Analysis Huawei’s upcoming launch of a smartphone incorporating Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant will mark a new phase in one of the most important battles for the modern internet experience.
Voice-activated assistants - which use powerful AI engines to deliver detailed, context-aware and personalized answers to users’ questions – are the way in which web giants hope to place themselves at the heart of a user’s whole range of activities, whether they are in their smart home, connected car, at work or on the phone.
Apple Siri kicked off the race, though the company seems to have lost its early momentum in voice interfaces – rapidly taking over from touch/text for many uses. Google Now and Microsoft Cortana added new levels of AI to the digital assistant category, but then Amazon launched its Fire Phone, whose defining technology was the retailer’s own AI-driven assistant, Alexa.
However, the Fire Phone flopped, and it seemed Alexa might have died with it, until the technology reappeared in Amazon’s Echo home hub, which has unexpectedly seized the initiative back from its rivals, leaving Apple and Google to announce hasty moves into the home hub market last year.
Alexa might have given Amazon a boost in controlling the user’s home experience, from content and music choices to housekeeping, but the company was still woefully behind in the mobile space, which is vital if consumers are to interact with cloud and web services in a uniform way, wherever they go. So pushing Alexa into smartphones – third party ones, not Amazon’s own this time – is vital, as is an in-car system.
In the car, its initial partner is Ford, which will integrate Alexa into its vehicles from this summer, allowing drivers to start their cars using their Amazon Echo, play Kindle audio books and order items on Amazon while travelling – as well as more generic search and navigation functions. Ford is working on adding Alexa home-to-car integration for vehicles with Sync Connect in the future. Steve Rabuchin, vice president for Amazon Alexa said: “We believe voice is the future, and this is particularly true in cars.”
Mobile has greater challenges for Amazon than home or car
The mobile market is more challenging because the incumbents are so strong. But if Amazon can get big handset makers behind Alexa, it will not matter that its own smartphone did not succeed. After all, while it did turn the ereader into a mainstream category with the Kindle, and upend assumptions about tablet pricing with Kindle Fire, the majority of spending on Kindle content happens via the app running on non-Amazon devices. Its goal is to drive ever-greater content consumption, shopping and other spending through its friendly and addictive interfaces and stores. That means tying as many customer activities as possible into those interfaces, with the Prime subscription system being its chief weapon.
Huawei is certainly a smartphone big-hitter these days, so Amazon has scored a coup by persuading the Chinese firm to début Alexa on the Mate 9 next month (initially for US markets only – Amazon’s habitual slowness in bringing new services outside its home country remains a point of weakness in comparison with Google and others).
But with Google Now available on most Android devices (including Mate 9), and Siri still considered a differentiator for the iPhone, Alexa will have to offer considerable ad-vantages if it is to draw users away from the more established assistants, or lure assistant virgins, and so repeat its success in the home. This will be a tough challenge – Amazon’s apps and stores are heavily used on mobile devices, but it is not part of the mobile establishment as Apple and Google are. The smart home is a far less developed market, where competitive lines are still fluid, and Prime and Amazon TV make the retail giant a fixture in many households.
Alexa will build out from base of home apps
To increase its chances on the handset, Amazon is taking a big leaf out of Google’s and Apple’s smartphone books, promising an app store stuffed with services, many of them free, which can be controlled via Alexa’s voice interface. Anyone with Alexa-based hardware – the Echo, Echo Dot or Tap, the upcoming Mate 9, or compliant smart household appliances or lights – can choose from the 7,000 apps and services which can be triggered by a voice command.
Partners include ecobee, Nest, Honeywell, Philips Hue, SmartThings, Insteon, Wink, Wemo, Caseta, LIFX, Haiku, TP-Link, Schlage, Leviton – the list goes on, and it is a very expansive list for consumers to exploit. Late last year, Amazon announced that it was integrating Alexa and Echo with both Control4 and LG’s SmartThinQ platforms.
This will have to counteract some of the limitations of the Huawei deal. While Google Now and Voice Search will be built into the Mate 9, users will still have to download an app to use Alexa, creating a barrier to adoption, especially for users who do not have Alexa and Echo at home. Nor will the Mate 9 have the enhanced listening technology which makes the Echo highly sensitive to its owner’s voice.
However, for those with Alexa in the living room, it will be attractive to be able to use the same technology on mobile devices too, and of course to control the home appliances remotely via the handset. As with Kindle, Amazon’s own hardware will provide an optimised user experience for its services, and probably drive higher levels of usage; but the app version will allow people to use Alexa without having to buy new devices.
