Alexa, tell Apple history is repeating itself.
We’re in the middle of a new industry battle. Its significance is somewhere between Mac vs. PC and Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD. In the future, who will turn on your oven? Alexa, Siri, or Google? In the AI-driven future, the software you talk to will be a big deal.
I appreciate both Amazon and Google’s approach to a smart-home assistant. Google’s prowess in AI, search, and knowing everything about you will give it a serious edge in this race. Their rumored home assistant/WiFi combo device is an excellent idea. Google is also already thinking through current issues in home assistants: multiple users. However, this story concerns mainly Amazon and Apple. Their two product lines are going in very different directions.
The Two Rivals
Apple’s ‘fashionably late’ strategy shows up again with the HomePod, a Siri-powered speaker with some serious audio chops. If you already live comfortably within Apple’s ecosystem of Apple Music, iDevices, and are happy with Siri, there is no doubt you’ll be pleased. Not only do early impressions agree that it’s speaker array and audio processing sound impressive, but it also doubles as a HomeKit base. HomeKit, to date, requires the presence of your iPhone to authenticate commands to your smart home devices. With a HomePod, you can use your Apple devices to control your home from the internet. ‘Hey Siri, play my favorite songs.’ will spring the HomePod to life, playing you music you listen to often. Siri’s home presence is available across the room, or on your wrist.
The Echo started the home assistant race with its black cylinder that plays music, keeps your shopping list, or ordering things from Amazon just by talking to it. Its ability to connect with the accounts of your current smart objects and having an API to create ‘skills’ makes the Echo’s abilities grow rapidly. Amazon has since expanded the Echo line to the low-cost Dot, the portable Tap, the Look which analyses your wardrobe, and the Show which has a screen to display information and enable video calling. The echo lineup recently introduced a communication system that allows Echo owners to call or message each other. Amazon allows any hardware manufacturer to incorporate Alexa into any product with a speaker and microphone. The Ecobee 4 smart thermostat has Alexa built-in. LG has Alexa in it’s latest smart refrigerators. Ford is using Alexa for the most recent generation of Sync in its cars. Alexa will be everywhere.
This echoes (*wink*) back to the Mac vs. PC war. Apple, shunning third-party hardware, wanting to keep their software on well-crafted Apple-made hardware, and Microsoft wanting their software running on everything that processes. Apple fought in the PC market without advancing it, and it nearly wrecked them. When they joined the MP3 player race, they did so with a groundbreaking way to buy music. Amazon is the innovator in the home space. My two six-year-olds use Alexa daily to check the weather, the date, hear ‘kid jokes,’ and send messages to their grandparents. They’ve listened to books, confirmed animal facts, and more. If I’m a parseltongue, they are the AI native. Alexa’s ubiquity, skill, and forgiving ease of use will create a growing divide as my children grow up.
The Future Will Be Alexa
The divide between what Alexa and Siri can do will continue to grow with Amazon’s ambitions and openness. Right now, Alexa can order you pizza. Siri can look up and call a pizzeria. Alexa can reorder paper towels. Siri looks up places to buy towels. Soon, you’ll order groceries delivered within an hour. Conversely, anything Siri can do, Alexa can do better, except for communication on your phone. I don’t see anything to suggest that changing. What could Apple’s killer feature possibly be? My wishlist would hardly be groundbreaking: Hey Siri, play my home playlist from Spotify in my living room. Hey Siri, buy John Wick 2. Siri certainly could do these things, and likely will one day (I’m calling it now: WWDC ’18. “This is the best Siri ever.”). By the time Apple makes comfortable, incremental improvements, Alexa will be making lattes, balancing your portfolio, and ordering groceries automatically through the Echo Eat.