Alexa is starting to turn into a genuinely helpful assistant

Amazon has unveiled a host of new features and skills for its Alexa virtual assistant, edging the living room closer to the intelligent dream we’ve all been promised.

While you cannot argue with the gimmicky entertainment brought by virtual assistants, you have to wonder whether it is anything more than five minutes of entertainment or making our lives easier in the very smallest (and often irrelevant) of ways. The new features and skills released by Amazon are starting to add some clarity to the smart home as we all imagine it from watching too many re-runs of Back to the Future 2.

“The Alexa service is always getting smarter, whether you’re using the Echo you bought three years ago or an Echo Show you buy tomorrow,” said said Tom Taylor, Senior VP of Amazon Alexa. “We have thousands of engineers and scientists inventing on behalf of customers, and today we’re excited to introduce even more features to help make customers’ lives simpler, safer, and more convenient.

“Soon customers will be able to manage their email, easily secure their home, watch the shows they love on Echo Show, and make their daily routines more productive – all just by asking Alexa.”

Right now virtual assistants are very limited in the way they work. This is partly due to customers not utilising the capabilities to full potential, though the breadth of features and skills does need to be fleshed out. It might be cruel to point the finger at Amazon, it is still early days after all, but with the big promises made in advertisements, the virtual assistants are a bit drab. That said, some of the new features do look pretty good. The difference is underlying interaction with other applications and features.

Take the new location based reminders. It’s a simple idea, but linking reminders up with GPS adds value. How many times have you walked home from the tube station, only to realise you forgot to buy peas when you are half-way through cooking your dinner. Now you can ask Alexa to remind you to pick up peas, post a letter, drop off the dry cleaning or buying a last minute birthday present, when you’re passing by the relevant establishment.

The routines is another area which been improved as well. This is an interesting feature which can be adapted to each individual. The morning playlist might depend on the day for instance, or lights are triggered depending on motion and your routine. Both of these examples take the virtual assistant away from the simple command-action scenario and factor in other variables which are not dependent on proactive actions from the user. It is actually starting to become smart.

Later in the year you’ll start to see some even more interesting features with Alexa actually making sensible suggestions depending on your actions and commands. For example, if you activate the bedtime routine by saying ‘Good night Alexa’, the white noise playlist will kick in, and Alexa might ask you whether you want it to switch off the living room light you left on. Features like this will make the virtual assistant much more than a gimmick.

The next step will be deeper integration with other applications such as Outlook calendars. When Alexa prompts you to change your alarm the night before because it has spotted an early morning meeting, it’ll start to be a genuine assistant. One step further would be linking to weather and travel update services so it can proactively change the alarm in the middle of the night if it decides your commute will take longer than it usually should.

The promise of virtual assistants has been very glorious, and so far it hasn’t met the expectations. But updates like this are making Alexa an genuinely helpful and interesting proposition.

DirecTV users can voice control their set-top boxes with Alexa

DirecTV announced today that users of several models of its set-top boxes will be able to select programs, start and stop play, as well as control recording functions with voice, using Amazon’s AI personal assistant Alexa.

The announcement on its official Twitter account, supported by a glossy picture, may look a giant leap for DirecTV, but is only a small step for the AI industry, in a perverse application of Neil Armstrong’s famous line. This is not only because DirecTV is late. Amazon updated its Video Skill API in March this year, to support apps to add recording, launcher, and state reporting functions. Four poster boys were listed as leading vendors to endorse the updates, DISH, Verizon, TiVo, and DirecTV. They largely came to the party in that chronological order.

To make voice bots work properly is tricky, and no one has done a fantastic job. In the set-top box use case, if there is one function that users have to go back to the physical remote control to perform, it will defeat the whole purpose of voice control user interface. In an earlier iteration of Alexa powered DISH menu, users could not open the top level “Guide”, nor did the menu recognise Netflix as a channel.

Even if the functions are enriched, there is also the thorny issues of accuracy, ambient noise, and accents, which can put users off. Different research has shown that large number of users would give up voice bots like Siri, Cortana, Google Home, etc. after registering high enthusiasm at the beginning.

