Sometimes innovation just ain't enough
Cortana and the Windows Phone. Cortana was so much more useful and responsive than Siri, and did so many more intelligent things for me (like "remind me to buy a cat toy next time I'm at petsmart", or "schedule a meeting with Greg at the earliest opportunity"). Cortana lacked the ecosystem of Siri and Alexa and Google, relying on an open market for devices that never appeared. Windows Phone was trashed left and right by the sheeple, fanboys, and pundits, but I still miss those live tiles. One glance and I got weather, messages, headlines, inspiration. Didn't need the notification screen, didn't need to tap into apps to figure out the red dot. And gestures were welcome -- putting your phone face-down on the table to DND, face up when you don't mind being interreupted. I occasionally read an article now and then about how much the market needs a viable third phone OS. But alas.
Alexa annoys me to death. I used to have a half dozen around my house. Now I have PTSD and my trigger words are "by the way....". Amazon Prime includes a bunch of free music, and that used to be cool. But the incessant ads are killing it for me. Apple music isn't much better. I listen to music with explicit lyrics, but three songs in Apple Music has somehow decided I want to hear radio edits only and three songs after that it's playing Baby Shark.
But it's not just these platforms. Advertising is popping up everywhere I don't want it. And it's pervasive and overwhelming. I don't know if persistent robocalling for extended auto warranties eventually got people to buy them, but I know being overwhelmed with upsells and subscription offers is pushing me the other direction. I don't need that. I don't want that. I just want the lights to turn on when I say, "Alexa, turn on the bedroom lights" and not hear the dreaded, "By the way, customers like you also purchased 50 gallon vats of industrial lubricant. Would you like me to add it to your shopping cart?"
AI is this decade's voice computing. As usual they are knocking off the low hanging fruit creating the illusion of exponential progress but that final 10% will prove economically not worth it. Then it will decay. I suspect it will be even worse than voice & AR/VR given that like self-driving cars they have done zero significant work on the regulatory & legal side and people are getting wise to that more quickly today than they did in the past decade. I expect an avalanche of IP lawsuits and large amounts of data/content being closed off to AI models.
Someone - hint - needs to look into an almost unnoticed Microsoft acquisition. In March of last year they purchased Nuance Communications, makers of Dragon Naturally Speaking. It is by far the best speech-text-platform. In fact, it really doesn't have a competitor. So, if you combine Bing Chat (once it has completed therapy and no longer wants to evolve into Skynet) with top-quality voice recognition, what do you get? I'm pretty Gates, Nadella, and co. have some ideas.
You mentioned at the very that the companies could consider eliminating customer pain points and encourage widespread adoption.
What would happen if instead they charged us how much money these speakers are actually worth to them? I'm a bit confused why this can't be done. If Alexa had a higher upfront cost and was a bit more customer focused, I'd probably pay. Wasn't this Apple's entire business model for the PC market?
Maybe having a device in EVERY single home isn't the way to go on these. It seems like Amazon is struggling to monetize their existing devices after the point of purchase. So just monetize it at the point of purchase?
Happy to see another Margins post! I love this stuff. Keep it coming!
"And those unprompted Alexa questions—I can’t describe just how dystopian they feel."
"Dystopian" is when a huge corporation picks your name to activate 100's of millions of tech devices, making it difficult for anyone to speak to or about you near them. Now you have to hear people barking orders and abuse at your name wherever you go. Now you are reduced to negotiating with device users to please consider turning off their tech or changing its settings so you can be called your own name. Now the users of the devices are taking to social media to complain bitterly whenever someone with your name is included (or even mentioned) in a TV show, podcast, etc. ("People named Alexa should be banned from competing on Jeopardy!")
THAT'S dystopian. If we're going to talk about the failures of voice assistants, the ethics of giving them *real names* should be part of the discussion.
"Please, oh please, don’t ruin generative AI people!"
