Sizzle/Fizzle

Car Subscriptions Sizzle, Facebook Fizzles And Google Admirably Races On Against Amazon

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Amazon — with the whole the Alexa/Echo ecosystem — is not an easy competitor to race with. Looking at the marketplace for Voice AI assistants at 2018’s halfway mark ,there is a lot going on and a lot of territory still to pursue. But even taking that as a given, when it comes to the race for smart speakers and voice AI assistant dominance, Amazon and Alexa have gotten out to a pretty commanding and intimidating lead.

As of today, Amazon controls 62 percent of the smart speaker market. Google is far behind, with 27 percent of the share.

And while an ever-growing number of consumers are adopting some variation of an Echo product in their home (the classic, the Dot, The Spot, The Show — there are a lot of Echoes out there), Amazon has made it clear that its voice assistant Alexa is bound for bigger things: cars, appliances, smart-home devices, smartphones and wearables — the list seems to be getting ever-longer.

And consumers are getting more comfortable with Alexa, who seems less an AI bot playing DJ in a speaker, and more like a constant companion.

“The biggest strength of Alexa, of Amazon, is right now the market penetration, and their goal of getting Alexa into everything and everywhere,” noted Chris Neff, senior director of innovation at the community advertising agency. He went on to note that when a consumer is looking to transact, “Amazon is in its own league.”

But Google is working hard to break into the that league — and has had some success. In precision tests, Google is frequently ranked as sporting the smarter AI-based personal assistant, and that is not an unimportant feature when the issues most likely to leave smart-AI customers dissatisfied are difficulty in understanding natural human speech and answers that are inaccurate or not appropriate to the question they’ve been asked.

And Google is pursuing its unique strategy to match the impressive scale Amazon is building for Alexa — and looking to equal its offerings. This week, which earned it the sizzle of the week, it introduced the Google Assistant-powered answer to the Amazon Show (the Echo device with a screen), with a little help from its friends at Lenovo.

Google has thus far competed in the voice-activated speaker wars without a screened competitor — and rather than build its own, Google is looking to its other partners to fill in for it. Lenovo’s offering is the first — JBL and LG are expected to soon follow suit.

Like the Show, and to a lesser extent the Spot, the new Lenovo device will offer a screen to compliment the Google Assistant when it is summoned with the wake word.

And, thus far, the early reviews indicate that the Lenovo Smart Display has much in common with its Alexa-powered counterpart — it can pull up the user calendar and photos (as long as they are with Google), watch news selections from CNN and Reuters, play music on Spotify or make a video call — as well as tap into all the normal functions of a Google Home device like controlling smart appliances and thermostats.

The system even gets smarter about it users over time so that it remembers a user’s voice as opposed to others in the household — and optimizes what it displays in accordance with which user is accessing it at the time.

Which is all well and good, though there is a not-so-minor fizzle within this sizzle: the device reportedly is buggy and just doesn’t operate as smoothly as the Echo Show.

“When I asked the Smart Display to show me a map of Montreal, it did just that,” one reviewer noted. “But then the Google Assistant piped in and said, “Actually I can’t show you maps, I don’t have a screen.”

It was one of several glitches the tester found. Text occasionally appeared to be jumbled and nonsensical, YouTube videos would display improperly and the images on the screen were occasionally hazy. The device also lacks some of the Show’s functionality — users cannot use the front facing cameras to snap selfies — and the display cannot play song lyrics, which many testers found annoying.

Those glitches aside, however, reviewers noted that a lot of users might tough them out because the Lenovo device is in some sense an aesthetic improvement over the Show — with a sleeker look and wider screen (though it will take up more counter space if used in a kitchen). It also allows users access to YouTube videos — which Amazon’s devices do not, much to users’ annoyance.

And a comparably sized Lenovo speaker retails for $199, as opposed to the Show’s $229.

Plus, if consumers don’t like it— they will have a choice of LG and JBL speakers to choose from soon.

Google cannot turn back the hands of time and recover the two-year head start that Amazon had. But Google’s Sizzle-worthy move this week is to pivot away from the hardware side of the race, or at least handle it a bit more like a relay with its partners in electronics.

It’s a move that has served it well with its mobile operating system — where it has its own Pixel devices, and then allows its OS to power a host of competing phones in the Android operating system — but it remains to be seen if it will work in the context of voice-activated speakers. Amazon’s lead is commanding — and it doesn’t help Google to partner with speaker specialists if those specialists can’t make a speaker better than Amazon is already making.

Thus far, that seems to be an issue for the Lenovo offering.

But if those glitches can be ironed out, Google deserves credit this week for realizing that this is a marathon — and we’re not even at Heartbreak Hill. There are a lot of miles left to run.

Other Sizzles 

Car Subscriptions: Looks like the rubber meets the road when it comes to commerce on wheels — the luxury kind. BMW and Cadillac are rolling out services that let vehicles be picked up and dropped off on demand via mobile devices. Life is a highway, indeed, when the total auto subscription market is slated to grow by 71 percent through 2022, as we noted in these pages.

Cross-border volumes: Healthy to say the least, as evidenced by Mastercard and Visa, where the numbers are up double digits year over year. Consumers still at the ready, with wallets still open. Mastercard said its transaction volumes were up 19 percent, and Europe led the way. Visa noted that its own cross-border activity was up 10 percent.

Snack sales: More than bite-sized, as crystalized by Mondelez besting top and bottom line estimates in its latest quarter, boosted in part by Oreos and other munchies. Which all goes to show that good things come in small packages — or, depending on the appetite, bigger ones. A sugar rush jolts profits.

Fizzles

XRP Token: Long ago and far away is the $3.40 peak, where the token now changes hands at or around lows at about 48 cents. The debate rages on about whether the token is a security or a currency, and the SEC may be the final arbiter. Deemed a security? Then hefty tax bites loom for capital gains — and, oh, there are also lawsuits in the offing.

Facebook: Here’s a record that Facebook would probably rather not own: biggest single-day loss of market cap. Facebook lost $119B in market cap after Q2 results were reported yesterday. Those losses were in the face of a slew of scandals — and shows that social media can get hurt by, well, social media. In addition to the market cap wipeout, the firm lost one million active users in the EU in the wake of the newly enacted GDPR. The fact remains that the company is the throes of a raging battle over data privacy and investors — users and advertisers — are voting with their feet.

Chef’d Consumed: Headline casualty of a meal kit space that has gotten too crowded — and may not have been profitable in the first place. The company shuttered its operations earlier in the month due to financial difficulties. Now it has been bought by True Food Innovations, and the kits will be on shelves — but not via eCommerce. Could the digital dining to door delivery experience be the next shoe to drop?

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