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How Amazon Will Get Alexa Everywhere

Decoding the “Alexa Avalanche” and what brands need to do in response

Image credit: Digital Trends

Last Thursday, Amazon held a surprise hardware event where it unleashed an avalanche of updates for Alexa and Alexa-powered devices. For detailed coverage of all the announcements, check out this comprehensive roundup put together by Business Insider. Here, we will focus on the new devices and features that are set to bring new opportunities for brands, before turning our sights to the larger voice computing landscape.

Image credit: Bloomberg

Alexa Gets Smarter, More Intuitive, & More Visual

Before we dive into the big pile of new and updated hardware products that Amazon unveiled, let’s first take a look at some significant upgrades that Alexa herself received. After all, no matter which Echo device customers use to summon Alexa, the overall experience is only as good as Alexa. Amazon clearly knows this, and it is working to make Alexa smarter, more intuitive, and more visual.

First up, Alexa gained Routines and Hunches. Routines help users simplify their commands by grouping multiple actions to a single multi-step command, similar to the Routines feature Google Assistant added in March. In comparison, the Hunches feature works proactively, thanks to deep neural networks that Amazon employs to understand user behavior. Rolling out later this year, Hunches will suggest actions based on daily behavior. For example, Alexa learns from your past behavior that you usually ask to lock the front door before you go to bed, so next time when you say goodnight to Alexa but forget to lock the door, Alexa will helpfully offer to lock the front door for you.

In addition to Routines and Hunches, both of which make Alexa more intelligent and useful, Amazon is also aiming to make Alexa more considerate with a new Whisper Mode, which lets Alexa respond to a whispered command with an equally hushed answer. Alexa also supports local voice control, which allows voice controls to remain active even without an internet connection. This feature is only available on the updated Echo Plus and Echo Show for now, but could be extended to other Echo devices in the future to avoid causing user frustration as more and more users rely on Alexa to control their smart home devices.

With the launch of the 2nd-gen Echo Show, Amazon is also making Alexa more capable of presenting visuals in addition to its vocal responses with a new developer language named Alexa Presentation Language. With this new tool, developers can create an Alexa experience that takes advantage of the screen of some Echo and third-party devices without sidelining its voice-first interface. To that end, Amazon also announced last week that Getty Images will provide images for searches on the Echo Show and Echo Spot, further building out the visual components for Alexa.

All together, these new Alexa features close the gap with its competitors, further enhance the user experience with convenience, and build a solid software foundation to support Amazon’s rapidly expanding hardware lineup.

Refreshed main Echo lineup. Image credit: Amazon

Refreshed Echo Products Appeal To Both Mainstream Consumers And Audiophiles

There is no doubt that smart speakers have gone mainstream — 32% of consumers now own a smart speaker, up 14% since January, according to Adobe’s new “State of Voice Assistants” report. As Echo devices move more into the mainstream market, it follows that Amazon’s design is becoming more elegant, more about devices blending with the furniture rather than standing out. The new Echo Dot, for example, now sports a soft fabric cover instead of a hard black plastic shell. Aesthetically, it is becoming more like Google Home Mini, which happens to the №1 best seller in the smart speaker category during the last quarter. Similar design improvements can also be found on upgrades for Echo Show and Echo Plus.

Compared to the early adopters, the mainstream consumer’s needs are more centered on ease of use and having a wide price range to choose from. Amazon set out to address both needs with an expanded Echo product lineup, which now even includes a new Echo Wall Clock, an analog wall clock that can manage timers, alarms, and reminders via Alexa. In addition, the new Frustration Free Setup feature for both Amazon-branded devices and third-party devices will be a critical enabler of mainstream adoption, as it removes a lot of the friction surrounding the installment and set-up of smart home devices. In this regard, the new Alexa-enabled Smart Plug is a prime example of this new easy setup, as it offers a simple way to bring many home appliances into Alexa’s control via power outlets. In addition, Amazon is also investing in a $6.7M round for Plant Prefab, a building company of prefabricated homes with built-in voice devices that buyers can optionally include.

Beyond the mainstream users, Amazon is making a conscious effort to appeal to the users that value the sound quality of speakers by introducing Echo Link, Echo Link Amp, and Echo Sub. All three products are made for enhancing the audio quality of what Alexa can deliver, whether by linking up Echo devices with high-end audio equipment or adding a subwoofer to an existing home outfitted with Echo devices. There is also the Echo Input, a small dongle with far-field microphones that you can plug into any “dumb” speaker to turn it into an Echo. The value proposition is made clear for audiophiles — whatever Apple promises in terms of sound quality with HomePod, you can get it with Echo products too.

Image credit: Bloomberg

Alexa-Enabled Microwave Is A Stepping Stone To Controlling The Home

Much of the pre-release leaks and subsequent speculations centered on an Amazon-branded microwave oven with built-in Alexa. What Amazon actually launched, however, was an AmazonBasics-branded microwave with support for voice command by Alexa. This means that it is not a standalone Alexa-powered appliance, but rather one that needs to be linked with an Echo device to access Alexa.