Remote control of the smart home is Amazon’s big boast for mobile Alexa. As befits a company which failed in smartphones but has been a big hit in living rooms, it is centring its digital assistant assault on the home, looking to build out the end-to-end experience from there.
Most of its advantages over its rivals concern home systems. Far more devices, such as Philips Hue lighting, work with Alexa than with Google or Siri and this is driving the kind of apps ecosystem which Google and Apple drove in their early smartphone days. Amazon was smart to open up Alexa to third party developers at an early stage and will now be aiming to become the ‘Google Play’ of smart home apps, and more importantly, of the web services of the future, voice-activated and AI-enabled.
Alexa as the open consumer AI platform
Essentially, Alexa is being positioned as the more open AI platform. Apple retains an iron grip over Siri, which is only available on its own hardware, with integrations through iOS APIs. Microsoft’s Cortana is in a pretty similar position, but tied to the Windows 10 OS rather than specific products. Android’s Google Now would appear to provide an open alter-native, but developers are then tied to the Android platform and the associated Google licensing terms that come with it. The core components of Android are open source (AOSP), but the Google Mobile Services apps that form the core value offering in the smartphone arena come with a bundled licence, which means the developer can only include one Google app if the rest are also supported as standard on the device.
That gives Amazon an opportunity to push Alexa as an AI platform for Android without the Google bloatware. It has expanded its Alexa Voice Services (AVS) developer tools, which were launched towards the end of 2015. The update means that developers have access to a number of new features, which include the ability to use Alexa to adjust play-back volume, media controls, and set alarms.
The core function of AVS is to allow those third parties to build hardware that houses the Alexa interface – allowing the device to act as the gateway to Amazon’s cloud and monetization strategy. Amazon also announced the $100m Alexa Fund available to businesses looking to incorporate Alexa into their designs. Early investments have included Petnet (automatic feeder for pets, voice queries), Musaic (smart HiFi system for whole-home audio, aiming for voice control), and Mojio (connected car adapter for smartphone telematics).
As a result of this open approach, there are far more remote control capabilities in Alexa than the rival systems offer, especially for users which do not also have Google Home or Apple TV. For instance, Siri can only control HomeKit devices remotely if the user also has Apple TV, and Android handsets can only control the Google-owned Nest thermostats.)
The Alexa handset also allows users to use their voice for several functions which are not generally available on Android and iOS – for instance, to call an Uber or Lyft ride to their specific location; to stream songs from Spotify or Pandora, which is only possible with Android on Google’s Pixel and if the user also has Google Home; to vocally launch IFTTT scenarios; to order from Amazon stores; and to launch new skills, such as Twitter, with a voice command and without opening an app first. Alexa will also read Audible audiobooks, news headlines or weather reports on request.
Amazon entered the market "completely sideways" by bringing Alexa to a whole range of connected products, says Tuong Nguyen, principal research analyst at Gartner. Instead of making the smartphone into a mobile hub to manage all tasks, Amazon takes “universal behaviour” and enables it in different products, according to Nguyen, using natural conversational interaction.
Gaps in Amazon’s armoury
There are missing elements though -there is no GPS, so Alexa has to be told the user’s lo-cation rather than knowing it; and it cannot set a timer or alarm, though Huawei says this will come in future. Licensing issues also prevent the system being used to play Amazon Prime Music or TuneIn Radio (these issues are also being worked on).
And once the user wants to control all their devices and home applications wherever they are, the smartphone remains the most natural way to do that, and Amazon’s disadvantage in handsets starts to glare again. Amazon’s strengths lie in the way it has surged ahead in the voice-activated smart home and in an open AI apps platform, but its weaknesses lie in the fact that it remains a laggard in the smartphone world. The fact that Alexa is not tied into phone services is the most serious example. That means that, unlike Siri and Now, it does not know where it is, with no GPS integration, and it is not always-on.
Jan Dawson, founder of Jackdaw Research, told NetworkWorld: "The challenge for Amazon in circumventing the operating systems is that it's basically impossible to supplant Siri as the default assistant on iOS, and it will be hard to gain much traction on Android devices too. So although Alexa can be an assistant on smartphones, it's unlikely to be the assistant on the vast majority of those devices. And an assistant is only really useful over the long term if you can use it everywhere.”
These issues need to be addressed, and of course more smartphones signed up, preferably with Alexa inbuilt – a Samsung flagship would be a good boost, though an iPhone Alexa app is likely to prove a step too far. And Amazon certainly needs to accelerate the extension of Alexa to other markets besides the US, as developer ecosystems go increasingly global.
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