June 15, 2017
At Intentional Futures we recently conducted several Intentional Learning sessions on the Intelligent Assistant market. So, as the developer conference season ends with WWDC and Apple’s announcement of the HomePod, we thought it was a good time to reflect on all that’s happened over the last few months in this incredibly fast-moving market.
To recap, here’s a rundown of the major announcements:
- February 26 – Google announced that Google Assistant will be available on Android devices running Nougat or Marshmallow
- March 16 – Amazon brought Alexa to their iOS shopping app
- April 6 – Facebook released its M Assistant to the public
- April 26 – Amazon announced the Echo Look
- April 27 – Google Assistant SDK launched
- May 8 – Harman Kardon announced the Cortana-powered Invoke intelligent speaker
- May 9 – Amazon announced the Echo Show: an Echo with a screen
- May 10 – Microsoft announced the Cortana Skills Kit public preview
- June 5 – Apple announces the HomePod, a Siri-powered smart speaker
In our opinion, the most significant announcement was the Echo Show. At first blush the widely rumored Echo Show might look like a simple extension of the Echo lineup. But we think it has the potential to be a game changer that will allow Alexa to move from a niche platform into major computing platform–one that could compete with the likes of Windows, iOS and Android.
Alexa has been a huge initial success, establishing a beachhead in the burgeoning smart home market. Amazon has also nurtured a robust third-party ecosystem around Alexa and there are now more than 14,000 Alexa Skills. But Alexa does have a couple weaknesses: the Echo install base – estimated by Business Insider to be ~9 million – is tiny compared with the global smartphone market (2016 smartphone shipments were estimated at 1.4 billion in 2016), and most Skills aren’t used. Earlier this year VoiceLabs released a report showing that only 31% of Alexa Skills had more than one review.
We think this is because, until AI gets a lot better, the voice user interface is limiting. Even the Echo shopping experience – one that Amazon is uniquely qualified to deliver – is cumbersome. When you ask Alexa to order something you must wait as she recites lengthy product descriptions, and then tell her if you’d like to buy it before she moves on to the next option. And while the reorder experience is less of a hassle, it’s far from perfect. The shopping experience is so painful that many of us resort to adding things to our shopping lists and complete the purchase using the screen on our computers or phones.
By adding the familiar touchscreen interface to her voice capabilities the Echo Show breaks Alexa out of her call-and-response interface, making her easier to use (multi-modal product design is a topic we’ll explore in another blog post). A few key scenarios get a big upgrade:
- Shopping: order a product, compare options, and buy the item you want on one device
- Cooking: call up recipes, see cooking steps, and make hands-free progress
- Calendar: get a visual glimpse of a day or week’s calendar, rather than hearing appointments recited one by one.
Developers get more berth to improve existing Skills and add a host of new ones. When it launches later this month, Echo Show customers will be able to use the full catalog of Alexa Skills, watch YouTube and Amazon Instant Videos, and make video and voice calls. And we’re excited to see what other apps and experiences are built for the device.
The potential for new, better and more useful Skills is what makes the Echo Show so interesting and is why we think it has so much promise. Don’t think of it as an extension of the Echo lineup but as a computer that uses voice and touch instead of a keyboard and mouse. At $229, it’s also cheap enough to compete with low end PCs and even Chromebooks. And since it’s made by Amazon, it wouldn’t surprise us to see the price drop over time (the company already sells a 7” Fire tablet for only $49.99). Given all of that, it’s not hard to imagine these devices eating into the declining PC market and the stagnant tablet market. We think that within a few years there will be tens of millions of Echo devices in homes, driving more developer interest and more value for the user. Once that flywheel gets going it’s easy to see Alexa as the dominant platform for the home.
We’ll be keeping our eye on new intelligent assistant products from Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Apple in the months to come. Advances here represent a big step forward in a race where there is not yet a clear winner.