I had the pleasure of attending Amazon’s “AskAlexa” event at its Seattle Day 1 headquarters. I attend or observer over 50 events a year, and while I think details matter, sometimes the broad strokes stick out more than the tip of the paintbrush. There was a lot to consume and analyze in what seemed like a firehose of new announcements on-stage, but there were patterns.
Simpler setup- “Certified For Humans”
To some, setting up any piece of a smart home is difficult, even if it’s one device like a smart light bulb. You might need to fight our way through packaging that requires a box cutter. Most smart home devices have their own apps, too, so when you want it to interact with Alexa, you need to add a skill to the Alexa app, and now you have two apps. If some of the less tech-savvy consumers make it this far, they likely won’t know it’s time to do a firmware update to increase security, functionality, or reliability.
To help with this issue, Amazon introduced “Certified for Humans” a designation that represents that this product is easy for newbies or the less tech-centric. "Certified for Humans" designated products ship with frustration-free setup, setup directly from Alexa app and silent OTA (over the air) updates.
I think this is a good start to the program, but undoubtedly Amazon will be enhancing it over time.
More private- “Auto Delete”
While I believe Amazon has done a good job with privacy, it is upping its game when it comes to Alexa recording and actions.
As we have seen from Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft, to improve cognition of the spoken word, small snippets of recordings (with no personally identifiable information) needed to be checked by a human so the service outcome could be improved. A year ago, consumers needed to call a customer service number to get recordings deleted. Amazon upped its game with “Auto Delete” where consumers can choose to delete recordings after 3 or 18 months. I never had any issues with any of this as I wanted the best Alexa outcomes; this should help other classes of consumer who did have an issue.
There were also some memes where Alexa did things people thought it shouldn’t be doing, like messaging people or saying weird and creepy things. For this, Amazon introduced “Alexa, why did you do that,” and “Alexa, tell me what you heard.” This will help consumers learn why it performed certain actions and what Alexa thought you said. So if Alexa does or says something and you want to know what happened, ask her.
More personal- Echo buds, frames, loop
Amazon is worth a trillion dollars, but not because it owns web and search (Google) or smartphones (Apple) profits. Amazon owns e-commerce with its web store, cloud services with AWS, and increasingly, the smart home. To help disintermediate web search and smartphone usage, Amazon needs to create better ways to get things done and get answers quickly. And that answer is Alexa. One of the challenges though is to make the experience up close and personal. Part of that is creating a trusted service, but the other part is to bring the device closer to the user.
Enter Echo buds, Echo frames, and Echo loop.
Echo loop is a titanium-framed smart ring where the user taps a tiny button for Alexa, listen to responses with a small speaker, and feel a vibration for notifications. Loop is what Amazon is calling a “Day 1 Editions” product, which is an invite-only program. Products designated as Day 1 Editions are cutting edge, maybe lower in volume, and may not have a perfected value proposition. Loop, for example, doesn’t have the full assortment of ring sizes or colors available.
Another Day 1 Editions product is Echo frames, which are Alexa-enabled smart glasses. At 31g, the glasses are light, can be prescription, and have directional mics and speakers. I can’t wait to try these out.
A personal device but not a Day 1 Edition product are Echo buds, smart earbuds to listen to music, play games, do phone calls, and invoke Alexa. Buds come with dual drivers, and I have to say, I was very impressed with how deep the sound was and how much noise was blocked with Bose active noise reduction. The outside of buds are active, and I can tap twice for pass-through mode, and tap and hold to access my smartphone’s digital assistant. You can just say “Alexa” to invoke her. Five hours of battery life is more than most would need on a single charge, but for those who need more, you can get 20 hours with the charging case.
For Alexa to fully disintermediate current UI, it needs to be everywhere. When you’re not in smartphones, it takes a bit more work, even if Alexa is in thousands of unique products with access to 100,000 Alexa Skills. Amazon alone said in January it shipped 100M of its own Alexa devices, so think about how many more third-party devices have sold with Alexa. Still, that doesn’t mean Alexa is everywhere. The new personal devices I outlined above are good as they are with the user at all times, but what if you’re not wearing buds, frames, or loop, or aren’t in voice shot of an Echo or Fire TV?
Enter Flex, Amazon Sidewalk, and a deal with GM.
Echo Flex is what Nvidia Spot was supposed to be. Flex is a way to put Alexa wherever an Echo or Fire TV may not make sense, like in a bathroom, hallway, garage, or basement. Flex plugs right into a wall power socket and has a microphone, small speaker, and a USB port on the bottom to add a smart motion sensor, nightlight, or charge a phone. Amazon will sell a ton of these.
Amazon Sidewalk is a new protocol in the 900mhz spectrum the company devised for situations where the devices are too far from away Bluetooth and WiFi but don’t need the lower latency or higher performance of 4G and 5G. Amazon says Sidewalk was also designed for devices that needed to operate on battery for many months.
Amazon cited two examples of where this could be the case. The first was "Fetch" a prototype to track your dog from "500m up to a mile". The other was Nest outdoor lights. I have to do a lot of research on this as I have many questions on security, noisy neighbors, mesh creation, QoS, etc.
General Motors, the fourth largest automobile manufacturer globally and #1 in the US, issued a release saying it would embrace Alexa. It’s about time. Specifically, GM said it would make Alexa available on model year 2018 and newer cars, trucks, and crossovers through an OTA update.
Amazon sprayed us with a firehose of new products, services, and developer APIs today. I am hoping Mark Vena, Moor Insights & Strategy Smarthome analyst will fill in my blind spots from the event. Forbes contributor David Phelan wrote a nice piece here that shows most all the products. Amazon also announced a Smart Oven with scan to cook, new Eero mesh routers with Alexa controls, new kid’s features like parental controls, Ring Indoor Cams, Echo Glow for kids, Echo Dot with Clock, Echo Studio, Echo Show 8, improved (lifelike, celebrity voices like Samuel L. Jackson, multi-lingual, and emotive) Alexa voice, Alexa Guard improvements, many APIs, RDKs and SDKs.
Amazon, with this announcement, reinforced again, why it’s the king of the smart home.