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IFA 2019 Takes Assistants Everywhere to a New Level

September 17, 2019

The IFA (Internationale Funkausstellung) Show occurred this past week in Berlin. It is certainly Europe’s largest tech show, and some would say it has now surpassed the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES). I hit CES every year and this was my second IFA, but something radically changed this year in the world of Voice Assistants. I’m going to make up a conversation based on 2 imaginary people. For fun I’ll call them Sundar and Jeff:

Read the full blog at voicebot.ai.

Biometrics’ Place in the Embedded Industry

October 25, 2018

I just returned from the four-day Money 20/20 event in Las Vegas. The show covers the overlap of Money and Technology including FinTech, Payment, Ecommerce and more. It had tens of thousands of attendees, over 3,500 companies, and 400 startups and lots of starpower including Richard Branson, Shaquille O’Neil, Akon, and yours truly speaking on a biometrics panel.

I walked the show floor to find the latest news in embedded biometrics and to better understand the choice between embedded and cloud based biometrics in the fintech/money space. I was impressed by how biometrics has moved into the mainstream conversation. Before mentioning the other companies I talked to, I’ll kick off with Sensory, my company.

Sensory’s focus on AI and biometrics has always been on the embedded side. We believe in data privacy and we think the best way to accomplish that is through keeping in the hands and control of the user. On a less promotional front there is also a strategic reason we focus on embedded, and that’s because the industry giants are really good at cloud based and unconstrained AI tasks, and they often give it away for free, so we are focused on a place where the Googles and Amazons of the world can be our customers and not just our competitors. On the last day of Money 20/20, Sensory introduced TrulySecure 4.0, a fusion of face and voice biometrics with improved accuracy, speed, and support for 3D.

BioConnect sponsored one of the excellent lunches at the show. I spoke to Rob Douglas, Founder and CEO of BioConnect who said, “We are on the quest for rightful identity and what we offer is a market leading mobile biometric authentication solution for the enterprise. We provide a building block like a piece of LEGO that you can apply into all the infrastructure of an Enterprise to upgrade from passwords and key fobs to a world where you have higher assurance when you are conducting digital or physical transactions.” BioConnect has been in business for eight years and has 1,600 customers and at Money 20/20, the Bank of Montreal announced a partnership with BioConnect and IBM.

BioConnect has a strong belief in face authentication, but also works with other biometrics including voice, eye, fingerprint, and behavioral. According to Douglas, “We believe in both cloud and client and we support the FIDO approach, but there are use cases where the transport of the biometrics through a cloud-based infrastructure can make a lot of sense.”

The FIDO Alliance had a large area with alliance members touting their wares. FIDO (fast identity online) is “the World’s Largest Ecosystem for Standards-Based, Interoperable Authentication.” I spoke to Andrew Shikiar, the CMO of the FIDO Alliance. Local authentication with biometrics is key to the FIDO approach. “Whether you are storing passwords or biometrics, a central repository will be targeted, and will be breached to be used in nefarious ways.” When I asked Shikiar about the desire to share biometrics across platforms he said, “That’s typical of the type of use case that our technical working groups are working to address, while leveraging the FIDO standards”

Conor White, President Americas at Daon described Daon as “a human authentication company that provides technologies to allow customers to create and manage digital identities of their users in a way that’s advantageous in a risk and security perspective.” At the show they announced a partnership to expand from their base in mobile into the contact center.

Daon provides support to a wide cross section of biometrics and provides embedded solutions through the FIDO standard but can support cloud based biometrics when desired. Daon is seeing more customers getting comfortable with going from on premise to cloud based implementations but in the vast majority of cases, the biometrics still resides on the device even if the service is run in the cloud. White sits on the board of the FIDO alliance and sees the FIDO standard with embedded biometrics gaining ground.

Veritran is a software company based in Buenos Aires and developing innovative and secure digital banking platforms for the Latin American markets. They process over 4 billion banking transactions each year, and they are now expanding from Banking into other Enterprise markets and geographies beyond Latin America. At Mobile World Congress in February, they announced a new platform for secure application development, and at Money 20/20 ,they demonstrated some of the apps developed on this platform.

Like other companies, Veritran offers a mix of biometric modalities and in talking with Veritran’s CEO Marcelo Gonzales, I learned a very interesting reason as to why they prefer embedded biometrics instead of processing in the cloud. The Latin American customers buy prepaid plans with limited data. To keep their costs down, they must keep their data usage down, and with the biometrics stored and processed on the device, transactions can occur with minimal data costs.

