To some, smart home is considered the next frontier of technological innovation. Today the nascent industry is dominated by Apple, Google, Amazon, etc., and each company has its own proposition on how smart devices should be controlled. For Apple, it is using the Home app via iOS devices, while for Amazon, it is using Alexa voice command via its smart speakers.
For early adopters of smart home, some believe voice command is the fastest and most intuitive way to control smart devices. A user may switch the light on simply by clapping hands or saying the word “on.”
Amazon is the first company to introduce smart speakers. Before Alexa hit the market, there had been little consensus on how home automation should work, or what wireless protocols (Wi-Fi, Zigbee, Z-Wave, etc.) should be adopted.
Amazon has also made its API available to third-party developers. The open-arm policy has led to the creation of more than 10,000 skills, which are apps in the world of Amazon Alexa. This is why Alexa is currently enabled in far more applications than other voice assistants.
“Alexa is popular because it’s very user friendly, it can be applied in everyday life, and people have not used Siri in such ways,” said Shawn Lin, senior product manager at EQL Technology Inc.
EQL makes hubs that relay signals from Amazon’s smart speaker Echo to a variety of home appliances, to let users can turn on air conditioner, TV and lighting, etc. through voice commands. The company’s solution integrates exclusively with Alexa, and Lin said EQL chose the Alexa platform because “it has existed the longest, is the most mature, and has the broadest applications.”
Another strength of Alexa lies in its voice recognition ability. According to Lin, Amazon’s development team has fed Alexa with voices spoken by people with different accent to improve its ability to distinguish spoken words, and improvements are constantly being made.
RICHER EXPERIENCE BROUGHT BY THE ECHO SHOW
Consumers in general gave positive feedback on using Amazon Echo and the smaller speaker Echo Dot. A larger number of the products has been shipped, and the number is still climbing.
Amazon has launched more devices, namely the Echo Look and the Echo Show, in April and May, respectively. While the original Echo speaker is like a robot with ears, the Echo look has both ears and eyes, thanks to the added camera. The visual allows the Echo Look to provide senior care, intrusion detection and distance education, among other services.
“The launch of Echo Show signals the important role that Amazon now views of visual presentation. In many cases, the product aims to provide information that otherwise cannot be easily conveyed through sound,” said Brian Sun, Technical Marketing Manger in China of Ayla Networks, an IoT cloud platform provider that offers solutions compatible with Alexa, HomeKit and Google Home.
With the Echo Show, numbers can be presented clearly via pie charts or other graphic representation. For instance, changes in temperature and humidity in the house can be shown visually in a graph on the Echo Show.
It is true that the same can be done on the screen of a smartphone, tablet or smart watch. But using the Echo Show will be so much easier, compared with taking out a mobile phone to open the app, and to tap the right button to view the information. With the Echo Show, users can simply voice the command to have the graphs shown on the screen.
The introduction of the Echo Show enriches user experience, and Ayla Networks views the new product as a positive development for the Alexa ecosystem, Sun concluded.
SHORTCOMINGS OF ALEXA
That is not to say Alexa has no demerits. Voice assistants have different ways of interacting with users. For Alexa, it is a straight “one question and one answer” interaction mode, said B.K. Liu, Manager of Product Management & Strategic Partners Division at Jazz Hipster Corp., which manufacturers smart speakers that work with Amazon Voice Service.
At this stage, Alexa will only respond when being asked a question, and the question that users utter has to be framed
in certain ways. In a shopping experience, for example, users have to start the process by saying their intent to buy something, before saying the exact product, and then, they need to tell Alexa the amount.
Google Assistant, on the other hand, can engage with users through a more natural conversation. Different from Alexa, this allows users to place orders through a one-sentence command. “Google Home speaker gives users the sense of a having conversation with a real person,” Liu said, adding that Google appears to own more advanced artificial intelligence, thanks to the knowledge it has accumulated from its powerful search engine.
The other drawback of Alexa is the range of supported languages. Although Alexa entered the market earlier, it is lagging behind in terms of the languages it can speak. The absence of a language means the absence of a localized service. Alexa is now available in English and Germany, with Japanese expected to get onboard later this year. Google, however, announced it will soon support up to six languages.
Professional smart home installers may have different views of the Alexa system. Sun Woo Yoon, marketing manager of South Korea-based smart home solution provider Commax, said, “Amazon has a device that can win, if I make products that work with these devices, I can get good profit.”
In regards to the new Echo Show, Yoon said it is a good product, but nothing more than a tablet PC. To Yoon, the Echo Show is like a secretary equipped with artificial intelligence, which he thinks is not very different from an iPad with added capabilities.
AMAZON WON BATTLE FOR THE DAY
Alexa, without a doubt, is the smart home market’s current bellwether. The question is how long it can keep its leader position. Rivals like Microsoft, Apple and Google are all strong players and own resources needed to drive innovation.
While Amazon entered the market a couple of years ahead of its competitors, other tech giants are caching up fast. In last month’s Google developer conference, the company announced an array of companies – including name brands like LG and GE – that will soon make products compatible with Google Assistant.
Alexa may see its frontrunner position threatened as more device makers add Google Assistant compatibility. “The differences between Alexa and Google Assistant are bound to narrow,” EQL Technology’s Lin forecast.
While Amazon has the first-mover advantage, the world of technologies are constantly changing, and nothing stays the same for long in the consumer electronics sector. There have been tech firms that succeeded in dominating the market, only to lose it later.
In the end, it’s about user experience, said Desmond Chan, Field Marketing Manager – APAC at Silicon Labs’ department of IoT Products. The semiconductor company makes system-on-chips to enable data transmission via zigbee, Thread, Bluetooth, etc.
“The Alexa ecosystem has integrated many more devices, such as Phillips Hue, connecting them to the cloud,” Chan said, adding that Alexa is a comparatively more open system. Its cloud will do the computation, and it’s somehow different from Apple’s HomeKit system, Chan noted.
Jim Yuan, Director of Hardware Engineering at home automation company Securifi, said, “As long as Alexa continues to offer language support, update its database, have support measures ready and bear consumers’ needs in mind, it is likely to maintain the leadership position in the next three years.”