Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Samsung are all chasing voice-based artificial intelligence with smart digital assistants that you talk to. It’s a future we’ve been promised for years: a computer you can talk to at home, and now the competition to make it a reality is really heating up. While Alexa, Cortana, Bixby, Google Assistant, and Siri all offer unique advantages for their associated platforms, they all need to keep learning to improve. That learning is powered by more users, more cameras and microphones, and by these digital assistants being in more places by being on every device you own. Amazon proved this week that it’s way ahead of Google in the race to be the computer for your home.
Amazon invited the world’s media to its headquarters in Seattle this week, and kept its event secret until just hours before the company unloaded six new hardware products. There’s the smaller $99 Echo, the larger Echo Plus with smart hub, and an Echo Spot alarm clock for your bedside table. Amazon even launched a $70 Fire TV with 4K and HDR support, some cute Echo Buttons to play trivia games on an Echo, and a device to let Echo’s make calls. It was a lot of hardware, and a lot of surprise.
All of these new devices build on Amazon’s big win of getting the hardware and software scenario just right for Alexa. Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Samsung made the mistake of focusing on phones or PCs for voice assistants, instead of a shared household device like Alexa. The competition is slowly catching up with devices of their own, but Amazon is marching towards the reality of Tony Stark’s Jarvis or Star Trek’s LCARS.
The most intriguing products that help Amazon with its Alexa smart home vision are the Echo Plus and Echo Spot. While the Echo has always supported smart devices, Amazon is going one step further with the Echo Plus. It doubles as a smart hub with Zigbee support, meaning it can directly setup and control connected home gadgets and appliances without any apps or skills. Alexa wasn’t really considered a full smart home platform before, but with this new support it’s moving from being a connected speaker to taking on Samsung’s SmartThings, Google’s Nest, and Apple’s HomeKit.
The diminutive Echo Spot is yet another way to get Alexa in every room of your house. It’s a cross between the Echo Dot and Echo Show, with a 2.5-inch screen and the ability to make video calls. It’s relatively cheap at $130 and looks like a cute smart alarm clock. The Echo Spot also has built-in speakers, and supports multi-room audio. It’s easy to imagine this becoming one of the most popular Alexa-enabled devices yet.
All of these new Echo devices compliment the Echo Look and Echo Show, and gives Amazon the most diverse set of voice-powered smart home hardware products available. It also has hundreds of partners that are building hardware that supports Alexa. Amazon wants Alexa in every room of the house, and its own hardware pricing will certainly help. The $70 Fire TV with 4K and HDR support makes the new 4K Apple TV look massively overpriced at $179, and the new $99 Echo undercuts Google’s $130 price for its Home product. Google still doesn’t offer a cheaper Dot-like device, either. Amazon is just missing a dedicated security camera for its complete smart home offering, but there are rumors the company is planning to launch one soon.
If you step outside the home, there’s a lot more to Amazon’s Alexa strategy that is starting to take shape. Amazon is reportedly working on Alexa-powered smart glasses that will let you access the digital assistant from anywhere. The Financial Times previously reported that the the device will look like a regular pair of glasses and use bone-conduction technology so that the user can hear Alexa without the need for earphones or conventional speakers. Amazon didn’t reveal its glasses this week, but it dropped some more hints that Alexa is moving beyond the living room.
Amazon is integrating Alexa into BMWs and select Mini automobi starting in mid-2018. Drivers will be able to use voice commands to use basic Alexa queries like asking for news and weather, or tapping into third-party apps like Starbucks. Alexa will also be integrated into Ford cars, offering an alternative to Apple’s CarPlay or Google’s Android Auto. Amazon will also face competition from Microsoft’s Cortana for cars, as the software giant is also working with BMW and Nissan.
This competition will be an inevitable hurdle for Amazon moving forward. Without a successful mobile platform, Alexa will never truly be everywhere (even with glasses). Amazon is trying to counter this with Alexa built into its music and shopping apps, but it will need third-party support to really push its platform ahead of Google Assistant and Siri.
Google and Apple can also catch up with similar Echo-like hardware, but Amazon will need to form deals and partnerships to ensure it stays ahead elsewhere. There are signs the company is willing to do exactly that. Instead of fighting its Microsoft competition, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos reached out to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to form a partnership last month. Amazon and Microsoft are partnering to better integrate their Alexa and Cortana digital assistants. Alexa users will be able to access Cortana, and vice versa on a range of devices. While the integration will be a little awkward at first, it paves the way for digital assistants to talk to each other across platforms.
It’s an unusual partnership, and it’s one that won’t likely be replicated with Apple and Google. Amazon pulled both the Apple TV and Google’s Chromecast from its store back in 2015 because neither streaming device offered a Prime Video app at the time. While the Apple TV appears to be returning thanks to a new Prime Video app, Google’s Chromecast is still absent.
Google also blocked access to YouTube from Amazon’s Echo Show this week, just days before Amazon’s big event. Suspicious timing aside, Google says “Amazon’s implementation of YouTube on the Echo Show violates our terms of service, creating a broken user experience.” Amazon claims Google won’t tell the company why it has pulled YouTube from the Echo Show, so it’s down to a war of words. Google and Microsoft went through a similar battle over a YouTube Windows Phone app, and Microsoft eventually had to back down and scrap its app altogether.
It’s too early to say how the Amazon and Google fight will end, but both companies are vying for control of the smart home. Google has its hold over online search, YouTube, Google Photos, and Android as leverage; and Amazon has its dominance with online retail and Prime Video. It’s gonna be messy. Apple is showing interest with HomeKit and HomePod, and Samsung is just getting started with Bixby. Amazon wants Alexa everywhere, just like Microsoft wanted Windows everywhere, but it’s not going to get there without some battles along the way. The war is now well and truly on, and Amazon is clearly winning.