A couple years ago a good friend got one of the first Alexa’s available. I was super excited for them but I held off because I already had Siri. I figured Apple would eventually introduce their own stationary speaker and I’d be fine til then. But as a big fan of Star Trek and Sci-fi generally, I love the idea of always present voice-based assistants that seem to live in the air around us.
I think he and his wife still use their Echo everyday in the ways I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere: playing music, getting the news, setting timers or alarms, checking the weather, controlling lights, checking the time, and shopping from Amazon. From what I gather that is a pretty typical usage for Echo and Google Home owners. That list also fits very well with how I and many people are using Siri. With the exception of getting a news briefing which is not yet a feature. As a Siri user I do all of those things except shop at Amazon.
The tech media has recently gone crazy over the pervasiveness of Alexa at the 2018 CES and the notable absence of Siri and Apple. Ah yes, Apple missed the boat. Siri is practically dead in the water or at least trying to catch-up. It’s a theme that’s been repeated for the past couple years. And really, it’s just silly.
One in six US adults (or around 39 million people) now own a voice-activated smart speaker, according to research from NPR and Edison Research. The Smart Audio Report claims that uptake of these devices over the last three years is “outpacing the adoption rates of smartphones and tablets.” Users spent time using speakers to find restaurants and businesses, playing games, setting timers and alarms, controlling smart home devices, sending messages, ordering food, and listening to music and books.
Apple iOS devices with Siri are all over the planet rather than just the three or four countries the Echo is available in. Look, I think it’s great that the Echo exists for people that want to use it. But the tech press needs to pull it’s collective head out of Alexa’s ass and find the larger context and a balance in how it discusses digital assistants.
Here’s another bit from the above article and research:
The survey of just under 2,000 individuals found that the time people spend using their smart speaker replaces time spent with other devices including the radio, smart phone, TV, tablet, computer, and publications like magazines. Over half of respondents also said they use smart speakers even more after the first month of owning one. Around 66 percent of users said they use their speaker to entertain friends and family, mostly to play music but also to ask general questions and check the weather.
I can certainly see how a smart speaker is replacing radio as 39% reported in the survey. But to put the rest in context, it seems highly doubtful that people are replacing the other listed sources with a smart speaker. Imagine a scenario where people have their Echo playing music or a news briefing. Are we to believe that they are sitting on a couch staring at a wall while doing so? Doing nothing else? No. The question in the survey: “Is the time you spend using your Smart Speaker replacing any time you used to spend with…?”
So, realistically, the smart speaker replaces other audio devices such as radio but that’s it. People aren’t using it to replace anything else in that list. An Echo, by it’s very nature, can’t replace things which are primarily visual. As fantastic as Alexa is for those that have access to it, for most users it still largely comes down to that handful of uses listed above. In fact, in another recent article on smart speakers, The New York Times throws a bit of cold water on the frenzied excitement: Alexa, We’re Still Trying to Figure Out What to Do With You
The challenge isn’t finding these digitized helpers, it is finding people who use them to do much more than they could with the old clock/radio in the bedroom.
A management consulting firm recently looked at heavy users of virtual assistants, defined as people who use one more than three times a day. The firm, called Activate, found that the majority of these users turned to virtual assistants to play music, get the weather, set a timer or ask questions.
Activate also found that the majority of Alexa users had never used more than the basic apps that come with the device, although Amazon said its data suggested that four out of five registered Alexa customers have used at least one of the more than 30,000 “skills” — third-party apps that tap into Alexa’s voice controls to accomplish tasks — it makes available.
Now, back to all the CES related news of the embedding of Alexa in new devices and/or compatibility. I’ve not followed it too closely but I’m curious about how this will actually play out. First, of course, there’s the question of which of these products actually eventually make it to market. CES announcements are notorious for being just announcements for products that never ship or don’t ship for years into the future. But regardless, assuming many of them do, I’m just not sure how it all plays out.
I’m imagining a house full of devices many of which have microphones and Alexa embedded in them. How will that actually work? Is the idea to have Alexa, as an agent that listens and responds as she currently does in a speaker, but also in all of the devices be they toilets, mirrors, refrigerators… If so, that seems like overkill and unnecessary costs. Why not just the smart speaker hub that then intelligently connects to devices? Why pay extra for a fridge with a microphone if I have another listening device 10 feet away? This begins to seem a bit comical.
Don’t get me wrong, I do see the value of increasing the capabilities of our devices. I live in rural Missouri and have a well house heater 150 feet away from my tiny house. I now have it attached to a smart plug and it’s a great convenience to be able to ask Siri to turn it off and on when the weather is constantly popping above freezing only to drop below freezing 8 hours later. It’s also very nice to be able to control lights and other appliances with my voice, all through a common voice interface.
But back to CES, the tech press and the popular narrative that Alexa has it all and that Siri is missing out, I just don’t see it. A smart assistant, regardless of the device it lives in, exists to allow us to issue a command or request, and have something done for us. I don’t yet have Apple’s HomePod because it’s not available. But as it is now, I have a watch, an iPhone and two iPads which can be activated via “Hey Siri”. I do this in my home many times a day. I also do it when I’m out walking my dogs. Or when I’m driving or visiting friends or family. I can do it from a store or anywhere I have internet. If we’re going to argue about who is missing out, the Echo and Alexa are stuck at home while Siri continues to work anywhere I go.
So, to summarize, yes, stationary speakers are great in that their far-field microphones work very well to perform a currently limited series of tasks which are also possible with the near-field mics found in iPhones, iPads, AirPods and the AppleWatch. The benefit of the stationary devices are accurate responses when spoken to from anywhere in a room. A whole family can address an Echo whereas only individuals can address Siri in their personal devices and have to be near their phone to do so. Or in the case of wearables such as AirPods or AppleWatch, they have to be on person. By contrast, these stationary devices are useless when we are away from the home when we have mobile devices that still work.
My thought is simply this, contrary to the chorus of the bandwagon, all of these devices are useful in various ways and in various contexts. We don’t have to pick a winner. We don’t have to have a loser. Use the ecosystem(s) that works best for you If it’s Apple and Amazon enjoy them both and use the devices in the scenarios where they work best. If it’s Amazon and Google, do the same. Maybe it’s all three. Again, these are all tools, many of which compliment each other. Enough with the narrow, limiting thinking that we have to rush to the pronouncement of a winner.
Personally, I’m already deeply invested in the Apple ecosystem and I’m not a frequent Amazon customer so I’ve never had a Prime membership. I’m on a limited budget so I’ve been content to stick with Siri on my various mobile devices and wait for the HomePod. But if I were a Prime member I would have purchased an Echo because it would have made sense for me. When the HomePod ships I’ll be first in line. I see the value of a great sounding speaker with more accurate microphones that will give me an even better Siri experience. I won’t be able to order Amazon products with the HomePod but I will have a speaker with fantastic audio playback and Siri which is a trade off I’m willing to make.