Amazon Readying Launch of Echo Device with a Screen (Apr 27, 2017)
★ Google Home Now Recognizes Multiple Users by Voice (Apr 20, 2017)
This has been a long time coming – in fact, in just a few weeks it’ll be a year since Google debuted Home at its I/O developer conference and implied that it would have multi-user support, though of course it was missing when the device actually launched in the fall. And that’s been a big limitation of a device that’s supposed to get to know you as an individual. So the fact that Google Home now recognizes distinct users by voice is a big deal, and an important differentiator over Amazon Echo. I’ve just tried it with my unit and although it set up accounts for me and my daughter without problems the app conked out when I tried to add my wife, so the results are mixed (I suspect it may be because my wife’s account is a Google Apps account). It does recognize the two voices we set up and will now serve us up different responses, which is great. One big limitation, though, is that each user has to have a Google account and has to download the Google Home app onto their phone, which means it won’t recognize little kids who don’t have Google accounts. And given that it’s using voice recognition rather than, say, different trigger phrases, I can’t set up separate personal and work accounts. But for those who can use it, the Home will now be a much more useful device, serving up calendar information, music preferences and so on on an individualized basis rather than trying everyone in a home as the same person.
★ 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 actually isn’t news, at least if you paid attention a couple of weeks ago when Business Insider UK reported (and I noted) that Korean would be the launch language for Bixby, and that American English would follow in May, with British English later in the year. However, it appears that Samsung provided a somewhat different steer to US press, telling them that the assistant would be available at launch on April 21st. News of the later US launch is now filtering out through US reps too, however, and will be received as bad news by those who pre-ordered the phone (apparently in large numbers) ahead of reviews and the release of this news. Given that Bixby is at least on paper one of the headline features, at least some of those early buyers will be disappointed, though the screen is another big selling point and that should perform as advertised with the caveats I mentioned in my first comment on the S8 and in the podcast episode I did on the Samsung announcements. Releasing Bixby late is better than releasing a buggy version not ready for launch, but the delay had better not be too long, nor the version it does release too unpolished. Both are risks at this point.
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
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.
What do you do if you have two separate hardware products for the home which are selling modestly but not fantastically and have some common elements? You combine them, of course, and so Google is apparently considering a future device which would bring the features of its Home and WiFi devices together in a single unit. That would lower the combined cost and depending on the price potentially also increase the attractiveness relative to either the standalone Home or WiFi devices as they exist today. Given that a single unit of either item today costs $129, it’s entirely feasible that Google could combine the two in a new unit that would still be price competitive with the Amazon Echo while offering a lot more functionality, so this is an interesting angle. But Google Home’s main challenges continue to be less about price and more about name recognition and distribution – the Echo captured the early interest in this space and quickly became the market, heavily leveraging Amazon’s retail distribution channel, while Google continues to struggle to get adoption for its version. Though this move may help spur sales, I don’t think it’s going to lead to the kind of step change Google needs to be a more meaningful competitor.
via The Information
The Samsung Galaxy S8 voice assistant Bixby can’t recognise British accents – Business Insider (Mar 30, 2017)
This is a great example of something I wrote about on Techpinions this week, which is that here in the US we often assume technologies available to us are ubiquitous globally, but that’s actually rarely the case. In this case, it’s the Bixby assistant / interface that ships with the Samsung Galaxy S8 which not only won’t work in languages other than English and Korean but won’t offer voice services at all in the UK, where of course accents are different. (Another tidbit in this piece is that it won’t actually work in US English until May). Building voice interfaces is tough to begin with, but localizing them for different accents and languages is another massive layer of work, often made harder by the fact that voice recognition technologies are trained on single languages like US English.
via Business Insider
Samsung has somewhat unexpectedly taken the wraps off its virtual assistant Bixby ahead of next week’s Galaxy S8 launch, where I’d expected it to be the main event from a feature perspective. Based on how Samsung is describing the feature, though, I think it’s merely trying to defuse some hype by downplaying expectations of what Bixby will and won’t be. (The hype was fueled in part by Samsung’s acquisition of Viv, which was a more traditional virtual assistant that Samsung acquired last year, but Bixby appears to be something less.) The description from Samsung is somewhat vague, but I think the approach actually has a lot of merit: every other assistant promises to be just that, implying a broad-based ability to meet needs, which inevitably leads to disappointment and frustration when it falls short, over-promising and under-delivering. Samsung looks like it will come at this from the opposite end, starting small and building up functionality over time, app by app, in a way that the voice interface is able to handle everything the touch interface does in the same app. That, incidentally, should be good for accessibility, something Android devices have always done less well than iPhones. But the big limit there as with Bixby overall is that if third party developers don’t support it, it won’t be very useful, and it the S8 ships with the Google Assistant users may just choose to use that instead. I’m very curious to see next week exactly how Bixby is invoked and how it compares to the more traditional assistant model. Samsung doesn’t have a great reputation in software and services, and I’m skeptical that it will get this right.