Probably most critically there is the concern for privacy. Alexa is among the better performers among competing voice bots, largely thanks Echo, which has dominated the smart speaker market. However, Alexa found itself famously, or infamously, in the centre of an Echo “eavesdropping” controversy in May this year, missing the background conversation as voice command, according to Amazon’s version of the story.

So, there is still a long way to go before we can all embrace voice control both hands free and worry free. Before that, all progress will just be small steps.

Alexa privacy brought into question as Echo suffers meltdown

Amazon has continually denied its Echo devices are constantly listening and recording conversations in the home, but after one family had an entire conversation sent as an audio file to a friend, questions are being asked.

According to Kiro7 News, the unnamed family were discussing hardwood floors while the device was recording the entire conversation. Fortunately for the family the conversation was not of a sensitive native and it was also sent to a colleague of the husband, not a complete stranger.

“I felt invaded,” the customer, only known as Danielle, said. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again, because I can’t trust it.'”

The family from Portland in the US had fully embraced the idea of the smart home. Echo devices had been connected throughout the home and to numerous smart appliances, though now the house is back to basics with all devices unplugged. Amazon has investigated the intrusion, but has not been able to pinpoint a cause of the ‘malfunction’ or explicitly confirm there are no similar examples.

Amazon has so far refused to refund Danielle for the ‘malfunction’ and invasion, but has instead offered to de-provision the devices so the family can continue to use the smart home features. This compromise will come as little comfort to the family, as Amazon has broken the bond of trust which is needed for companies to operate in this delicate era of data privacy and protection.

While this is of course a concerning development for any Echo owner, when you tie its work with US government surveillance activities it becomes even more so. Amazon’s reputation for being one of the worlds’ most customer centric organizations is starting to come under a bit of pressure, with its work with the various police departments as a good example.

Back in January, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Northern California chapter revealed the several police departments deployed AWS’ Rekognition software to search for people in footage drawn from the city’s video surveillance cameras. Empowering police forces and intelligence agencies is one thing, but a line has to be drawn somewhere when it comes to privacy. We wonder whether aiding the Big Brother ambitions of the government is on the right side of that line.

The tech giants have generally been pretty good when it comes to protecting user privacy, just look at Microsoft’s battle with the US government over data stored in European data centres, but there have been some worrying examples in recent months. With Facebook hitting the headlines for the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Google employees revolting over the decision to aid the operation of missile strikes and AWS assisting with such acts of unjustified privacy invasion, you have to wonder whether these tech giants have lost track of their principles.

We’re not suggesting the recorded conversation and Amazon’s work with various police departments are connected, but these are two examples of the promise to the consumer becoming a bit more jaded and battered. The digital economy is built on consumers personal information and a bond of trust with the technology companies. The agreement of trust is that these organizations will act responsible and ethically, but there are more examples appearing which prove to be quite the opposite.

Intel is the latest to jump on the Amazon Alexa bandwagon

As Amazon continues to make the early running in the voice UI era with Alexa, Intel has created a special developer kit for it.

The Intel Speech Enabling Developer Kit is designed to enable developers to create consumer products featuring Alexa Voice Service. The reason a chip giant like Intel wants to be involved, other than merely jumping on the bandwagon, is that for voice UI to work well it not only needs decent processing but also a bunch of other sensors and distributed microphones.

“Natural language means machines need to clearly recognize and respond to user commands from a reasonable conversation distance,” said Miles Kingston, GM of Intel’s Smart Home Group, in a blog. “People speak and hear in 360 degrees, not just in a direct line of sight. Devices need array microphones and complex noise mitigation technology.

“A quality voice interaction means devices identify the speaker’s location, mitigate and suppress ambient noise, and understand spoken commands on the mics, even while playing music (talking and listening at the same time), as well as waking up when it hears the wake word (e.g. “Alexa”).”

Amazon seems to be doing a good job of partnering with other parts of the tech sector to boost its diversification efforts. Alexa is attracting both device and component makers, as well as retail partners, while AWS is showing a growing inclination to get into bed with strategic partners. In short Amazon is arguably the fastest growing of the internet giants right now.