There were a lot of other companies at Mobile 20/20. As a quick summary I would say a few important things stood out. Biometrics are definitely taking off as we all understand the problems with passwords. A variety of biometric modalities are offered but there does seem to be a preference and movement toward face authentication that can run cross platform without specialized hardware. Most vendors offer a choice between having the biometric data stored and processed on the device or in the cloud, but with the FIDO Alliance behind embedded and the clear advantages for security and privacy, the embedded usage case seems to be winning out.

IFA 2018 Becomes a Showcase for Amazon and Google Voice Assistants in Berlin

September 13, 2018

I thought it was funny that Google and Alexa both handed out the neck worn badge holders which nobody seemed to wear.

Google had a bunch of hired hands standing around in booths looking awkward in white jumpsuits promoting the Assistant. I spoke with a few and found a range from totally clueless to quite knowledgeable.
OTHER VOICE ASSISTANTS WERE NOTICEABLY ABSENTAlthough a half dozen other Voice Assistants exist, I saw little to no presence of Cortana, Siri, SoundHound, Baidu, Alibaba, or Tencent. There was a “Sprechen Sie Bixby? ” signage outside of the Samsung area, but that was about it.

Without doing any quantitative counting it seemed like companies are about equally throwing support at Google Assistant and Alexa. Some companies support both along with Apple’s Homekit. My gut feel is that Alexa is covering more companies but Google is getting a higher penetration with the better known and bigger brands. This probably gives Google more presence even though they have fewer companies than Amazon’s purported 3,500 brands and 20,000 devices.INNOVATION WAS NOT LIMITED TO AMAZON AND GOOGLE

There are some, but not a lot of companies that are innovating. There were a ton of smart speakers, thermostats, lights, electrical outlets and various appliances that can be controlled by assistants, but little of that rose to the level of true innovation based on where we are today. However, I did see a few new things too

  • German Auto Labs, a relatively small startup, has released HeyChris, an automotive assistant that runs embedded in a car. It’s like an Amazon Echo Dot with a screen in the center that mounts to your window. It resembles the Garmin Speak with a speaker and small LCD screen for navigation.

 

  • LG had arguably the nicest display area at the show, and although they supported the Google Assistant in some products they also had a line of of “Hey LG” washing machines, air purifiers, refrigerators and more!
  • A Motorola branded DECT (cordless) phone with Alexa for calling into Alexa devices (they swear there’s a market for this in Europe!).
  • Of course there was Bang and Olufsen with their innovative designs and most excellent margins for Google equipped smart speakers. I thought they would be bigger!

 

INFRASTRUCTURE PLAYERS ARE BETTING ON AMAZON AND GOOGLE

There’s lots of infrastructure developing 3rd-party support of Alexa, Google and custom voice interfaces. For example, a  variety of chip companies like DSPG were showing their ability to enable lower power solutions while design houses like Sugr, StreamUnlimited, and Frontier Smart Technologies can assist with hardware and software development.

OVERALL, MORE EVIDENCE OF VOICE ASSISTANT ACCELERATION

IFA showed the continuing growth and accelerated market adoption of voice assistants. It was a well organized and like CES, IFA  had separate locations that required transportation to access through transportation. Berlin, by the way is a fantastic and unique city with a very liberal feel, friendly people, the best Turkish food I’ve ever had, and very international. Parts of it even reminded me of Berkeley in the 1970s. Of course, there is a lot more presence of voice assistants today!

Todd Mozer is CEO and founder of Sensory.

Voice assistant battles, part three: The challenges

August 13, 2018

It’s not easy to be a retailer today when more and more people are turning to Amazon for shopping. And why not shop online? Ordering is convenient with features such as ratings. Delivery is fast and cheap, and returns are easy and free – if you are Prime member! In April 2018 Bezos reported there are more than 100 million Prime members in the world, and the majority of US households are Prime members. Walmart and Google have partnered in an ecommerce play to compete with Amazon, but Walmart is just dancing with the devil. Google will use the partnership to gather data and invest more in their internal ecommerce and shopping experiences. Walmart isn’t relaxing, and is aggressively pursuing ecommerce and AI initiatives through acquisitions, and its Store #8 that acts as an incubator for AI companies and internal initiatives. Question: why does Facebook have a Building 8 and Walmart have a Store 8 for skunkworks projects?

