A Few Strong Smart Speaker Opinions

One: Amazon got this whole “voice in a can” revolution going, and they deserve tons of credit for figuring that out. When the original Echo was announced, we all thought it was going to flop. Instead, it has heralded a wave of innovation (and $$$) in this new category. This extends to making “flash briefing” style podcasts more popular, as people are now into daily podcasts in a way they never were before the Echo hit the scene.

Two: Amazon’s hardware chops aren’t enough to keep up with the other players entering this market. In terms of looks and build quality, Amazon’s devices are worse than what Apple and Google are making. From the Dot to the Show, the Echo lineup sounds and looks worse than the products Google and Apple are making right now. Look at the new Lenovo Smart Display and tell me that isn’t worlds better than the Echo Show.

Three: As the innovator in the market, Amazon was able to get by on mediocre design, but as more players enter the playing field, they are losing ground. This will hurt them in selling to average folks.

Four: Nobody wants to install Skills. First, the vast majority of Skills on the Echo platform are straight up garbage. Even browsing the main Skills page with featured content reveals little in the way of exciting things to do. So finding good content is hard, and even when you do get a skill that you want, it is not a good user experience needing to “install” it to your Alexa manually. Compared to Google Home, where everything the service does is built in, with only smart home platforms really needing to be linked to your Google account. Meanwhile, Siri requires you to have apps installed on your iPhone to use their abilities, but you probably already have those apps, so it feels like zero work.

Five: I don’t think the Echo has any real differentiating features. Google does a much better job at answering trivia style questions, while its conversation, multi-part request handling, better voice detection, and it’s direct integration to all of Google’s own properties (things you’re much more likely to be using than Amazon’s stuff) makes everything more useful to more people. Meanwhile, HomePod is better for Apple Music customers and differentiates on sound quality in general. Outside of playing Jeopardy, I can’t think of a single thing I think the Echo is best in class at doing. It beats the HomePod in some things, but I don’t really see how it beats Google at any single category.

I got into the smart speaker game with an Amazon Echo Dot, and I now have that same Dot, as well as 2 HomePods and 3 Google Homes in my house. I’m totally sold on this voice assistant future, but I think Amazon is in danger of losing the market they created. Smart speaker shipments are growing fast, and the industry grew almost 4x from Q1 2017 to Q1 2018. Amazon sold 2x as many devices over that time, but their share of the market was cut in half, mostly eaten up by Google. We should have some more estimates on sales numbers soon, and I would expect that same trend to continue.

Tough impressions of the Amazon Echo from regular people

I really like my Amazon Echo, and I think that voice assistants are a big part of the next wave of computing, but that does not seem to be as universal a feeling as one might gather just by reading tech blogs. I like my Echo because it can answer some simple questions and give me some basic information whenever I want it. As the Echo (and Google Home like it) is still pretty new, niche tech at the moment, I’m always interested to hear what non tech-nerds think about this.

Last week it was announced that Amazon was buying Whole Foods, and I was wondering to myself how many retail locations Whole Foods, and now Amazon, has. I asked Alexa, and before it could even get an answer out, my wife commented:

Why do you even bother? It doesn’t know anything.

Now we have own an Echo since November 2016, so we have some experience with this device, but the fact that her default expectation when asking Alexa a question is that she will not know the answer is not a great look for the Echo. Again, this is something we’ve had for months, and we both use everyday.

When I pushed my wife for clarification she said that Alexa is good for really basic things like “turn on the lights” and “set a 45 minute timer”, but she’s not “smart” by any means. She’d rather ask Siri the question or type the question into Google because both will at least have a chance of getting the right answer.

Next up was my dad. He’s a techy guy, and tends to be an early adopter of new tech and has talked to me about getting some smart lights and switches for the house so he can better set up timers for when he and my mom are out of town. His birthday is coming up and I was considering the idea of getting him an Echo or Home as a gift. We visited him for Father’s Day this weekend and I innocently asked him what he thought about the Echo.

He told me there was no way in hell he was going to put one of those in his house. “A speaker that’s recoding me all the time??? I don’t think so!”

I asked if Amazon’s promise that they were only recording you when you say the trigger word and he said that doesn’t really fill him with confidence. He doesn’t trust Amazon, and he doesn’t trust Google to keep his privacy. He brought up the case when law enforcement was trying to get audio logs from someone’s Echo, and the recent instance of tons of NSA hacking tools leaking online. Even if Amazon isn’t using the Echo to spy on me, how can I know that someone can’t use one of these hacking tools to start recording everyone’s Echo.”

I couldn’t argue with him too much, as the Echo probably is one of the least secure computers in my house, but I was still surprised by his response to even the idea of an Echo in his house.

Out of curiosity I asked him if he was more interested in Apple’s upcoming HomePod that also has a microphone in it. He said he was, in large part because it was made by Apple, and Apple at least cares a little about his privacy.

I don’t know how illustrative of the wider impression of these voice assistant cylinders in the world, but it was interesting to hear 2 people who are very much into tech say the Echo:

  1. Is too stupid to be trusted to do much more than set timers and give the weather
  2. Is an insecure device that could be used to spy on anyone with the flip of a switch.