“Works with Alexa” – Amazon’s Trojan Horse

There have been few products in my life that, upon their arrival, have fundamentally altered my work flow. I use the term work flow broadly because it isn’t necessarily focused on work, but more about my process of using technology in my life. The Amazon Echo has been one of those products.

I’ve been quite vocal of the idea of hands-free-computing. I first started thinking about this with the Apple Watch. The concept is fundamentally around how we can engage and interact with computers while having our hands free to go about doing what they are doing. Reflecting on the last few years of consumer behavior, we witnessed a period of humans staring at screens for many hours every day. I think the future will enable the same value, or more, we get out of our computers today but without the need to have our faces buried in screens all the time to do it.

What made the smartphone profound, from a usage standpoint, was how it enabled us to move freely in the world and still have a computer at our fingertips. I think the future will follow this path and allow us to still go about into the world and not have be have our faces buried in our screens. To do this, however, it will require a step function in user interface. This is where I think voice comes into play.

The building blocks are being laid today to get to that vision. But, as I made mention in my article about AirPods, companies who start to focus on the voice-only interface with computers will get a head start on the market, since it requires a fundamental rethink on how we interact with computers.

Let me be clear: voice-only and even voice-first paradigms are not going to be the primary computer interfaces for some time, if ever. Even if we look at science fiction, or something like Jarvis in the Iron Man movies, we see a mix of voice, visual displays, and hand gestures all coming together as computer interaction models. In many of those science fiction examples, it seems the user has the choice of one, or all, ways to interact. Voice, screen, or gesture can work independently or in cohort as an interface. This seems like the ultimate reality.

Echo as a Hub

This brings us to Amazon’s Alexa. A product I have a hunch is taking baby steps toward a trojan horse play by Amazon to become a more central personal assistant in the lives of many consumers. Just seeing the vast amount of support for Amazon’s Alexa in announcements coming from CES is quite telling. Vendors are racing to integrate Alexa or support it with a “works with Alexa” tagline in their specs. Regardless of the challenges that face Amazon, momentum is momentum and this momentum is hard to ignore.

I frimly believe Amazon is a more likely partner than Google for the vast majority of hardware companies when it comes to a smart assistant. Thousands of hardware companies are not going to make their own software/OS/personal assistant and would rather use whatever the dominant OS/assistant is for the vertical they are competing in. Right now, all signs point to Amazon (in markets where they compete) to have fundamental advantages to Google when it comes to integrating Alexa into their products.

First, Amazon offers AWS with all the backend tools needed to have AI, natural language processing, computer vision, machine learning, etc. Most of these partners of Amazon will host their services on AWS. Which means Amazon can give favorable pricing for hardware integration. Amazon also controls the fastest growing e-commerce marketplace in many markets thus making Amazon a much better distribution channel for all of these hardware products. Google has also burned many bridges thanks to their tactics with Android and, as a result, have left many of their current partners in search of alternate solutions. Ironically, this is why so many hardware companies left Microsoft and embraced Google. It seems you will never please pure play hardware companies when you are a provider of a third party OS/software solution.

The logical progression here is a build up of a third party ecosystem around the Echo/Alexa. Consumers will see the common thread of these gadgets supporting the Echo hub/Alexa which could prime them to believe this is the ecoystem to jump on. An interesting trend we see with the Echo is how, once a person gets one in their home and connects a product like lights, thermostats, door locks, etc., they start to quickly connect others. They will want to have as much choice and variety as possible to give them the most options that fit their life. So, the bigger the ecosystem, the better, when it comes to a smart control/appliance ecosystem.

Another way to think about this, it is like in the early days of the App Store. You would go into a Walgreens, or Safeway, or Macy’s, and see a sign saying – Download our App on the iOS or Google Play Store (wasn’t called Play store back then) – consumers would see a brand they know and trust has apps on these platforms and that broad support helped them lean one way or another toward an iPhone or Android phone. What they did not see was a sign for the Windows Phone app store, and thus Windows Phone fate was sealed. Similarly, a consumer walks into Best Buy to buy a refrigerator or washing machine. Maybe they walk into a Home Depot or Loews and sees smart sockets and light switches, and loads of other things from brands they trust that say “works with Alexa” they will recognize all these product options work with Alexa/Echo so why not just get an Echo Hub. My fear is what they don’t see is HomeKit everywhere for Apple’s sake.

That is just the first baby step in Amazon’s potential as a trojan horse. The key for Amazon is to start to create a new dependency with their customer. If the Echo and the Alexa ecosystem begin to garner trust and depenency of certain computing tasks with consumers, it could chip away at other dependencies created by Google and Apple with their customers.