It’s not just the retailers that are under pressure, though. If you make consumer electronics it’s getting more challenging too. Google controls the Android eco-system and is pumping a lot of money into centralizing and hiring around their hardware development efforts. Google is competing against the mobile phones of Samsung, Huawei, LG, Oppo, Vivo, and other users of their Android OS. And Amazon is happy to sell other people’s hardware online (OK, not Google, but others), but they take a nice commission on those sales, and if it’s a hit product they find ways to make more money through Amazon’s in house brands and warehousing, and potentially even making the product themselves. The Alexa fund has financed companies that created Alexa based hardware products that Amazon ended up competing against with in-house developments,and when Amazon sells Alexa products it doesn’t need to make a big profit (as described in part one). And Apple… well, they have a history of extracting money from anyone that wants to play in their eco-system too. This is business and there’s a very good reason that Google, Amazon, Apple, and other giants are giants. They know how to make money on everything they do. They are tough to compete with. The “free” stuff consumers get (and we do get a lot!) isn’t really free. We are trading our data and personal information for it.

So retailers have it tough (and assistants will make it even tougher), service providers have it tough (and assistants with service offerings make it even tougher), and consumer electronic companies have it tough. But the toughest situation is for the speaker companies. The market for speakers is exploding driven by the demand for “smart” speakers. Markets and Markets research report the current smart speaker market at over $2.6B and growing at over 34% a year. Seems like that would be a sweet market to be in, but a lot of that growth is eating away at the traditional speaker market. So a speaker company gets faced with a few alternatives:

  1. Partner with voice assistants within the eco-system of their biggest competitors (Google, Apple, Amazon, etc.). This would give all the data collected to their competitors and put them at the mercy of their competitors systems.
  2. Develop and support an in house solution which could cost WAY too much to maintain, or
  3. Use a 3rd party solution which is likely to cost a lot more and underperform compared to the big guys that are pumping billions of dollars each year into enhancing their AI offerings.

Many are choosing option 1 only to find that their sales are poor because of better quality lower priced offering from Google and Amazon. A company like Sonos, who is a leader in high quality wifi speakers has chosen option 1 with a twist where they are trying to support Google and Amazon and Apple. Their recent IPO filing highlights the challenges well:

”Our current agreement with Amazon allows Amazon to disable the Alexa integration in our Sonos One and Sonos Beam products with limited notice. As such, it is possible that Amazon, which sells products that compete with ours, may on limited notice disable the integration, which would cause our Sonos One or Sonos Beam products to lose their voice-enabled functionality. Amazon could also begin charging us for this integration which would harm our operating results.”

They further highlighted that their lack of service integrations could be a challenge should Google, Amazon or others offer discounting (which is already happening): “Many of these partners may subsidize these prices and seek to monetize their customers through the sale of additional services rather than the speakers themselves,” the company said. “Our business model, by contrast, is dependent on the sale of our speakers. Should we be forced to lower the price of our products in order to compete on a price basis, our operating results could be harmed.” Looking at Sono’s financials you can see their margins already starting to erode.

Some companies have attempted #2 above by bringing out in house Assistants using open-source speech recognizers like Kaldi. This might save the cost of deploying third party solutions but it requires substantial in house efforts, and is ultimately fraught with the same challenges as #3 above which is that it’s really hard to compete against companies approaching a trillion dollar market capitalization when these companies see AI and voice assistants as strategically important and are investing that way.

Retailers, Consumer OEMs, and Service providers all have a big challenge. I run a small company called Sensory. We develop AI technologies, and companies like Google, Amazon, Samsung, Microsoft, Apple, Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, etc. are our customers AND our biggest competitors. My strategy? Move fast, innovate, and move on. I can’t compete head to head with these companies, but when I come out with solutions that they need BEFORE they have it in house, I get a 1-3 year window to sell to them before they switch to an in house replacement. That’s not bad for a small company like Sensory. For a bigger company like a Sonos or a Comcast, they could deploy the same general strategy to set up fast moving innovation pieces that allow them to stay ahead of the game. This appears to be the exact strategy that Walmart is taking on with Store 8 to not be left behind! Without doubt, it’s very tough competing in a world of giants that have no boundaries in their pursuits and ambitions!

