Smart Home

Alexa talks down to voice rivals at IFA 2017

Is Amazon's voice control system gaining ground over Siri, Google Assistant, Cortana and Bixby?

The Amazon Echo, Tap and Echo Dot.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Thousands of technology manufacturers, journalists and fans are passing through Europe's biggest tech trade show this week, and there's one thing they're all talking about -- or rather, talking to: Alexa.

Amazon's Alexa is one of many systems vying to be your gateway to a voice-controlled future. Early adopters are already talking to their phones,  smart home and home entertainment kits -- but you have to commit to an ecosystem before you can buy new kit. So as Alexa jockeys with Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana, Google's Voice Assistant and Samsung's Bixby, manufacturers and consumers attending the IFA 2017 trade show in Berlin face the same dilemma: Which one to pick? 

Until recently Alexa was only available in Amazon's own Echo family of smart-home hubs. These glorified speaker systems are estimated to have sold by the millions, but they're really only the start of Alexa's capabilities.

Amazon is pushing Alexa hard, with flashy booths at this year's IFA and its US equivalent, CES. The company's vice president of smart home, Daniel Rausch, told CNET in an interview last month that he wanted to see the company's Alexa voice assistant "become a fabric in the home." At IFA we've seen that play out with a whole host of Alexa-powered smart speakers, robots, lawnmowers and even pianos made by a range of third-party brands.

disklavier-enspire-home-landscape

Yes, pianos: Yamaha's Disklavier piano is now Alexa-connected.

Yamaha

According to the estimates by CNET, various analysts and Amazon itself (no, it doesn't know for sure), there could be as many as 30 Alexa products at the show.

And that's only the beginning.

Amazon's little helper could earn the company $10 billion in revenue by 2020, according to a note issued by investment bank RBC Capital Markets back in March. To do this Alexa will have to be more than just a smart assistant in your countertop speaker. It'll have to be a whole platform. But there's an awful lot of competition.

"Voice interactions are poised to be the virtual knobs and buttons for a future generation of users," said CCS Insight Analyst Ben Wood in an email to CNET, "so it's little surprise all the big players want their platforms to grab a decent share of the market -- be that Alexa, Siri, Google's Assistant or Bixby."

Amazon has to work hard to grab that share. Siri, Cortana and Google Assistant have the advantage of being built into iOS, Windows and Android devices, respectively, meaning millions of phone and computer owners have already taken their first step into choosing a voice ecosystem, whether they intended to or not. 

Google Assistant -- invoked by saying "OK Google" -- has also popped up in several products on display at IFA. But some of those that include it by default as part of Android, such as the Moto X4 and Wileyfox Swift 2 phones, also include Alexa.

One manufacturer with an interesting angle on this decision is Harman, which produces a number of brands of audio kit at different prices. Harman has hedged its bets, offering Alexa, Google Assistant and Cortana across its Harman Kardon, JBL and Invoke product lines.

Perhaps tellingly, Harman has put Alexa in the higher-end Harman Kardon Allure speaker, but plumped for "OK, Google" in its budget JBL Link speaker.

Harman VP of Technology Strategy Kevin Hague insisted the company isn't suggesting Alexa is the more high-end product. He said there wasn't much "rhyme or reason" behind the decision about which assistant to use in which product, beyond a desire to give customers a choice.

Even the most tech-savvy consumers could be forgiven for being overwhelmed by all these options. "It is probably difficult to make that decision today," said Hague. 

Another manufacturer, audio brand Monster -- you may remember it as the company that originally built Beats headphones -- has come up with a novel way to sidestep the problem. Instead of confusing us with different ecosystems, voice-controlled Monster products will always be branded "MonsterTalk." The difference is behind the scenes: Each product will be powered by the most appropriate voice control system for its function, whether that's Alexa or something else.

"The big guys aren't truly portable," product manager James Peterson told CNET at IFA. So for products such as Monster iSport headphones, which are designed to be taken out of the house and used specifically for music, MonsterTalk is powered by Melody. Melody is a specifically music-focused voice assistant that manages your streaming services and works over a cellular data connection. But for Monster Blaster speakers that stay in your home, MonsterTalk is powered by Alexa.

"We're not just throwing crap against the wall," said Peterson, "like we have to throw everything in because we don't know who's going to win the race."

Harman's Hague believes that once assistants can talk to each other you won't need to commit to one over another. And indeed, just days ago, Amazon and Microsoft announced that Alexa and Cortana would work together, giving you access to Amazon skills and Windows Office 365 work-related features in the same device. Hague sees devices that support multiple voice assistants as "a natural progression." 

Monster's Peterson also sees the market heading toward devices that support all the voice assistants in one box. "Probably people will expect it," he said. "But it has to be relevant to what we do -- otherwise they're toys."

We're yet to see how the partnership between Alexa and Cortana will change the market, let alone what'll happen if Samsung makes a success of Bixby. And we'll likely never see Siri and Google Assistant in one device, which means we'll still have to choose sides to some extent. 

The market is still wide open. But at IFA 2017, Alexa is the voice assistant doing all the talking.

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