As farfetched as this may seem, consider what would happen if, in a few years, smartphones are still a thing (as they very likely will be) and I have come to depend on Alexa for not just my home but search, music, weather, news, TV shows/entertainment, etc., who’s to say Amazon could not make a run at smartphones again and use the Alexa dependency to acquire a greater portion of their customer’s time via the pocket screen? It sounds farfetched but the opportunists know that when a new computer paradigm comes along, it is the best time to steal customers from those who dominated the previous paradigm.

But what interests me the most about this play by Amazon, more so than Google, is the elimination of the screen from the interface. I have argued that, if a screen or touch-based input is available, consumers will default to that input. Rather than build important new behaviors and work flows around voice-only/AI solutions, they will go back to their screen and just insert text, or set a timer, etc. Apple needs consumers to start depending on Siri and voice as a primary interface mechanism for AI but, as long as there is a screen involved, that won’t happen. Amazon, however, is building those new workflows and dependencies around Alexa and the voice-only UI and building steam with an ecosystem around it. This is where I think a trojan horse strategy is at play.

Amazon has massive challenges in front of them still to pull this off. In fact, every company going after the personal assistant of consumers has huge challenges. But for Amazon, they already have a great deal of trust and could become the primary interface for the smart home in Western markets. They have the business model in their favor to support making a run here. They do need to focus more on the security element, which will be critical. But like I said, momentum is momentum and momentum can’t be ignored.

Here is a running list CNET is tracking of all the things at CES being announced that integrate or work with Alexa.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

8 thoughts on ““Works with Alexa” – Amazon’s Trojan Horse”

  1. Nice article. Raises lots of questions in my noggin…

    Number one, often at the top of the list. The tech has a lot of merit, what will we actually do with it? Are we going to use our new “fire” to cook our food and keep us warm or are we going to use it as an instrument to kill at a distance? If history is any teacher, it will probably be a mixture of both. It’s never the Tech’s fault, it’s always mankind’s.

    “and I have come to depend on Alexa for not just my home but search, music, weather, news, TV shows/entertainment, etc., ”

    It would be your right, but then who’s living your life? You or Alexa? At which point does a non-sensient thing have undue influence over your life? What is the subliminal effect on us? On a group of us? Just how “curated” will we become? Advertising and marketing have been playing that card forever. Does this make them too powerful? (I’m not only picking on Apple with my curation comment).

    You may call me cynical (it’s an acquired trait), but how else do you explain The Kardashians? The election? It’s as old as humanity, but now the tech is too far reaching. These are all the results of “siloed thinking”. You would call it “vertically integrated”.
    We all will certainly have different tolerances for different aspects of computer control of our lives, and that’s as it should be, even more however is the right of control of one’s self and property. This includes ones machine AND one’s data. The only answer to accommodate everyone’s tolerances is through regulation. In this case, “the analog defense”, simply testing if existing regulation applies to the digital situation.

    Then there’s the issue of “always listening”… Okay, I’m officially old, but the only thing (by personal choice) that I tolerate “always listening” is the Almighty. Otherwise it’s a potential Rat in the house.

    The EU certainly has it’s issues, consumer protection isn’t one of them. The right to be forgotten is more important than Google’s right to remember. We need ways to come on and off the grid at will as well as to delete information not in our possession.
    And finally (for now) a nit pick…. Using Alexa is as much “computing” as stepping on your brakes is. That is, the computing is so passive, that it’s not the customer that’s actually doing it. The customer is merely providing data. Computing is providing instructions to act on data. In personal computing the owner (person) controls both.

  2. “consider what would happen if, in a few years, smartphones are still a thing (as they very likely will be) and I have come to depend on Alexa for not just my home but search, music, weather, news, TV shows/entertainment, etc., who’s to say Amazon could not make a run at smartphones again and use the Alexa dependency to acquire a greater portion of their customer’s time via the pocket screen?”

    We already see Huawei integrating Alexa with their upcoming Mate 9 premium phone. Instead of Amazon making their own phone, I think Android makers (with the exception of Samsung) integrating Alexa into their premium offerings may be a more viable way to go.

  3. Every time I see a discussion about voice assistants, it makes me think about different languages. I think Siri is miles and miles ahead of competition if you think how many different languages Siri can handle. Amazon and Google have a lot to catch up.

      1. In Google Allo, the Google Assistant is available in English, German, Hindi, Japanese, and Portuguese. On Pixel phones, the Google Assistant is available in English and German. https://support.google.com/assistant/answer/7108196?hl=en

        If you live in Europe as I do, I could pretty much use Siri in most of the native languages here. Same can’t be said for Google assistant or Alexa.

        And yes, I use Siri daily. My android owning friends don’t use google assistant, because it’s not available with our native language.

        1. Allo however is a messaging application, and quite new at that. Google Assistant is more akin to Siri and it’s available in many languages (as far as I can tell from Language and Input Settings).

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