Apple is Getting Sirious – $1 Trillion is Not the Endgame

August 6, 2018

Apple introduced Siri in 2011 and my world changed. I was running Sensory back then as I am today and suddenly every company wanted speech recognition. Sensory was there to sell it! Steve Jobs, a notorious nay-sayer on speech recognition, had finally given speech recognition the thumbs up. Every consumer electronics company noticed and decided the time had come. Sensory’s sales shot up for a few years driven by this sudden confidence in speech recognition as a user interface for consumer electronics.

Fast forward to today and Apple has just become the first and only trillion dollar US company in terms of market capitalization. One trillion dollars is an arbitrary round number with a lot of zeroes, but it is psychologically very important. It was winning a race. It was a race between Cook, Bezos, the Google/Alphabet Crew and others that most of the contestants would say doesn’t really matter and that they weren’t in the race. But, they were and they all wanted to win. Without question it was quarterly financial results that caused Apple to reach the magic number and beat Amazon, Google and Microsoft to the trillion dollar value spot. I wouldn’t argue that Siri got them there, but I would argue that Siri didn’t stop them, and this is important.

SIRI WAS FIRST, BUT QUICKLY LOST THE VOICE LEAD TO RIVALS
Siri has had a bit of a mixed history. It was the first voice assistant to come out in mobile phones but in spite of Apple’s superior marketing abilities, the Google Assistant (or whatever naming convention was being used as it never seemed totally clear) quickly surpassed Siri on most key metrics of quality and performance. The Siri team went through turnover and got stuck in a world of rule based natural language understanding when the state of the art turned to deep learning and data-based approaches.

Then in 2014 Amazon introduced the Echo smart speaker with Alexa and beat Apple and others into the home with a useable voice assistant. Alexa came out strong and got stronger quickly. Amazon amassed over 5,000 people into what is likely the largest speech recognition team in the world. Google got punched but wasn’t knocked out. Its AI team kept growing and Google had a very strong reputation in academia as hiring the best and brightest machine learning and AI folks out of PhD programs. By 2016, Google had introduced its own smart speaker, and by CES 2018, Google made a VERY strong marketing statement that it was still in the game.

APPLE FOCUSED ELSEWHERE
All the while Apple stayed relatively quiet. Drifting further behind in accuracy, utility, use-ability, integration and now smart speakers, Siri took its time. The HomePod speaker had a series of delays and when introduced in Q1 2018 was largely criticized because of the relatively poor performance of Siri and lack of compatibility. The huge investment Bezos made in Alexa might have been hard for Apple to rationalize in a post Jobs era run by a smart operating guy driven by the numbers more than by a passion or vision. Or, perhaps Tim Cook knew that he had time to get it right, as the Apple eco-system was captive and not running away because of poor Siri performance. Maybe they were waiting for their services ecosystem to really kick in before cranking up the power of Siri. For whatever reason, Siri was largely viewed as the first out of the gates but well behind the pack in Q2 2018.

AI ASSISTANTS DRIVE CONSUMER LOCK-IN
Fast forward to now and I’ll say why I think things are changing and why I said that Siri didn’t stop Apple from being first to $1T. But first, let me diverge to dwell on the importance of an AI Assistant to Apple and others. First off, it’s pretty easy to see the importance the industry puts on AI assistants. Any time I watch advertising spots, I see some of the most expensive commercials ever produced with the biggest named stars promoting “Hey Google”, “Hey Siri”, and “Alexa” (and occasionally Bixby or Cortana too!).

The assistants aren’t sold and so they don’t directly make money but they can be used as purchasing agents (where Amazon makes a lot of money), advertising agents (where Google makes its money), access to entertainment services (where all the big guys make money) and as a user experience for consumer electronics (where Apple makes a lot of money). The general thinking is that the more an assistant is used, the more it learns about the user, the better it serves the user, and the more the user is locked in! So winning in the AI Assistant game is HUGELY important and recent changes at Apple show that Siri is quickly coming up in the rankings and could have more momentum right now than in its entire history. That’s why Siri didn’t stop Apple from reaching $1T.

SIRI ON THE RISE
Let me highlight three recent pieces of news that suggest Siri is now headed in the right direction.