Nevertheless, this marks Amazon’s first move into the home appliances space, putting it in direct competition with companies like LG and GE. Amazon’s strategy for smart home expansion, judging by this new microwave, is to come out with low-cost Alexa-enabled appliances to leverage its brand to get more customers to consider upgrading their appliances. All the while, it is also looking to lower the entry barrier for third-party hardware vendors by providing the new Alexa Connect Kit (ACK), a new toolkit that allows device makers to connect devices to Alexa without worrying about managing cloud services, writing an Alexa skill, or developing complex networking and security firmware. Amazon itself used ACK to build the aforementioned microwave oven.

Home appliances have a long upgrade cycle, so it’ll take a while for voice-enabled appliances to populate through households. Nevertheless, Amazon has already started laying the groundwork to infiltrate every device in your house with Alexa. Just like smartphones made non-touch screens feel antiquated (and confusing to kids who grow up playing with iPads), soon a non-voice activated home appliance may feel outdated to consumers accustomed to shouting out voice commands to their newer appliances.

To that end, Amazon is also aiming to position Alexa as a home security system, with Alexa Guard as an additional selling point. When activated, this new security feature enables Alexa to listen for signs of burglary, like glass breaking, as well as alerts like carbon monoxide alarms and security systems. Amazon is already taking advantage of the recent Ring acquisition to create new devices and services deeply integrated with Alexa, with well as an update to the original Ring Stick Up Camera. Alexa Guard also integrates with Ring and ADT services, so users have the option to forward the alert to their monitored security provider.

Image credit: CNET

Fire TV Recast And Echo Show Partners Make TV Inroads For Alexa

For many homes, TV is still the focal point of the living room. It is a crucial and underutilized part of home platform as one of the only other media channels at home, and one with a much higher install base than speakers, which is only going to grow as we shift to streaming. Not to mention that it is the biggest display most people have in their homes, making it valuable real estate for smart home control. Therefore, an important part of conquering the home is about controlling the TV experience, and Amazon is aiming to do that with an extended line of Alexa-enabled Fire TV products.

Back in June, Amazon introduced Fire TV Cube, which is essentially a hybrid of a Fire TV set-top box and an Echo speaker, allowing users to control the Fire TV and even a linked cable box via Alexa. This time, Amazon is taking things one step further with Fire TV Recast, a $229 networked DVR and live TV tuner. It allows users to get over-the-air TV channels onto the new 10-inch-screen Echo Show, Fire TV, and its mobile apps. It will allow up to four shows to be recorded at one time, and can stream to multiple devices simultaneously. This also gives cord-cutters free access to broadcast TV content on their Amazon devices, with no monthly fee after the initial purchase.

To promote the device, Amazon is also reportedly partnering with PlayStation Vue and Hulu to expand the content offerings for Fire TV Recast, although details on that are scarce for now. Of course, being an Amazon product, users will also be able to simplify DVR control by talking to Alexa. This device will no doubt drastically improve the viewer experience across various Amazon devices, allowing them to seamlessly access the same library of DVR content from one screen to another.

Interestingly, Amazon is also turning Echo Show into a mini TV without the help of Fire TV Recast. When the newly announced 10-inch HD screen Echo Show begins shipping next month, it will support for Hulu’s live TV service, making it the first live TV service to work natively on the screen-based Alexa device. Users will be able to tune into Hulu’s live TV service using just their voice. First-gen Echo Show will add support for live TV via an over-the-air software update. This means the TV experience can be unmounted from the living room and distributed across Echo Show in various rooms in the house.

As a result, the flexibility and fluidity of these new Fire TV devices bring to TV content consumption will likely lead to more “interstitial media” consumption, the kind of content you watch to fill the gaps on your schedule and pass the time, thus widening the contexts that TV content is served to viewers. According to Hulu, since launching a voice app on Fire TV last November, it has found those who use Alexa watch double the number of hours of content, compared with those who use remotes. The overall convenience and cross-device accessibility could be a big selling point for the increasing number of cord-cutters that are looking for a TV alternative. And if the extended Fire TV and Echo Show can sell them on an Alexa-enabled TV experience, it wouldn’t be too hard to lure them deeper into the Alexa smart home ecosystem.

Responding to Amazon’s moves in the TV hardware space, Roku announced this week that it will soon allow users to control its streaming boxes, sticks, and smart TVs with built-in Roku via Google Assistant. This improves the user experience of Roku products with voice control while opening up the potential for incorporating Roku hardware into Google Assistant routines. Pity the Alexa user who uses Roku for TV, for one casualty of the smart home battle would be inter-compatibility between systems, just as in mobile OSes.

Image credit: Amazon

Echo Auto Extends The Alexa Home Experience To Cars

Beyond the home, Amazon is putting Alexa into the car with Echo Auto, a $50 (discounted to $25 at launch) dashboard-mounted accessory. There are already several automakers that have added or announced OEM support for Alexa, and users could also bring it into the car with the Alexa mobile app. The arrival of Echo Auto makes sure there is an easy way to use Alexa on the road, no matter which car you are driving. Amazon, of course, can learn a lot about the in-car habits and behavior of its customers by having Alexa in the car to collect data.

