While researching the best smart thermostats you can buy today, I noticed something interesting. Many of the newer models of these products have Amazon’s Alexa assistant built right in. This piqued my interest because I was reminded of Amazon’s announcement to inject Alexa into multiple products back at CES 2017. While the company has been rapidly developing new hardware over the last six months, announcing three new products in the last two alone, it’s become quite evident to me that Amazon cares less about the competitiveness of its Echo hardware than it does about the software that lives inside.
Sure, anyone can create a “skill” that allows their product to work with Alexa-enabled devices, but what about literally injecting the virtual assistant into their product? Apparently, that’s quite an enticing option for hardware manufacturers as well, and it’s relatively easy to insert a microphone and speakers into your device. Amazon is not only allowing companies to use their assistant API, they WANT you to. Getting their assistant everywhere they possibly can allows them to perform their core function more often, and that core function is using Amazon services.
Amazon doesn't see its voice assistant as a luxury add-on, it's the core product.
Amazon doesn’t see its voice assistant as a luxury add-on, it’s the core product. Sure, it’s worthwhile for manufacturers to integrate Amazon’s assistant to add more value to their product, but that is exactly what Amazon wants.
Offering Alexa for free makes it incredibly enticing for manufacturers to utilize the service, as it requires no additional overhead past making sure the product has a decent microphone and speaker system. Amazon pays the server costs, and everybody wins. The more devices Amazon can put Alexa into the more Amazon products and services they can get their customers hooked on. Prime Music? 2 day shipping? The ability to utilize these services with your voice alone is an enticing prospect, and utilizing this in as many places as possible is the way forward for Amazon.
So how many devices has Alexa made its home in? At CES 2017 we saw over 20 products NOT made by Amazon which are giving the smart assistant refuge, with many, many more coming in the near future. Though it’s been a good half year since these products were announced, we’re likely to see even more manufacturers jumping on the smart assistant train as the year sizzles to a close.
Amazon’s niche expansion
As mentioned above, Amazon has released or announced a number of new first-party Alexa devices looking to hit the market this year. The newest additions, the Echo Look, Echo Show, and Dash Wand are devices which, while great in theory, are likely not meant for the average consumer. Ok, the Echo Show may actually work quite well as a spiritual successor of the original Echo, adding visual functionality to an already bustling voice-based ecosystem but the Echo Look and Dash Wand are products which almost strictly serve the purpose of pushing Alexa integration into markets that have previously have been difficult to break into.
Take a Look
Let’s take another glance at the Echo Look. The clothing market is something that Amazon has been attempting to break into for a long time now. Heck, the best selling item in Amazon’s “Clothing, Shoes, and Jewelry” section at the time of writing is a set of Crocs Shoes.
Yes, I’m serious.
Customers have a hard time purchasing clothing online because shopping for clothes is a very personal experience. Even though Amazon is trying to make it as easy as possibly to return things you might not like, there is a certain irreplaceable experience associated with going to a store and trying on clothes.
Sure, Amazon isn’t exactly marketing the Echo Look as a means of selling more clothes, but really, who do you think this product is for? The Echo Look gives you style assessments using machine learning algorithms which can tell you how well your clothes go together, and where do you think people are going to go that want to improve their style score?
You guessed it, Amazon.
For those that actually integrate the new Echo Look into their lives, shopping for clothes is going to become a completely new process. Amazon may not have marketed the Echo Look as having the ability to show you style recommendations, but at this point they would be crazy not to. The retailer already uses your recent searches to predict what you’re interested in and feed you new products, it may as well do the same for clothing.
Feed your desires
Another strangely niche product the company opted to announce in the last month is the Amazon Dash Wand. Sure, this product isn’t marketed as an Echo device, but it has many of the same Alexa functions built right in. Amazon is making an extremely hard fling at the grocery industry, both with the purchase of Whole Foods Markets and their variety of same or next day grocery delivery services. Though especially convenient, many consumers are still very hesitant to jump into a world where everything from their clothes to their food is delivered to their doorstep.
The Dash Wand is also essentially free, costing a cool $20 but issuing you a $20 credit upon activation. That’s not an accident.
Though the company has made leaps and bounds in the couple of years the service has been available, the market is still dominated by brick and mortar chains that will fight tooth and nail to keep their dominant position. The Dash Wand is also essentially free, costing a cool $20 but issuing you a $20 credit upon activation. That’s not an accident, either. Amazon wouldn’t be willing to give away anything for free unless they were sure they were getting something in return. In this case, it’s potential grocery customers.
Where’s the competition?
Smart assistants like Google Home are doing a great job of competing with a lot of Alexa’s core abilities, but they are fighting for a different market. Google has moved Google Assistant from being a Pixel-exclusive feature to making an appearance in almost every smartphone moving forward.
The problem here lies in the fact that Google Assistant works differently across almost every platform it inhabits. Google has put the Assistant in Android devices, Google Home, and Google Allo, but the capabilities of each are broken up so that there is no one place to make everything work. Google Assistant is not a ubiquitous system.
Amazon is taking a different approach. With Alexa, whether she lives in your Echo, Echo Dot, Thermostat, or even your car, she has much of the same functionality. It is the system that’s important, not the hardware. Where Google seems to be working to make sure the apps and hardware the Assistant live on are top-notch, Amazon is leaving that to OEMs and building Alexa into something it thinks can take over the world.
It’s all about dependency
In the end, Amazon wants you to love Alexa. They want you to become so dependent on its capabilities that it lives in every aspect of your life, enabling you to purchase things and use Amazon services more than you ever would have before. By allowing the maker of your thermostat, car, and even phone to integrate such an advanced virtual assistant, they are naturally upping the value to the end user, which allows OEMs to offer more for an extremely low cost to them. When this happens, everybody wins, because the service truly becomes about something that Amazon, customers, and OEMs all contribute to in order to keep it running.
If a company doesn’t offer hardware, it is just as easy to create an Alexa skill to add value to your app or service. The convenience of ordering an Uber or Lyft with your voice will help to entice almost anyone to use the service that much more, and it gives Amazon the dependency they are looking for on their core platform. At a point where users begin to transition from traditional apps and services into seamless voice control, Amazon will control a large part of the app market by extension, something which no other home assistant has cracked thus far. Samsung’s Bixby has a similar idea in mind, but is light years behind Alexa and currently only works with a limited number of Samsung apps.
It’s evident that Amazon is going all in with their Alexa virtual assistant. The product is evolving every single day, as companies and individuals develop new hardware and skills that utilizes the technology. We’ve still got another half of 2017 to get through, and it seems like we’ve barely scratched the surface of the potential we saw at CES this year. As third party manufacturers iterate on their existing products to make them smarter than ever, Amazon will continue to move towards it’s goal of total industry domination.
Agnostic software can be a powerful thing.