  • HomePod Sales: Apple HomePod sales just reached $1B. Not a shabby business given the high margins Apple typically gets. According to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) the HomePod marketshare doubled over the past quarter. What’s interesting is that the early reviews stated that Siri’s poor performance and lack of compatibility was dragging down HomePod sales. However, CIRP reported the biggest problem today is price and that at $349 it is hundreds of dollars more than competitors.
  • Loup Ventures analysis:
    Loup Ventures does an annual Assistant assessment. Several companies do this sort of thing and the traditional and general rankings have previously showed Google as best, Cortana and Alexa not far behind, and Siri somewhat behind the pack. Loup’s most recent analyses showed something different. Siri is shown to have the most improvement (from April 2017 to July 2018) in both “answered correctly” and “understood query”, and has surpassed Cortana and Alexa in both categories.


Of particular note is the categories of correct analysis. Siri substantially outperformed Google Assistant in the “command” category which is arguable the most important category for a consumer electronics manufacturer that wants to improve user experience.

 

  • Apple Reorganization:In April 2018 Apple hired John Giannandrea. JG is a silicon valley luminary and not only played roles with early pioneers like General Magic and Netscape, but he was a founder of TellMe Networks which still holds the record for the highest valued acquisition in the speech recognition space. Microsoft paid $800 million in a 2007 acquisition. JG didn’t retire and rest on his laurels. He joined Google as an Engineering VP and in 2016 was promoted to SVP Search (yeah I mean all of search as in “Google that”) including heading up all artificial intelligence and machine learning within Google. Business Insider called him “The most sought after free agent in Silicon Valley.” He reports directly to Tim Cook. In July 2018, a reorg was announced that brings Siri and all machine learning under one roof…under JG. Siri has bounced around under a few top executives. With JG on board and Bill Stasior (VP Siri) staying on and now reporting into JG, Siri has a bright future.

It may have taken a while but Apple seems serious. It’s nice to have a pioneer in the space not stay down for the count!

Voice assistant battles, part two: The strategic importance

August 6, 2018

Here’s the basic motivation that I see in creating Voice Assistants…Build a cross platform user experience that makes it easy for consumers to interact, control and request things through their assistant. This will ease adoption and bring more power to consumers who will use the products more and in doing so create more data for the cloud providers. This “data” will include all sorts of preferences, requests, searches, purchases, and will allow the assistants to learn more and more about the users. The more the assistant knows about any given user, the BETTER the assistant can help the user in providing services such as entertainment and assisting with purchases (e.g. offering special deals on things the consumer might want). Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail:

1. Owning the cross platform user experience and collecting user data to make a better Voice Assistants. ​
For thousands of years consumers interacted with products by touch. Squeezing, pressing, turning, and switching were all the standard means of controlling. The dawn of electronics really didn’t change this and mechanical touch systems became augmented with electrical touch mechanisms. Devices got smarter and had more capabilities but the means to access these capabilities got more confusing with more complicated interfaces and a more difficult user experience. As new sensory technologies began to be deployed (such as gesture, voice, pressure sensors, etc.) companies like Apple emerged as consumer electronics leaders because of their ability to package consumer electronics in a more user friendly manner. With the arrival of Siri on the iPhone and Alexa in the home, voice first user experiences are driving the ease of use and naturalness of interacting with consumer products. Today we find companies like Google and Amazon investing heavily into their hardware businesses and using their Assistants as a means to improve and control the user experience.

Owning the user experience on a single device is not good enough. The goal of each of these voice assistants is to be your personal assistant across devices. On your phone, in your home, in your car, wherever you may go. This is why we see Alexa and Google and Siri all battling for, as an example, a position in automotive. Your assistant wants to be the place you turn for consistent help. In doing so it can learn more about your behaviors…where you go, what you buy, what you are interested in, who you talk to, and what your history is. This isn’t just scary big brother stuff. It’s quite practical. If you have multiple assistants for different things, they may each think of you and know you differently, thereby having a less complete picture. It’s really best for the consumer to have one assistant that knows you best.

For example, let’s take the simple case of finding food when I’m hungry. I might say “I’m hungry.” Then the assistant’s response would be much more helpful the more it knows about me. Does it know I’m a vegetarian? Does it know where I’m located, or whether I am walking or driving? Maybe it knows I’m home and what’s in my refrigerator, and can suggest a recipe…does it know my food/taste preferences? How about cost preferences? Does it have the history of what I have eaten recently, and knows how much variety I’d like? Maybe it should tell me something like “Your wife is at Whole Foods, would you like me to text her a request or call her for you?” It’s easy to see how these voice assistants could really be quite helpful the more it knows about you. But with multiple assistants in different products and locations, it wouldn’t be as complete. In this example it might know I’m home, but NOT know what’s in my fridge. Or it might know what’s in the fridge and know I’m home but NOT know my wife is currently shopping at Whole Foods, etc.

