It's been a few years since the Amazon Echo first burst onto the scene, and it can still seem like the device is from another age of retail technology sometimes. The seamless experience of voice-activated commerce was unfathomable half a decade ago, but now competitors are literally scrambling to get their own copycat gadgets onto the market so as to strike while the iron of consumer attention is hot.
But while Google and Apple find it hard to resist the urge to flood the market with Amazon Echo clones, what if they already possess the necessary tech to take it down while tapping into a whole new set of consumers?
It's a bold idea and one that only recently became possible thanks to an unexpected entrant into the booming voice-activated retail space: Bluetooth speaker manufacturer Ultimate Ears. UE announced that it had finished an app update that now allows users to access Google Now or Siri using voice commands through its line of portable speakers. Much like Amazon's Tap device, UE speakers just need a press of a button to fire up and users are free to fire off all their burning inquiries on the closest pizza place or the highest charting songs.
“Music lovers can now truly stay in the moment, playing their favorite song from the middle of the pool or even while diving off a cliff with their UE speaker in hand,” Charlotte Johs, general manager of UE, said in a statement. “No matter how wet, muddy or wild the situation, with Siri and Google Now voice integration on UE BOOM 2 and UE MEGABOOM, fans no longer need to pick up their phone to play DJ. Now, they can just say it to play it.”
It goes without saying that no matter how smooth UE's integration with Google and Apple's voice-command services is — and reports seem to indicate that there's plenty of room for improvement — cross-brand partnerships like these aren't likely going to match the uniform experience of the Amazon Echo. But what this UE-Google-Apple trinity proves is that even without competing devices on the market, Amazon doesn't have a monopoly on the type of voice-activated commerce that consumers have quickly come to love.
For plenty of those same consumers, though, spending upwards of $200 on a glorified speaker is a high price to pay, even for the future. UE doesn't win any brownie points here, as its top-of-the-line models now outfitted with Siri and Google Now hover in that range, too. However, where all parties in this deal involved do make headway is in creating a link between existing voice-activated platforms and the countless inexpensive Bluetooth speakers in the wild. If Google and Apple are serious about not letting Amazon run away with the name recognition and the dollars from the burgeoning market, then it might be time to open up their Now and Siri services to more than just UE, if only to show consumers that there is another way.
Could Amazon do the same with its Alexa engine? Of course, but Amazon has shown time and time again that its primary mission in its retail life is to keep users within its ecosystem - not give them more ways to interact with the brand outside of it. It's one of Amazon's greatest strengths, but like a fairy tale for the digital age, Google and Apple could exploit it as a weakness to gain a foothold among consumers willing to jump into voice-activated commerce but not yet willing to spend hundreds of dollars on the risk that it's not for them.