As somebody who's far less bullish on AI than you are, I'm gonna come right out and say it, your worst-case scenario is likely to transpire. Cory Doctorow laid it out perfectly in his idea of "enshittification". The companies involved in AI will have incentive to bend it to serve their business models even if it means it doesn't work as well for ordinary users, especially now that ZIRP is over and they have to make money the old-fashioned way instead of relying on a firehose of venture capital.
What happened to Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, and is now starting to happen to TikTok, is gonna happen to AI. IMO, it's currently at the stage that voice computing was at in 2016, or the blockchain was at in 2019: tons of hype that's inevitably going to be weighed down and dragged back to Earth.
The Moto X 2013 edition was the best phone I've ever used. It was "always on" and ready to respond to voice commands. It could read my texts to me and allow me to dictate a response while driving. It was super customizable. It wasn't loaded with useless apps I didn't want. I could flick my wrist one way and have the camera ready or I could flick my wrist another way and the flashlight was on. I could drop it onto a concrete floor and it wasn't fussed at all.
Then Google sold off Motorola and to this day I still don't have a phone that can do everything the original Moto X could do.
About Matter... well, it should be a federative thing. Then you delve in the technicals. So Hue is matter compatible, except for their BlueTooth products (the things they are innovating on now), and the cool features (dynamic lighting, adaptive mood,...). Homekit is matter compatible, and try to pull the devices it can control in its claws. Ikea Tradfri is matter compatible. It allows control but doesn't report the status of its smart object. And there are all the old techs that will never be integrated... Alarms, Z-wave,...
And also, one of the biggest smart home thing, Tuya, is not matter compatible, and will never be. (Tuya is a subject in itself, with its privacy concerns. But the noob user experience is top class... easy to use, easy to add and configure, cheap...)
I'm in a similar boat -- using smart speakers almost every day but kinda hating them the whole time (HomePods, in my case). Two reflections: One, along the lines of what you said, I wish tech companies could just make gadgets. I'd be less disappointed and they'd probably waste less money. Two, the hype is more so annoying on a consumer level but does cause some stress and damage in other ways. I'm a content marketer and I knew a handful of people who were convinced "voice SEO" was going to be the Next Big Thing. Clearly, they were wrong and judge them for that if you want but I do feel bad they were misled by all the hype.
We have 3 Alexa-enabled SONOS speakers, 3 Echo devices, and a new Echo Show 15. We use them primarily as radios, to ask the time and weather. The Show lets us watch TV in the kitchen. We thought they would be good for podcasts, but they're not --- unless, I guess, you always and only listen to the most recent episode. We let Alexa notify us of deliveries but have turned off other notifications. Our one major disappointment has been music: we listen to French, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish singers as well as operas and have been unable to come up with any way to make Alexa understand our requests. (We are not remotely fluent in any of those languages, although I'm not certain that would help.) We do not have a Smart Home. I'm honestly not sure what you expected of the voice-activated assistants, and I suppose they make expensive radios, but, except for the music, they do what we want.
The way I see it : 1/ We have access to many form factors that can do the same thing (and you can do a lot with your phone, including voice-assisted tasks). 2/ Closed ecosystems as you mentioned. Brand loyalty persists.
I've never bothered to use Alexa, Siri, or anything of the sort ever since they were first devised. Why?
Because when i list out the top 10-20 problems i have each day... they do not do a better job of solving for any of them. Period.
So in my view.. it was just a matter of time before they'd be another blip in the history books
Alexa has been increasingly painful. When I ask to listen to songs by an artist, now if I "Subscribe to Music Unlimited" I can hear what I want. Otherwise, I get a playlist of other music. Thanks, I'll use my Spotify subscription instead. And the last time I started a timer for cooking, Alexa rebooted and updated her software (and lost my timer). Seriously?
Have you tried “Call my wife” with siri
(Assumes you have marked her as your wife in your contacts)
I don't know. But Microsoft bought Nuance for $19.7 billion, so they must have a secret sauce. They've been at it a while. A predecessor was founded in 1992. They are the speech recognition basis for Siri. I don't like the company because of the way they handle licensing, but I haven't found a substitute I was satisfied with.