The virtual battle for the soul of the smart home

Google has made its move in the prolonged battle with Amazon for control of the smart home, but are the speakers a glamourous distraction from the real fight.

It has been a couple of months of back and forth. Whichever seems to release a new piece of hardware or update to the virtual assistant, it doesn’t seem to be long before there is a counter move from the opposition. It’s one of the longest games of ‘mine is bigger than yours’ we’ve seen in the tech space for a while.

But is it nothing more than an intriguing side-quest? Are there genuine ambitions to compete in the hardware game or is it a ploy to get the rest of the industry up to speed? We have a feeling victory in the smart home will be more on the software side than the hardware.

Let’s start with the hardware. Following a little spat with Amazon over how YouTube is displayed on the Echo Show, Google is set to bring out ‘Manhattan’, a similar product to the Echo Show in it being a smart home device with a screen. According to TechCrunch sources, Google has been working on the device in a secret lab somewhere with the intention of releasing it towards the end of this year, or the beginning of 2018.

But is this just a ruse to get the rest of the world up to speed? Neither Amazon or Google have heritage (or particularly successful heritage) in the hardware world, but without the introduction of Amazon Echo or the Google Home device there might not have been much momentum in this sub-sector. But now there is, as the rest of the industry start to bring out their own connected devices after seeing there is an appetite from the consumer.

Let’s be honest, Google and Amazon might pump a load of cash into hardware, but they probably won’t be able to compete with the established players in the electronics market once they are moving in the right direction. Would you rather buy a TV off Amazon or Samsung? A speaker off Google or Bose? The electronics brands have better reputations, and we have a feeling once the idea hits the mainstream markets, the general public will go with what they know.

But we don’t think that matters. Once the rest of the hardware space is making connected devices on a mass scale, this side-quest could be considered mission complete. It would allow Amazon and Google to concentrate on what they do best; software and services.

This is where the financial battle of the smart home will be won or lost. Who can get their virtual assistant into the most devices and manage the relationship with the consumer. An example of this is Google’s new partnerships with Nvidia and Sony. On the Nvidia Shield TV and Sony Bravia TVs, the virtual assistant and connected platform will be Google.

This means Google will manage the relationship with the consumer, and also the money which can be taken from it. Once the idea of having a virtual assistant has been normalised, the money will start streaming in. If you as Alexa to order you a pizza from the top-rated takeaway in your area, Amazon will probably be taking a cut of the cash. Or if you ask Google to add toothpaste to your shopping list and then to organize the delivery, it will take a slice of the action somewhere. Both will be facilitating the interaction between the consumer and third parties, and they won’t be doing it for free.

The one who has their virtual assistant in the most devices around the world will make the most cash. Yes, there will still be money to be made from the hardware products, but this is not the core competency of either of these businesses. Creating an audience behind a walled-garden and then monetizing access is a brilliant business model, and one few have been able to nail.

This is perhaps one of the reasons we are surprised Facebook hasn’t been making more promising strides in the virtual assistant world. This is a business model which is almost a carbon-copy of how the social media platform stormed to the top of the technology world. There are reports of Zuckerberg and his cronies working on their own assistant, but they are proving to be quite late to the game.

So yes, the battle of one-upmanship is proving to be an entertaining one, but let’s not forget about where these organizations traditionally make serious cash. Software is going to rule the world, and it won’t be very different here. The winner of the smart home will be the one with the best virtual assistant.

Alexa’s footprints are starting to appear all over the place

While Google is doing its impression of a petulant child, storming home from the park with its football tucked under its arm, Amazon has drafted a host of reinforcements for its Alexa offensive.

For the most part, the majority of the news which has been swirling around the Amazon factory is hardware related. It has released a new speaker, the Echo Plus, which has a built-in smart home hub, a new variation for the Echo family, the Spot, which looks like an alarm clock, and also a new TV, but we’re going to try and focus on the more interesting stuff.

