Amazon Innovations

Alexa’s Big 2017 Entrance

Amazon had an extremely happy holiday season in 2016.

According to reports from Slice Internet, 37 percent of all online traffic during the annual commerce crush went to Amazon. This is an impressive figure on its own, made more so by the fact that none of its nearest competitors — Best Buy, Target and Walmart — so much as cracked double digits.

And while the official sales data has yet to be released by Amazon, the eCommerce giant did note that 2016 was the “best holiday season ever,” along with some data tidbits to keep watchers satisfied while they wait for the full tally.

More than 1 billion items shipped worldwide with Prime and Fulfillment, while shopping from the Amazon mobile app grew by 56 percent worldwide. Amazon noted that Dec. 19 was the peak worldwide shipping day this holiday season. Customers reportedly purchased enough 4K TVs on Amazon’s website to reach the peak of Mount Everest more than nine times and enough copies of the complete eight-film Harry Potter Collection that the series could be played consecutively for more than 300 years. The Echo smart speaker was such a roaring success that the black will be sold out until Jan. 26 (good news for those looking for an outside-of-the-box Valentine’s gift), though those willing to go with white can get one by Jan. 20.

“Echo and Echo Dot were the bestselling products across Amazon this year, and we’re thrilled that millions of new customers will be introduced to Alexa as a result,” said Jeff Wilke, CEO of worldwide consumer for Amazon, in a press release announcing sales results. “Despite our best efforts and ramped-up production, we still had trouble keeping them in stock. From turning on Christmas lights and playing holiday music to shopping for gifts and asking for help with cookie recipes, Alexa continues to get smarter every day.”

And while other reports out of Kantar Worldpanel indicated that as many as 83 percent of U.S. consumers used Amazon at some point last year — and all indications point to Amazon Prime’s continued growth — Amazon is not content to go into 2017 resting on its laurels.

After all, there are those 17 percent of consumers that are holding out on it.

So, not only is Amazon pushing to make Alexa smarter every day, it is also apparently pushing to make it more accessible every day. Even, it seems, if it means it will have to compete with other devices that its AI made smart.

The Big CES Push

Given the widespread love and adulation Alexa got last year at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the big push this year does not come as much of a surprise.

But the stakes are higher this year. In 2016, Amazon had the good fortune of riding into CES with a high-tech surprise sleeper hit in the form of the Echo and the associated Alexa AI. A little over a year after its initial release in Nov. 2014, the Echo at CES last year had a few million users already, and though it wasn’t completing in a totally clear field, it was a much emptier arena than it is today.

But as of the kick-off of 2017, Google has its own smart speaker, Google Home, with a widely praised smart assistant built in; Apple has HomeKit and Siri; and Microsoft has Cortana and millions of compatible Windows 10 PCs already in the market.

While most agree that Amazon currently leads the field — with the runaway popularity of Alexa and the Echo (and the Echo Dot) — there are lots of questions about whether it can hold it given the size, scope and highly competitive nature of its opponents in the race.

This year’s push, however, indicates that Amazon is willing to push Alexa out into the world in a few different directions — even if it means she will be back to race against the home team on someone else’s equipment.

Among the big-name partnerships Amazon is touting with big tech vendors is a partnership with DISH Network that will enable Amazon Alexa voice control on its Hopper DVR. That makes DISH the first cable provider to sign on with Alexa. For those looking for a new TV, on the other hand, models from Westinghouse, Element and Seiki will come built with Amazon Fire TV OS and thus will be controllable by Amazon Echo. All the models are 4K resolution and range in size from 43 to 65 inches.

Whirlpool announced it is connecting Amazon’s AI to its smart appliances as a skill on Echo and Echo Dot, though it has not yet enumerated which appliances specifically will be connecting. Alexa is also expanding its grip on vacuuming — the Samsung POWERbot VR7000 (the latest Roomba rival) will now be able to take voice commands from Alexa. This is actually Amazon’s second vacuum integration — Neato got its in under the wire in 2016.

Lenovo announced its release of its own smart speaker hardware — called the Smart Assistant — which which will look a bit like an Echo (similar tall cylinder design) and act like an Echo but come with a lower out-of-the-box sticker price.

The moves, several commentators have noted, all indicate that Amazon may be taking a page from the Microsoft book of the early ’90s. Instead of trying to build the “smartest” AI in the field, it might build the most accessible and widely available one. Whether Alexa is really “smart” relative to Google Assistant, Cortana or Siri may not be the most relevant question if Alexa is the AI that everyone learns to use.

An Ongoing Race

Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a race if Amazon and Alexa were charging forward while the teams at Apple, Google and Microsoft were standing still. And, by all accounts out of CES this week, that is not happening. Google announced a big partnership with Hyundai that will let drivers control their cars through a Google Home integration, HomeKit has been getting an extensive series of test drives around the halls of Las Vegas and Cortana will be coming soon to a Nissan near you.

And that’s not even factoring in Facebook’s rumored “Jarvis” personal assistant, which will doubtlessly add further color to the race.

But while there is a lot of activity, as of now, Amazon is winning the race for the best buzz and the most name recognition.

When the average consumer thinks smart home assistant, Alexa, as of the start of the year, is the first name they are likely thinking of.

We’ll keep you posted on how well Amazon can keep that hold.


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