Rather than using Alexa to power new in-car experiences, however, the focus is on extending the smart home experience into the car. Americans spend on average about an hour in their cars every day, and cars can become a personal space that feels like an extension of the home. Therefore, it’s very useful for Alexa users to be able to access the same services and support they’ve grown used to at home, be it something as simple as adding items to their shopping lists, or as complicated as a series of commands — such as unlocking the garage door, turning on the A/C, turn on the living room lights, and so on — that will set the home ready for your arrival.

For auto brands, it is not hard to see how, as smart speaker adoption takes off, user expectations around using voice commands may quickly spill over from the home space into in-vehicle. Some forward-thinking automakers already started to address this imminent behavioral shift by developing their own in-car voice assistant. Last week, Mercedes-Benz announced it is working with SoundHound to build a custom in-car voice assistant, following the launch of BMW’s bespoke voice platform earlier this month. They will no doubt be great for simplifying the driving experience, but unless they could find a way to extend the usage outside the car or add interoperability with others, the overall use cases of such auto-specific voice assistant would be comparatively limited.

Image credit: Amazon

Alexa Is A Home Interface And Gateway To Other Amazon Services

In addition to these Amazon-branded products, Alexa already works with 20,000 third-party devices from over 3,500 brands, a number that will continue to grow with the Alexa Connection Kit. Together, these Amazon-branded Alexa devices are building a formidable smart home ecosystem that positions its digital assistant as the de facto user interface of your home. The Echo speakers are merely the gateway drug to a whole house full of Alexa-enabled appliances and devices that are made to work together.

As Amazon continues to build out its Alexa-centered home ecosystem, it stands to leverage the control over the interface, along with the data it captures, to further fuel its ecommerce operations. For example, when you set up the new microwave for the first time, you’ll have an option to sign up for a subscription for microwaveable popcorn from Amazon. Then, as you make it, Alexa will keep track of how many times you have said, “Alexa, make popcorn,” and it’ll reorder automatically when you’re running low. Such is the kind of advantage that Amazon stands to gain by taking over as the interface of your home.

And it is not just grocery shopping, big as that piece of pie alone will be. It is also about the local home services that you find on Amazon, the clothes that you buy (remember Echo Look?), and, perhaps soon, how you get your prescription medications. If and when Alexa becomes the default home interface for customers who have opted into its ecosystem, Amazon will get to heavily influence a wide range of consumer choices. In that Alexa-led home ecosystem, by controlling demand via voice command, Amazon will have a say in which brands and products get presented via Alexa on the supply side, which will undoubtedly also include their own private labels that Amazon’s algorithms already favors.

With this avalanche of Alexa updates, both in software and hardware, Amazon once again outlined its roadmap for building the Alexa ecosystem and reinforced its ambition in conquering the home space. As if countering Amazon’s new releases, Google has a Pixel launch event scheduled for early October, where updates for a Google-branded Smart Display — essentially a Google Home device with screen — is expected. And we wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Google introducing a few neat new features for Google Assistant with the new Pixel phones either. This smart home war will be a fascinating one to watch over this holiday season.

Brand Takeaways

As we pointed out in our 2018 Outlook report at the beginning of the year, the battle between big tech companies to become your home platform has started in earnest, with Amazon and Google leading the charge at the moment. The smart home creates new choke points for media, with new gatekeepers that will shape not just what and how we consume media, but how shopping and advertising work within the home, as well.

For brands, this intensifying home platform war means that it is best not to put all your eggs in one basket. If you’re pursuing a voice play, then you should be developing voice experiences that runs across platforms, for it is far too early to predict how the market would turn out, and the result may very well be multiple voice assistants co-existing in one household to serve their users cooperatively. Despite the uncertain market dynamic, however, one thing is clear — voice will play a big role in the home platform regardless of the device or ecosystem. Adobe’s latest report estimates that about half of all U.S. consumers will own a smart speaker after the upcoming holiday season. In the near future, most consumers will become addressable at home via the digital assistant of the platform’s choice.

Alexa may be becoming the default interface for many U.S. households, but every OS needs useful third-party apps to flourish, and that’s where the true brand opportunity lies. If your brand still does not have a voice strategy, now is the time to start exploring your options and figuring out what your brand can offer via voice experiences. The key to building a good voice experience, as always, is to offer true value to your users, whether it’s entertainment, relevant information, or utility.

New contexts and use cases are materializing as Alexa spreads to new appliances and adds new features, with other voice assistants soon to follow. This, in turn, offers brands plenty of new opportunities to explore with branded voice experiences. Context matters — the utility value that your brand’s voice experience can offer in the car may be drastically than what it may offer in the living room. What it can offer purely through voice may be now enhanced by visual components. All those new possibilities are exciting for brands to explore to figure out a right product fit for their voice experiences.

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The media futures agency of IPG Mediabrands

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Richard Yao

Richard Yao

Manager of Strategy & Content, IPG Media Lab

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