Amazon

How Amazon won the voice war for now?

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Written by Kamil Arli

Tech Columnist Jefferson Graham wrote an article on Amazon.

Apple’s Siri has been around five years, but Amazon’s Alexa is the coolest kid on the voice- computing block now.

At least, so it seemed at this month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where many manufacturers touted their Alexa functionality as a major selling for 35 new product introductions, including a car, refrigerator, smartphone, robot, Internet router and vacuum cleaner.

THERE IS A REAL HUNGER FOR THE NEXT BIG THING

“There’s a real hunger for the next big thing,” says Benedict Evans, a partner with investment firm Andreessen Horowitz. “It was web apps, then bots, and now it’s voice interfaces.”

Voice computing eases up on the hands, to use your voice to play music and podcasts, control the smart home, answer questions and in Amazon’s case, make it easier to buy products.

 ALEXA IS THE ASSISTANT STAR OF AMAZON’S 179 Ş ECHO

Alexa is the assistant star of Amazon’s $179 Echo and $39 Dot speakers, products that were sold out at the end 2016 and are still unavailable. They won’t start shipping again until the end of the month, says the e-tailer.

Did Alexa end up in all those new products at CES — categories you won’t find Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana, because Alexa was so much better at voice? Or was it just brilliant marketing and dumb luck?

Maybe for question 1, and a definite yes for number 2.

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“If you want to add a voice assistant to your product, you can try to build it on your own, or do a partnership with Amazon, which has already brand recognition,” says Evans.

Apple wasn’t at CES, and Siri is still locked within the iPhone, iPad and Macintosh computers. Cortana is also a Microsoft products exclusive, while rival Google is signing up partners to work with its new Google Home connected speaker, cutting deals with Mercedes Benz and Hyundai to bring Google Assistant to the car. It’s list of partners online is small, especially compared to Amazon, but there’s a good reason.

AMAZON HAD A YEAR’S HEAD START ON GOOGLE

“Amazon had a year’s head start on Google,” says Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies. The Echo initially was released to the general public in 2015.

“I spoke to a lot of vendors at CES, and they told me Alexa was the most available AI based operating system they could hang their shingle to work with,” adds Bajarin.

Amazon admits the company has been on an ambitious plan to sign up partners to spread Alexa everywhere. “We‘ll never be able to build all the potential devices out there between smart home and wearables, and automobiles,” Amazon Alexa vice president Steve Rabuchin recently told USA TODAY. “We can’t do it alone.”

WE ASKED CONSUMERS HOW THEY FELT ABOUT SIRI, ALEXA

We asked consumers how they felt about Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google, and our social media lit up.

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“Out of the box Alexa could do all these things that Siri couldn’t do,” says Emilia Kubo Kirschenbaum, a tech manager for the Chief ad agency in Washington, D.C.

Kirschenbaum has grown used to hands-free functions like entering her apartment and ordering Alexa to turn on the lights or verbally asking Alexa to turn off the alarm.

Evans says Apple was hurt by first-mover advantage. Siri is clearly stronger and more responsive today than when it launched in 2011, but many consumers remember the initial, poor experience and never came back. Kirschenbaum had tried Siri initially, didn’t like the results, and just stopped using it.

Melissa Hourigan of Denver told us on Facebook that she has Dot, the smaller Echo speaker, for her children, and she loves how they’re hands free and don’t require a screen. They also eliminate the need to have a phone and pay a monthly service charge.

Kathryn Freeman from Austin likes the variety of third-party app, called “skills,” for Alexa. She says they’re “much greater than they are for Siri.”

Jim Edds from Pensacola, Fla., likes Alexa for a simple reason. “She understands my commands. She understand’s my wife’s commands and my children,” Edds says.

In fall, Apple updated Siri by opening the technology to third-party developers, offering the ability to order an Uber and name songs via the Shazam app, but reviews for the upgrade weren’t kind.

But don’t count Apple out. Siri still has her fans.

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“I think Siri is superior in terms of conversational awareness and question answering,” said Michela Paganini, a PhD candidate at Yale, on Twitter.

It’s also good to remember that even if Amazon has sold more than 10 million devices, according to analysts, and has ambitions to get the Echo and Dot into every home, Apple has sold more than 1 billion iPhones, and most have Siri on them.

Google Home, released in fall as a $129 Alexa competitor, has its fans, and it’s slowly adding more partners, mostly in the smart home category. “Google Home smokes them both,” says Josh Haftel, a product manager for software giant Adobe.

Amazon clearly exploited a situation that worked out for the company. But whether the products take off is another question. CES is notorious for introducing products that make a splash in January, but lead short, quiet lives after they launch.

Meanwhile, Alexa can go into many products this year, but whether she will see the same kind of success outside of the Amazon world is questionable, notes Evans. “Alexa has been snapped up by early adopters and core Amazon users,” he says. “The mass market will have to decide how it feels about a device in the home that’s listening to everything you say, and whether it wants more of that in say, every room of the house.

“This is the year we’ll find out if the hype is real and whether it lasts.”

Follow USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham on Twitter, @jeffersongraham and subscribe to the daily #TalkingTech podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. 

About the author

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Kamil Arli

Editor of DigitalReview.co. Digital Media Consultant

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