Thursday, January 4, 2018

Alexa Everywhere

M.G. Siegler:

Look, I think Apple positioning the HomePod around music is smart — at least at first. Such a device strengthens and expands the Apple Music ecosystem, while giving Apple an avenue to focus on what they do best: creating high-end hardware sold at a premium.

But I think Amazon — and to a lesser extent Google — has not only established a market ahead of Apple’s entry, but has done so in such a way that will make the HomePod sound a bit out of touch upon launch. Again, I know this is a risky prediction to make. But per above, I also know that Amazon is the number one seller of speakers in the world right now. And they’re doing this not by focusing on quality, as Apple will, but by focusing on making their digital assistant, Alexa, ubiquitous.

Update (2018-01-15): Matt Birchler:

I didn’t understand how a voice assistant could possibly be more convenient by being somewhere stationary in my home, rather than in my pocket or on my wrist.

I’m here to say I was a fool.

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I think the big difference is that Amazon sees their device primarily about buying items - particularly kitchen or laundry items - from Amazon. Google has tried to copy Amazon there somewhat. Apple with no ties to ecommerce, has a harder time doing that. As such they have to play to their strengths. Now we can debate how well they've done that. (I think they've definitely fallen down and let people pass them on things like searching lyrics by Siri) However Apple simply was never going to do an Echo like device because it makes no sense in the Apple ecosphere.

There's no doubt Apple has really fallen down on intelligent assistants after having the lead. However this is a long game and I'm not sure people who primarily have Macs or iPhones can't easily switch to Siri if Siri becomes more useful. Further while Amazon's approach is stronger in the short term, in the long term it will have to break compatibility to catch up with what Google or Apple will do with a more general approach to problems.

> However Apple simply was never going to do an Echo like device because it makes no sense in the Apple ecosphere.

And this is why I would not be at all surprised if, despite effectively founding the digital assistant market with Siri, they find themselves irrelevant to it in the long term.

It seems to me like Apple is still obsessed with this "our way or the highway" Jobsian mindset, but they don't have anyone with Jobs' level of discernment anymore and as a result their inability to interconnect their devices with the broader world is ultimately hurting them. To everyone I know, Siri is at best a punchline to a bad joke these days. But a good 1/2-3/4 of the families I know (including my own) have an Echo in their homes that gets daily use. Similarly, 5-10 years ago 4 out of 5 of my digital entertainment devices were made by Apple (iMac, MacBook, iPhone, Apple TV; and the outlier Xbox). Now? One of them (iMac, which I only use for work; iPhone => Android, MacBook => Windows laptop, Apple TV + Xbox => PS4).

Don't get me wrong, I think there's plenty of problems with the Echo; but when I picked it up on a whim because it was ridiculously cheap on sale to try out the voice controlled timers and music, I didn't remotely anticipate how useful it would end up being. Contrast with something like the HomePod, which even if I wanted the svelte hardware I couldn't use because I got away from Apple's Music services years ago (their crummy implementation and buggy support drove me straight over to Amazon Music, which while occasionally frustrating at least works everywhere I want to play music).

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