via The Verge
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 feels like an extremely stupid move for Google. Though Google claims this wasn’t an ad, that’s utterly disingenuous, and inserting ads this early in the Google Home lifecycle (if ever) is a huge mistake – this is just the kind of thing that will put people off buying a Google Home, especially because it fits a narrative of Google only being interested in advertising. This is a hardware product, for which users have paid a decent price, and it shouldn’t be playing ads, especially without an opt-out – there is no indication that users would hear ads in any of the marketing material. I just tried my own Google Home to see if it would play this message, but it didn’t, suggesting that Google may have stopped playing the message. If so, good, but it never should have happened in the first place, unless Google wants to kneecap its own product this early in its competition with Amazon’s Echo.
via The Verge
Amazon puts Alexa inside its main iPhone app – VentureBeat (Mar 16, 2017)
Alexa’s single biggest flaw today is that it’s a shut-in: for the most part, it can’t leave the house. That means competing in a broad-based way with Siri and the Google Assistant requires getting onto smartphones, and now we have Amazon putting Alexa into the Amazon shopping app on iOS. Job done? Well, no. Because just having an app on a phone doesn’t mean people will use it. And if it’s buried inside a shopping app, that’s a steep hill to climb relative to just holding down the home button to summon Siri. On the one hand, I get the logic of putting Alexa in the Amazon app – it’s an app many of the company’s most loyal users already have installed and likely use frequently, but it also means it’s going to be several clicks away. I can see some parents with kids using it to keep them quiet with jokes, but it’s hard to imagine people using an Alexa buried in a shopping app as their main assistant while away from home. Integration within the smartphone and its operating system is the key here, which will be impossible on iOS but more feasible on Android, as we’ve already seen with Huawei and Lenovo’s integration plans.
Amazon makes it cheaper to host Alexa skills on AWS – ZDNet (Mar 16, 2017)
This is clever tie-in by Amazon of two of its valuable assets: its Alexa skills engine and its AWS cloud infrastructure. It’s offering developers of Alexa voice skills a better deal on hosting through AWS as a way to remove the barriers to developing smarter and more sophisticated skills for its Echo devices (and the small number of third party devices using Alexa). Amazon has touted its number of third party skills repeatedly since launching them as a sign of Echo and Alexa’s capability, but the reality is that many of those skills are very basic, and the model is clumsy to use. If it’s able to attract better skills to the platform, those numbers will start to be more meaningful as signifiers of the platform’s capabilities.
Apple’s Siri learns Shanghainese as voice assistants race to cover languages – Reuters (Mar 9, 2017)
One of the things that’s often missed by US writers covering Amazon’s Alexa and its competitors is how limited it still is in language and geographic terms. It only speaks English and German and the Echo range is only available in a handful of countries. Siri, meanwhile, just got its 21st country and 36th language, which reflects a long-time strength of Apple’s: broad global support. Apple News is a notable exception, which is only available in a few countries and one language, but almost all of Apple’s other products are available in a very long list of countries and territories, often longer than for other competing services. The article here is also interesting for the insights it provides into how each company goes about the process of localization, which is quite a bit more involved than you might surmise.
This is a good counterpart to the Time article from last week about Amazon working on voice identification in their respective home speakers. It points out the complications in providing such a feature, not least that heavy processing to make voices clearer will also tend to distort them and therefore make it harder to recognize and distinguish speakers. The article also makes clear, though, that these challenges are far from insurmountable, which leads me to believe that Amazon or Google or both will eventually figure this out. In fact, whichever does figure it out first could have a big advantage, because for a lot of the most useful features (calendar, emails, etc) individual profiles are critical. So much so that Google misleadingly included that exact use case in its I/O launch video last year.
via Fast Company