The more I use my assistant across more devices in more situations and over more time, the more data it could gather and the better it should get at servicing my needs and assisting me! It’s easy to see that once it knows me well and is helping me with this knowledge it will get VERY sticky and become difficult to get me to switch to a new assistant that doesn’t know me as well.

2. Entertainment and other service package sales.
Alexa came onto the scene in 2014 with one very special domain – Music. Amazon chose to do one thing really well, and that was make a speaker that could accept voice commands for playing songs, albums, bands, radio. Not long after that Alexa added new domains and moved into new platforms like Fire TV and the Fire stick controller. It’s no coincidence that an Amazon Music service and Amazon TV services both exist and you can wrap even more services into an Amazon Prime membership. When Assistants don’t support Spotify well, there are a lot of complaints. And it’s no surprise that Spotify has been reported to be developing their own assistant and speaker. In fact Comcast has their own voice control remotes. There’s a very close tie between the voice assistants and the services that they bring. Apple is restrictive in what Siri will allow you to listen for. They want to keep you within their eco-system where they make more money. (Maybe it’s this locked in eco-system that has given Apple a more relaxed schedule in improving Siri?). Amazon and Google are really not that different, although they may have different means of leading us to the services they want us to use, they still can influence our choices for media. Spotify has over 70M subscribers (20M paying), over 5 Billion in revenues and recently went public with about a $30B market cap…and Apple Music just overtook Spotify in terms of paying subscribers. Music streaming has turned the music industry into a growth business again. The market for video services is even bigger, and Amazon is one of the top content producers of video! Your assistant will have a lot of influence on the services you choose and how accessible they are. This is one reason why voice assistant providers might be willing to lose money in getting the assistants out to the market, so they can make more money on services. The battle of Voice Assistants is really a battle of who controls your media and your purchases!

3. Selling and recommending products to consumers
The biggest business in the world is selling products. It’s helped make Amazon, Google and Apple the giants that they are today. Google makes the money on advertising, which is an indirect form of selling products. What if your assistant knew what you needed whenever you needed it? It would uproot the entire advertising industry. Amazon has the ability to pull this off. They have the world’s largest online store, they know our purchase histories, they have an awesome rating system that really works, and they have Alexa listening everywhere willing to take our orders. Because assistants use a voice interface, there will be a much more serial approach to making recommendations and selling me things. For example, if I do a text search on a device for nearby vegan restaurants, I see a map with a whole lot of choices and long list of options. Typically these options could include side bars of advertising or “sponsored” restaurants first in the listing, but I’m supplied a long list. If I do a voice search on a smart speaker with no display, it will be awkward to give me more than a few results…and I’ll bet the results we hear will become the “sponsored” restaurants and products.

It would be really obnoxious if Alexa or Siri or Cortana or Google Assistant suddenly suggested I buy something that I wasn’t interested in, but what if it knew what I needed? For example, it could track vitamin usage and ask if I want more before they run out, or it could know how frequently I wear out my shoes, and recommend a sale for my brand and my size, when I really needed them. The more my assistant knows me the better it can “advertise” and sell me in a way that’s NOT obnoxious but really helpful. And of course making extra money in the process!

Voice Assistant Battles, part one

July 25, 2018

I have spoken on a lot of “voice” oriented shows over the years, and it has been disappointing that there hasn’t been more discussion about the competition in the industry and what is driving the huge investments we see today. Because companies like Amazon and Google participate in and sponsor these shows, there is a tendency to avoid the more controversial aspects of the industry. I wrote this blog to share some of my thoughts on what is driving the competition, why the voice assistant space is so strategically important to companies, and some of the challenges resulting from the voice assistant battles

In September of 2017 it was widely reported that Amazon had over 5000 employees working on Alexa with more than 1000 more to be hired. To use a nice round and conservative number, let’s assume an average Alexa employee’s fully weighted cost to Amazon is $200K. With about 6,000 employees on the Alexa team today, that would mean a $1.2 billion investment. Of course, some of this is recouped by the Echo’s and Dot’s bringing in profits, but when you consider that Dots sell for $30-$50 and Echos at $80-$100, it’s hard to imagine a high enough profit to justify the investment through hardware sales. For example, if Amazon can sell 30 million Alexa devices and make an average of $30 per unit profit, that only covers 75% of the cost of the conservative $1.2 billion investment.

