From Las Vegas to Chattanooga, Amazon starts the new year evangelizing all things Alexa.
A motorcycle helmet? Yep, that works with Alexa. The Rachio 3 sprinkler controller? That, too. How about that guy over there playing a Roland keyboard? OK, we'll be here all day if we keep this up.
Amazon's Alexa booth at last week's CES tech show in Las Vegas emphasized one point to death: If electricity runs through it, it can work with the Alexa voice assistant. The centerpiece of the bathed-in-Alexa-blue booth was an Audi e-tron sedan beneath a giant circular billboard filled with voice commands, including "Alexa, how's the traffic to the airport?" and "Alexa, buy air freshener for my car."
Just around the corner in the Sands Expo, in a far less flashy meeting room, Pete Thompson, vice president of Alexa Voice Service, outlined some of Amazon's plans for the digital assistant in the new year, including making Alexa a default feature in new devices and appliances .
"I think about the kid that walks up now to any screen and touches it because they just assume it's a touchscreen," he said. "They're gonna walk up to devices and just start talking to them. And if it doesn't respond, they're gonna be like, 'What the heck? Is it broken?'"
To fulfill that vision, Amazon will need to convince a lot more people they need Alexa, which dominates the smart speaker market worldwide. As of now, 32 percent of Americans own a smart speaker, which is massive growth from virtually zero just four years ago when Amazon's Echo speaker and Alexa first launched. But it's far from ubiquitous. And as Alexa pushes deeper into the mainstream market, it may face resistance from customers who don't want to talk to their machines, don't see a point to voice assistants or don't trust tech companies enough to plug in devices with always-on microphones.
"There really isn't a clear value proposition that jumps out," said Jack Narcotta, a Strategy Analytics smart-home analyst, "that killer product that you just say, man I've got to have this."
Also, as CES showed, the competition is catching up to Amazon, with some analysts predicting Google will eventually steal its crown. Google, currently the No. 2 player in smart speakers, crammed its Assistant into a CVS-receipt-long list of new products at CES, including a KitchenAid smart display, a Gourmia multicooker and a Moen smart shower. All these new products, along with Google's blanket advertising and over-the-top booth at CES, show how aggressive the search giant plans to be this year in shaking up the voice hierarchy.
Samsung's Bixby, Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana are much smaller players in the digital assistant battle, but they too could find targeted ways to steal Alexa's customers.
Amazon's Thompson offered a positive spin on Google and other rivals' push into voice.
"It's great to see all the energy and activity and investment from lots of companies," he said. "It drives awareness with customers, it drives credibility, it drives the interest for people to learn more about it."
Along with working to make Alexa a constant presence, Miriam Daniel, vice president of Echo and Alexa devices, said Amazon this year plans to make the voice assistant more proactive and ambient.
Hints of these efforts are already coming up. One example is Hunches, which gets Alexa to offer friendly reminders like suggesting you lock the door when you tell it "goodnight." Another concept is Alexa Guard, which alerts you if it catches the sounds of breaking glass or a smoke alarm going off while you're out of the house.
"Alexa will be able to look at your patterns and suggest stuff for you," she said, adding that the company tests these features first with beta customers to make sure they are concepts people will be comfortable with and actually want. "The ambient Alexa things will be things you authorize Alexa to do."
As Alexa continues to grow, it will need to digest more kinds of customer data, including location information. When asked about protecting all that data, Thompson said: "Data privacy and security have always been fundamental to Alexa. It's not going to work if we don't get those right."
Amazon used CES to tout its leadership in voice, saying there are now more than 28,000 smart home devices from more than 4,500 brands that work with Alexa. That's up from over 20,000 and 3,500, since September. Also, more than 150 products now have Alexa built in, including headphones, thermostats, PCs, cars and light switches.
Google said it's also working on making its Assistant more conversational and said it expanded to 80 countries in 2018, up from 14 the year earlier.
One area Thompson wasn't as bullish about was creating an Alexa-enabled phone, despite rumors that crop up every now and then that the company will eventually build a second Fire Phone. The original, which came out in 2014, flopped within months. "I don't know if it'll be a big focus for us," Thompson said. Instead, he said, Amazon is happy with its current Alexa phone app.
Worldwide, Alexa is in about 51 million smart speakers, while Google is in about 24 million, according to IHS Markit. But thanks to the global popularity of Google's Android operating system, Google is expected to overtake Amazon by 2023, according to researchers at both Canalys and IHS Markit. Granted, four years is a very long time in the tech industry, so a lot could happen before then.
"It's just a matter of time," said Blake Kozak, an IHS Markit smart home analyst.
As Amazon fights to remain the market leader, its push to bring Alexa to even more products may start to become a liability.
"Alexa, in a way has almost been too successful," Narcotta, from Strategy Analytics, said. "Go on Amazon and search for smart light bulbs. You're completely overwhelmed."
To ease more people into the Alexa world, he suggested Amazon create more gadgets with Alexa built in to bring the voice assistant to more parts of the home. The company should also develop more products that are dead simple to set up at home, getting rid of a major headache for smart home devices, he said. Amazon introduced Wi-Fi Simple Setup in September to alleviate this issue, but the feature is just getting started.
Amazon's work to draw in more Alexa acolytes continued this week in Chattanooga, Tennessee, far from the bright lights of Las Vegas. That's where Paul Cutsinger, an Alexa exec who works with developers to design new skills, spoke to about 150 voice enthusiasts at the VoiceFirst.fm Alexa Conference.
His job: Help them help Alexa. Amazon, after all, has created thousands of places for Alexa to live, but those devices aren't worth much without useful software from independent developers.
"I really believe it's the indies of the world who make things happen," he told the crowd. "They make it happen in music, they make it happen in movies, they make it happen on mobile."
This year, he added, Amazon will begin to offer Alexa developer certification courses, complete with an exam. Those who pass get the developer equivalent of a blue "verified" checkmark on their CV.
One recurring theme in Chattanooga came from speakers in health care, gaming and storytelling with sights set on Alexa. All of them see voice as a legitimate new platform, and all of them want in.
"We're going to constantly push back the frontier as we see it," said Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari and now makes interactive Alexa board games. "Look for new things, weird things."
Ken Sakal, CEO of health care startup Vohesu and a panelist at the conference, talked about developing an Alexa skill for patients with rheumatoid arthritis, who have a hard time using their fingers. "It first shows up in hands and feet, so spending time on a keyboard can be difficult," Sakal said.
"With patients with chronic diseases, a big challenge is depression," he added. "That's a use case that we're actively working on." A fellow panelist from the Mayo Clinic, which offers an Alexa first-aid skill, nodded knowingly as he spoke.
One room over, restaurateur and Monkey Group President Mo Asgari pointed out that while most takeout and catering orders happen via mobile, people still prefer placing their orders with a phone call. That could turn into a new opportunity for Alexa, which can already take orders for Domino's, Denny's and Starbucks. Google is also working in this area, creating human-like bot called Duplex that can make appointments and reservations on your behalf.
"People like to talk," he told a room of developers as they typed away at their laptops. "They like to be very specific about their order."
Much of this potential has yet to materialize, but Amazon hopes that a well-motivated army of developers can make it happen.
Back in Las Vegas, Amazon's team there was hoping it, too, could encourage even more hardware makers to build stuff for Alexa, ensuring that the voice assistant keeps expanding rapidly this year. Amazon's Daniel mentioned how Amazon came out with about a dozen new products last fall, but its Alexa partners came out with 100.
"We're at a tipping point," she said.
Ben Fox Rubin reporting from Las Vegas. Ry Crist reporting from Chattanooga.
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