From an AI perspective, Alexa seems to be getting pretty smart. The voice user interface is stepping up its game, and by the looks of it, digging in between the sofa cushions for the remote will soon be a thing of the past. Alexa now has the power to search for particular TV shows or genres for you, and if you have bought into the Amazon revolution completely, it can be done from any of the Alexa enabled devices around your home.

We’re not 100% sure why you would want to, but in theory you could ask your Spot device in your bedroom to change the channel on your Amazon TV in the living room. We can imagine houses around the UK descending into chaos as children (or immature adults) find hours of pleasure changing the channel from another room while Dad/Mum/Partner/Sibling is trying to watch the TV. We originally said we we’re too sure why you would want this feature, but it is now starting to sound like quite a funny idea.

Whether Amazon’s foray into the world of hardware continues remains to be seen, but the bigger picture is becoming quite clear. Amazon wants Alexa in everything. It isn’t a case of hooking up your speaker, or pairing a couple of devices with your smartphone, it is everywhere. Whether it’s your alarm clock in the morning, the speaker in your kitchen, or the phone you’re carrying around everywhere, you will have Alexa with you at every point in your day.

And that might soon extend into your car as well. Alongside these announcements, Amazon has slipped in a partnership with BMW to get Alexa its drivers license. The aim here is from mid-2018 onwards, Alexa will be available in BMW and Mini vehicles, without having to download any apps.

“We are excited to work with BMW to bring the Alexa experience to their drivers,” said Ned Curic, VP of Alexa Automotive. “Voice is a big part of the future, especially in cars. Using your voice to enjoy content and interact with your car makes a great driving experience even better. We can’t wait for BMW customers to try this out.”

This is another area which could hold success for the Amazon team, as the voice UI is perfect for the autonomous driving arena. Considering how complicated infotainment systems have become in cars, the safety advantages of interacting with your car with your voice are huge.

Google and Amazon have been steadily trading blows in the virtual assistant world for the last couple of months, with each leap-frogging the other with every update. And while Amazon is spreading its footprints throughout every aspect of our lives, perhaps another question worth asking is why this is becoming such an obvious two-horse race? What are the rest actually doing or have they simple resigned to the fact they won’t catch Google and Amazon?

Google still has an advantage in its Android operating system; this is essentially a welcome mat into every smartphone for its virtual assistant, but it’s difficult to argue against Amazon leading the race right now.

Amazon spends 193x more on R&D than Deutsche Telekom

Everyone is innovative if you believe what they say, but few companies could even dream of playing the same R&D game as the worlds’ tech big boys.

Although it would be considered a relatively simplistic method of judging future success of a business, the money being spent on research and development is a good indication. This is of course no guarantee of success, but it at least provides some guidance. Data from Factset has revealed the biggest R&D spenders in the US are the tech companies, and it should come as little surprise who is at the time of the list.

Amazon hits top-spot, with $16.1 billion spent on R&D last year, with Google hitting second at $13.9 billion, Intel in third at $12.7 billion, while Microsoft and Apple complete the top five with $12.3 billion and $10 billion respectively.

Amazon has proven once again to be a company which cares more about the long-term, bigger picture, than quarterly dividends and pressure from those who want an immediate pay-off. The gap at the top is quite considerable, especially considering Google, a company not known for being shy in the R&D space, is in a notably distant second.

Perhaps the question should be what Amazon is actually spending money on? It turned the retail space on its head with an aggressive investment strategy similar to this, so what vertical should be keeping an eye out? The virtual assistant and smart home space by the looks of it.

The battle with Google for control of the living room is a very public one, but recruitment evidence may also give an indication this is the top priority for Amazon. The Alexa business unit is hiring hundreds of software engineers, having been given preference over other business areas, while Tom Taylor has been appointed as the units chief. Taylor has quite a reputation in the business, known for scaling high-growth operations. The omens are pointing towards Alexa.

But how does this compare to the rest of the world, and also those in the telco space?