Other evidence supporting the huge investments being made in voice assistants is the battle in advertising. Probably the most talked about thing at 2018’s CES show was the enormous position Google took in advertising the Google Assistant. In fact, if you watch any of the most expensive advertising slots on TV (SuperBowl, NBA finals, World Cup, etc.) you will see a preponderance of advertisements with known actors and athletes saying “Hey Google,” “Alexa,” or, “Hey Siri.” (Being in the wakeword business, I particularly like the Kevin Durant “Yo Google” ad!)

And it’s not just the US giants that are investing big into assistants: Docomo, Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba, Naver, and other large international players are developing their own or working with 3rd party assistants.

So what is driving this huge investment companies are making? It’s a multitude of factors including:

  1. Owning the cross platform user experience and collecting user data
  2. Entertainment and other service package sales
  3. Selling and recommending products to consumers

In my next blog, I’ll discuss these three factors in more detail, and in a final blog on this topic I will discuss the challenges being faced by consumer OEMs and service providers that must play in the voice assistant game to not lose out to service and hardware competition from Apple, Amazon, Google, and others.

Smart speakers coming from all over

October 12, 2017

Amazon, Google, Sonos, and LINE all introduced smart speakers within a few weeks of each other. Here’s my quick take and commentary on those announcements.Amazon now has the new Echo, the old Echo, the Echo Plus, Spot, Dot, Show, and Look. The company is improving quality, adding incremental features, lowering cost, and seemingly expanding its leadership position. They make great products for consumers, have a very strong eco-system, and make very tough products to compete with for both their competitors and their many platform partners that use Alexa. Seems that their branding strategy is to use short three- or four-letter names that have Os. The biggest thing that was missing was speaker identification to know who’s talking to it. Interestingly, Amazon just added that capability.

Google execs wore black shirts and jeans in a very ironic-seeming Steve Jobs fashion. They attacked the Amazon Dot with their Mini, and announced the Max to compete with the quality expectations of Sonos and Apple. I didn’t find much innovation in the product line or in their dress, but I’d still rank the Google Assistant as the most capable assistant I’ve used. Of course, Google got caught stealing data, so it makes sense they have more knowledge about us and can make a better assistant.

Sonos invented the Wi-Fi speaker market and has always been known for quality. They announced the Sonos One at a surprisingly aggressive $199 price point. Their unique play is to support Alexa, Assistant, and Siri, starting first with Alexa. Now this would put price pressure on Apple’s planned $349 HomePod, but my guess is that Apple will aggressively sell this into its captive, and demographically wealthy market before they allow Sonos to incorporate Siri. Like Apple, Sonos will have a nice edge in being able to sell into its existing customer base who will certainly want the added convenience and capability of voice control, with their choice of assistant.

American readers might be familiar with LINE, but the company offers a hugely popular communications app that’s been downloaded by about a billion people. They’re big in Japan and owned by Naver, an even bigger Korean company that’s also working on a smart speaker.

Most notable about LINE (besides the unique looking speaker that resembles a cone with the top cut off) is that it appears that they’re not only beating Amazon, Google, Apple, and Sonos to Japan, but they’re also getting there before the Japanese giants like Docomo, Sony, Sharp, and Softbank. And all of these companies are making smart speakers.

Then, there are the Chinese giants who are all making smart speakers, and the old-school speaker companies who are trying to get into the game. It’s going to be crowded very quickly, and I’m very excited to see quality going up and costs staying low.

Alexa on batteries: a life-changing door just opened

September 25, 2017

Several hundred articles have been written about Amazon’s new moves into Smart Glasses with the Alexa assistant. And it’s not just TechCrunch, Gizmodo, The Verge, Engadget, and all the consumer tech pubs doing the writing. It’s also places like but CNBC, USA Today, Fox News, Forbes, and many others.

I’ve read a dozen or more and they all say similar things about Amazon (difficulties in phone hardware), Google (failure in Glass), bone conduction mics, mobility for Alexa, strategy to get Alexa Everywhere, etc. But something big got lost in the shuffle.

