Picking the Better of Two Bad Things

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 2 min read

Joe Cieplinski on why he doesn’t care if Siri is behind Alexa:

We reached the “good” threshold for speakers decades ago. The subcategory of affordable bookshelf speakers got there sometime in the past few years.

But we’re nowhere near “good” yet when it comes to digital assistants.

While I disagree, his argument is well made. I do have some skepticism about his “Bezos charts” on how good sound quality and the assistants are on these things. First off, since these are different for everyone, this is also a valid chart:

This chart is adjusted to express how important certain features are to someone else. This made up person is someone who thinks any speaker over $50 sounds great (there are millions of these people) and who get more benefit from the smart features in a speaker. They don’t need their assistant to book a flight for them or make a dinner reservation for it to be good. They do need an assistant who can do all the smart features assistants have today. And in this case, they care more about these features that a speaker that sounds great.

I should also note that this comparison falls apart when you look at other smart speakers on the market (AKA basically all new wireless speakers in 2018). Let’s look at the same made up chart for a high end speaker with Alexa built in:

Alexa is exactly the same on any device, so that chart stays the way it is, but the audio quality gap gets much smaller. So at this point, the differentiator is indeed the smart speaker stuff. Even if we don’t think the smart features are “good enough” yet, if they’re important to you, then this gap matters.

As a final note, the implication that these voice assistants are yet to break out of the nerdy tech subculture is absurd. No, they’re not as big as smartphones, but Amazon sold 10’s of millions of Echos1 and Google sold 6 million Homes over the holidays. Meanwhile, Google says 20-25% of mobile searches are via voice and as of 1 years ago, Siri was getting 2 billion voice commands per week.

  1. Echos were the top selling item on Amazon over the holiday season. It’s literally the most popular thing they sold.