Looking at the giants of the technology world, the US is still leading the charge. YCharts estimates that the Chinese firms are spending big, but not it the same ballpark. Over the course of 2016, Baidu put $1.525 billion into R&D, while Alibaba hit $2.53 billion. In Korea, Samsung was more in-line with Silicon Valley, accounting for investments of $12.14 in 2016, while Japanese Sony decided to put $4.09 billion investment into the future.

On the telco side of things, money is being spent in the places you might expect. Huawei, the staggering leader in the infrastructure game, is able to compete with Silicon Valley’s best and brightest, with roughly $11.27 billion of R&D spend across 2016, while Ericsson and Nokia once again languished with $3.9 billion and $5.49 billion respectively.

Looking at the operators, they were surprisingly quiet. Not in terms of chest beating or declaring they are the best things ever. No, the arrogant operators were excellently equipped to tell us they are truly innovative, but when it comes to actual evidence there is little to shout about. We had a look on the Orange, AT&T, Vodafone and Verizon websites and were unable to find much information about concrete investment in R&D.

The only one we were able to find a specific number was Deutsche Telekom. Here, those crafty Germans managed to pump €84.1 million into R&D. We suspect the investment levels won’t be too different when you look at the other operators. We’re not saying operators should be spending billions, but this is a meagre amount, accounting for 1.13% of total revenues. Huawei in comparison puts 15% of total revenues into R&D, while Amazon stood at almost 12%.

And there is perhaps the reason why the telcos are viewed as completely un-innovative. They aren’t attracting the right people or spending on R&D. Is it any surprise the industry is being relegated to the highly regulated role of utility? The operators aren’t helping themselves at all, merely presenting themselves as custodians and misleading marketers, as opposed to a critical aspect of the technology ecosystem.

The telcos are important and will continue to be important, but not in the way they necessarily want to be. IoT is an area which could have turned fortunes, but the investment levels remained low. The telcos will capture the connectivity revenues, but this is only a small slice of the pie; what about the rest? What about the digital transformation fortunes which even seems eager to claim? Not likely. The Accenture’s or IBM’s or CapGemini’s of the world are doing well to secure these.

Once again, the dumb pipe phrase will raise its ugly head, and it can hardly be blamed. The operators are contributing to their own downfall.

Alexa gets into bed with Cortana

Amazon and Microsoft have announced their previously competing voice-driven AI assistants are now an item.

The world can be a lonely place for virtual assistants. All the company they have are demanding millennials constantly asking what their latest email is or a retiree wondering what the weather is like in Florida or Beijing.

But for no longer. The sympathetic chaps over at Microsoft and Amazon have shown they have a caring side, arranging a playdate for Cortana with Alexa. As part of the new tie up, the two virtual assistants will be hooked up, meaning users can switch between the two, just by asking the assistant itself.

It’s a simple process. By simply saying ‘hey Cortana, open Alexa’ you’ll be able to liaise directly with your Amazon virtual assistant for shopping, or vice versa if you want to check your emails or your calendar on Outlook.

“Ensuring Cortana is available for our customers everywhere and across any device is a key priority for us,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. “Bringing Cortana’s knowledge, Office 365 integration, commitments and reminders to Alexa is a great step toward that goal.”

“The world is big and so multifaceted,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO. “There are going to be multiple successful intelligent agents, each with access to different sets of data and with different specialized skill areas. Together, their strengths will complement each other and provide customers with a richer and even more helpful experience. It’s great for Echo owners to get easy access to Cortana.”

From Microsoft’s perspective it is a pretty smart move. Most people will use their virtual assistant for the trivial everyday things. Checking the weather, the weekly shop or changing music for instance. The virtual assistant trends are being realised in the consumer world, an arena which Microsoft doesn’t really have much say in nowadays. The tie in with Alexa brings Cortana into everyday life, and normalizes the idea of virtual assistants in your professional lives as well.

It’s not available yet, but before too long you’ll be able to access Alexa on via Cortana on Windows 10 PCs, followed by Android and iOS. On the other side of things, you’ll be able to access Cortana on Alexa-enabled devices like the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot and Echo Show.

Elsewhere in the Alexa world, Amazon has released its Connected Speaker APIs, which allows customers to ask Alexa to play music wireless or multi-room speakers including brands like Sonos, Sound United, Bose, and Samsung.