Here’s your clue—the day before the Alexa Smart Glasses was announced, Amazon released details of a Fire Tablet upgrade, with one of the key features being a way to make Alexa Handsfree. That’s right, in both the glasses and the Fire Tablet, we have Alexa implementations running on batteries.

This is a REALLY big deal! This means that Amazon has already caught up to Google in being able to implement low-power devices with its handsfree Alexa Assistant. Is this important? Yes, it is. It may be the most important battle to be waged in the Assistant wars. This is because the assistant we want is the invisible assistant that’s embedded into our bodies and our clothing. This assistant would be so small that it enables a seamless experience to augment our intelligence and capabilities without anyone even knowing. This assistant has to be low power, and handsfree Alexa is now enabled in extremely power sensitive modes. Kudos to Amazon!

Assistant vs Alexa: 8 things not discussed (enough)

October 14, 2016

I watched Sundar and Rick and the team at Google announce all the great new products from Google. I’ve read a few reviews and comparisons with Alexa/Assistant and Echo/Home, but it struck me that there’s quite an overlap in the reports I’m reading and some of the more interesting things aren’t being discussed. Here are a few of them, roughly in increasing order of importance:

  1. John Denver. Did anybody notice that the Google Home advertisement using John Denver’s Country Road song? Really? Couldn’t they have found something better? Country Roads didn’t make PlayBuzz’s list of the 15 best “home” songs or Jambase’s top 10 Home Songs Couldn’t someone have Googled “best home songs” to find something better?
  2. Siri and Cortana. With all the buzz about Amazon vs. Google, I’m wondering what’s up with Siri and Cortana? Didn’t see much commentary on that.
  3. AI acquisitions. Anybody notice that Google acquired API.ai? API.ai always claimed to have the highest rated voice assistant in the playstore. They called it “Assistant.” Hm. Samsung just acquired VIV – that’s Adam, Dag, Marco, and company that were behind the original Siri. Samsung has known for a while that they couldn’t trust Google and they always wanted to keep a distance.
  4. Assistant is a philosophical change. Google’s original positioning for its voice services were that Siri and Cortana could be personal assistants, but Google was just about getting to the information fast, not about personalities or conversations. The name “assistant” implies this might be changing.
  5. Google: a marketing company? Seems like Google used to pride itself of being void of marketing. They had engineers. Who needs marketing? This thinking came through loud and clear in the naming of their voice recognizer. Was it Google Voice, Google Now, OK Google? Nobody new. This historical lack of marketing and market focus was probably harmful. It would be fatal in an era of moving more heavily into hardware. That’s probably why they brought on Rick Osterloh, who understands hardware and marketing. Rick, did you approve that John Denver song?
  6. Data. Deep learning is all about data. Data that’s representative and labeled is the key. Google has been collecting and classifying all sorts of data for a very long time. Google will have a huge leg up on data for speech recognition, dialogs, pictures, video, searching, etc. Amazon is relatively new to the voice game, and it is at quite a disadvantage in the data game.
  7. Shopping. The point of all these assistants isn’t about making our lives better; it’s about getting our money. Google and Amazon are businesses with a profit motive, right? Google is very good at getting advertising dollars through search. Amazon is, among other things, very good at getting shoppers money (and they probably have a good amount of shopping data). If Amazon knows our buying habits and preferences and has the review system to know what’s best, then who wants ads? Just ship me what I need and if you get it wrong, let me return it hassle free. I don’t blame Google for trying to diversify. The ad model is under attack by Amazon through Alexa, Dash, Echo, Dot, Tap, etc.
  8. Personalization, privacy, embedded. Sundar talked a bit about personalization. He’s absolutely right that this is the direction assistants need to move (even if speaker verification isn’t built into the first Home units). Personalization occurs by collecting a lot of data about each individual user – what you sound like, how you say things, what music you listen to, what you control in your house, etc. Sundar didn’t talk much about privacy, but if you read user commentary on these home devices, the top issue by far relates to an invasion of privacy, which directly goes against personalization. The more privacy you give up, the more personalization you get. Unless… What if your data isn’t going to the cloud? What if it’s stored on your device in your home? Then privacy is at less risk, but the benefits of personalization can still exist. Maybe this is why Google briefly hit on the Embedded Assistant! Google gets it. More of the smarts need to move onto the device to ensure more privacy!
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