17, 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.
The Verge has been talking about a future Windows feature called HomeHub since December, but this week has some images that are designed to show how HomeHub will work in practice, and it’s likely we’ll see this revealed officially at Build this week. HomeHub is a somewhat family-centric virtual assistant for Windows 10, which will combine Cortana voice features and more visual features on a sort of always-on home screen. It looks like Microsoft sees this feature both as something that PCs will offer and as something that will be available on dedicated devices. The Verge is that it suggests Microsoft sees all these devices being effectively full Windows 10 PCs, which feels like a huge mistake given how streamlined these devices can and should be. Even though Microsoft has evolved in its culture and strategy in very positive ways over recent years, things like this make you realize how tied to its past strategy of putting Windows everywhere it still is. At the very least, this ought to be running the more streamlined Windows 10 S it announced last week. But I’m all for tech which helps families stay organized – something I’ve argued more tech companies need to be working on. Given the launch of Echo Show this morning, Microsoft will have a concrete competing example of the same concept to go up against, which will likely raise the bar for whatever it announces. It’s also possible we’ll have Apple’s version of this to look at by the time the next version of Windows ships in the fall, further raising the stakes.
via The Verge
Back in December, Microsoft announced its equivalent of Amazon’s Alexa platform for third parties in the form of its Cortana Skills Kit and Cortana Devices SDK. A week later, Harman Kardon announced its was working on a speaker that would feature Cortana, and said it would launch in 2017. Five months later, the two companies have provided a name (Invoke), pictures, and some capabilities for the device, but there’s still no specific launch date (beyond “Fall 2017”) or pricing. On paper, the Invoke looks a lot like Echo in both its design and its capabilities (it even has an Echo-like 7-mic array), and the main difference is that it will do Skype voice calls, which is something that’s been rumored for both Echo and Google Home but isn’t yet supported by either. One advantage Harman would have over Amazon or Google in this space is that it’s a speaker maker, so it may well have better audio quality in its version than those companies have in theirs, something that’s been a shortcoming in this category so far. And of course, it’s interesting given Samsung’s ownership of Harman Kardon that this speaker is running neither of the assistants Samsung itself supports – its own new Bixby assistant or the Google Assistant – though this partnership obviously began before the Samsung acquisition closed. Pricing is an interesting question: whereas Google and Amazon both have broader ecosystems which benefit from such a device and therefore justify subsidizing or selling it at cost, Harman obviously needs to make money on it, so it may end up being priced higher (as Apple’s version likely will be too). Lastly, we might see other ecosystem devices using Cortana announced at Microsoft’s Build developer conference this week.
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.
★ Apple Siri Speaker Could Debut at WWDC in June (May 1, 2017)
KGI, which as I’ve noted before has a decent track record on future Apple products, says there’s a 50/50 chance that Apple’s entry in the connected home speaker market could debut at WWDC next month. There’s scant detail in the report other than that Apple’s speaker will have better audio hardware than the Echo, which has been criticized as being sub-par as a speaker despite its effectiveness as a voice-activated assistant device. I would certainly expect such a device to combine Siri, AirPlay, HomeKit device control, and possibly some kind of WiFi connectivity, but it’s very unlikely Apple could do all that well and still make its usual margin at the $130-180 price point that the full Echo and Home devices sell for. It’s more likely this would be sold in the range of the larger Sonos speakers (which Apple has been selling in its stores for the last little while), which would mean $300-500. That puts it in a different category from what’s out there today, which wouldn’t be unusual for Apple but would put it well out of impulse buy territory for most people and limit sales quite a bit. One big question is whether Siri is yet good enough for such a speaker, and what upgrades Apple might have in store for Siri at WWDC this year to help it get there. As I’ve suggested in the past, Siri’s shortcomings are at least in part hardware-based: more often than not, the problem is wrongly interpreting what’s said because of the tiny mics being used for voice recognition, and a big device should help a great deal with that. But Siri can also be frustrating even when it does understand what you say, and its more conversational elements are still pretty limited, which could be a big shortcoming on a device without an alternative input mechanism. I’m sure Apple will have some other special sauce in mind so this isn’t just another Echo or Home but something a bit different. But there’s a good chance this ends up being yet another new product category for Apple which sells a few million a year and which critics therefore contend is a flop, while it quietly generates a decent amount of revenue and profit for Apple (see also the Apple Watch and AirPods).
Amazon Readying Launch of Echo Device with a Screen (Apr 27, 2017)
This shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody – Google actually showed off what appeared to be multi-user support in its demo of Google Home at I/O last year, but then it turned out the finished product didn’t support it when released in the fall. A little while back, rumors began surfacing that it would add the feature soon (and Amazon too), but that hasn’t materialized yet. The screenshot shared here suggests it’s imminent at this point. This is important, because assistants have to be personal if they’re to be really useful, and most people live in homes with other people, whether family members or roommates, and so things like calendar, email, to-do lists aren’t much use to individuals unless they can be recognized and served up different results. That’s not easy to do, especially because these speakers tend to process voices before recognition takes place, which actually makes it harder to recognize the speaker, but the companies were bound to figure it out eventually. If Google does end up launching this before Amazon, this will be yet another performance advantage, even though its distribution disadvantage remains enormous.
via The Next Web
LG lures G6 shoppers with a free Google Home – Engadget (Mar 16, 2017)
The LG G6 is one of the first Android phones which will launch with the Google Assistant onboard, so there’s a logic to tying in the Google Home device as an add-on, though this is still a first for Google, which didn’t even bundle the Home with Pixel sales (it did bundle the Daydream View VR device with early sales, however). Promoting the Google Home as a good companion to other Android phones beyond the Pixel is important – both the installed base and future sales of those phones are going to be massively larger than the Pixel, and so most sales will go to these owners (or iPhone owners). This obviously echoes what a number of smartphone vendors have done in the past with other accessories, though usually ones more directly tied to smartphones, like smartwatches.
This product isn’t a huge surprise, and in fact it seems that a lot of Sonos fans (and observers) are actually disappointed in it. To me, it feels like this is the last product from the old strategy at Sonos before it begins embracing voice control and other features it’s been talking about in recent months. It’s a logical counterpart to the Playbar that Sonos already makes for wall-mounted TVs, and is basically the same product in a different shape, to sit under a TV on a stand instead. Sonos is in an interesting and challenging period at the moment where it’s talking about the future but very much still delivering products from the present (and even past). It’s going to have to move fast to avoid being left behind by a whole set of connected and smart speakers from competitors – I suspect there are growing numbers of people who will sacrifice a little audio quality for a whole home audio system they can control with their voices.
Two Sonos Updates – The Verge / Variety (Jan 20, 2017)
Sonos recently got a new CEO, and he’s been communicating with both staff and reporters. The Verge has a mostly intact copy of his internal email to staff, while Variety has an interview with the main himself. The letter to staff is less revealing, though it suggests some broad strokes of the company’s strategy, while the Variety interview adds more unique insight, such as Sonos’s plans to incorporate Amazon’s Alexa into its speakers, a possible IPO, and plans for more of a retail presence. Sonos is in a fascinating space – it was arguably the big standalone home speaker player before Amazon came along with the Echo, and still has the advantage when it comes to whole home audio. But Echo and Google Home offer a big feature Sonos doesn’t, and I think Spence is smart to plan to incorporate both Alexa and potentially other voice assistants. Sonos would still make a fascinating buy for Apple, which already has its products in most of its stores, but both the Echo/Home and Sonos markets could be threatened by an organic entry by Apple into this combined market too.