This might seem like another small bit of news, but it is quite an important one; like the partnership with Microsoft, Alexa is spreading its influence to hardware which isn’t Amazon’s. The initial financial reward of virtual assistants like Alexa will be the hardware purchased by customers, but the long-term (and substantially bigger) prize will be controlling access to the customer.

Facebook created the social media walled garden and charges access to the customer. The potential is there for virtual assistants, as can be seen with Amazon’s recent tie up with UK online grocer Ocado. Users ask Alexa to add items to the shopping list, and then a delivery time is arranged at some point in the future. Google did a similar tie up with Walmart as well, and you can bet there will be more partnerships of this nature. Financials of such arrangements have not been unveiled just yet, but it would be a safe bet to assume the virtual assistants will be taking a cut for being the friendly face to the consumer.

The battle for control of the living room is beginning to hot up, and we originally thought Google was in the lead, but we’re not too sure anymore. The Ocado tie up is a good basis to build Amazon’s challenge to traditional supermarket shopping, with Microsoft it adds a different element with a monstrous user base and with the Connected Speaker API it is saying that Alexa can be everywhere, not just on Amazon or Microsoft hardware.

Predicting the winner is going to be difficult, as while Amazon is making headway right now, Google has a significant advantage. Google has claimed there are more than two billion Android monthly active users, which essentially means there are two billion devices which are there for the Google Assistant to enter the fray. The dominance of Android in the operating system game certainly gives Google an advantage, and that’s not even taking into account the Google Home devices which have been sold.

This is going to be a fascinating battle. We have two technology giants, with hugely respected and trusted brands, as well as different experiences in monetizing the digital revolution, going head-to-head to win control of the living room. Amazon has the retail experience, but Google has the advertising relationship. No-one else can really compete with the credentials, footprint or the current progress which has been made.

Google Assistant versus Alexa, it will be an epic one. Sorry Siri.

Amazon grocery offensive continues with Alexa Ocado win

Supermarkets be afraid, be very afraid.

With the completion of its $13.7 billion acquisition of US organic food grocery chain Whole Foods Market, Amazon has wasted little time in unveiling a raft of aggressive moves apparently designed to challenge the traditional supermarket sector.

Here in the UK online grocer Ocado has announced it will be the first national supermarket to launch an app for the Amazon Alexa voice UI. Now you can say things like “Alexa, ask Ocado to add tea to my basket,” and it will. Apparently you can also keep track of existing orders and make stock enquiries too, all without so much as having to glance at a keyboard or screen.

This tie-up makes sense as Ocado is online-only and is presumably geared up to fulfil delivery orders in a similar way to Amazon. The way traditional supermarkets go about fulfilling online delivery orders is quite inefficient, with a member of staff having to effectively take on a proxy shopper role. This is primarily a defensive move in response to the likes of Ocado and probably wipes out the margin the supermarket makes on the goods bought.

Meanwhile the Whole Foods acquisition completed at the end of last week and Amazon immediately announced significant price cuts as a clear statement of intent. Bloomberg reports that certain varieties of hippy food have had their prices cut as much as 43% and Whole Foods is already flogging the Amazon Dot, the Alexa-driven device that will presumably offer similar voice tools to those announced at Ocado.

“By working together with Amazon and integrating in several key areas, we can lower prices and double down on that mission and reach more people with Whole Foods Market’s high-quality, natural and organic food,” said John Mackey, Whole Foods Market co-founder and CEO. “As part of our commitment to quality, we’ll continue to expand our efforts to support and promote local products and suppliers. We can’t wait to start showing customers what’s possible when Whole Foods Market and Amazon innovate together.”

There are reports coming from both sides of the pond of supermarket shares going down the toilet in response to this fresh threat from t’internet. Walmart recently announced a defensive move in partnership with Google and we can expect to see a lot more of this sort of thing. But the supermarkets seem to be in a weak negotiating position and their margins are likely to be the major casualties in a protracted grocery war with Amazon.