Alexa was everywhere at CES 2017.
In TVs, a refrigerator, a dancing robot, an alarm clock, cars, a smartwatch, a smartphone, speakers similar to Amazon’s own Echo and much more. There were so many products at CES with Alexa, either built-in or paired through an Echo device, that even Amazon was surprised. The company told The Verge’s Lauren Goode it was expecting 30-40 integrated products at the show, a number that ended up being a conservative estimate.
The Google Assistant, Alexa’s primary competitor, was, by comparison, nowhere at CES. Aside from a few partnership announcements and news the Assistant is coming to Android TV, Mountain View’s digital butler was low key at the year’s first electronics show. That dichotomy should scare Google. Amazon’s digital assistant is proliferating at a rate higher than expected, and it already had a two-year lead.
One of the biggest questions the tech world had when Google entered the personal assistant foray this fall with the Pixel and its direct Echo competitor, the Google Home, was how far behind it was. Or, perhaps more accurately, how big a lead Amazon had accumulated in the two years the Echo had been on the market with no real competition.
Upon the release of the Home, most knew it wouldn’t have the amount of integrations with third-party products and apps, especially those focused on the smart home, as the Echo. But they anticipated, given the mass amount of data Google has acquired during its 18 years as the leader in search, the Assistant would be smarter.
In the end, that’s how it played out. Many view the Echo as a better all-around product given its wide network of supported products, and one with superior hardware thanks to its seven far-field microphones (the Home only has two). In terms of pure smarts, however, which at this point is mostly based on one assistant’s ability to answer random trivia questions, the edge goes to Google.
With the potential for the Assistant to become the predominant AI on the market, it would have benefitted Google to move quickly. CES was the perfect opportunity for the company to make a play at gaining serious ground. Instead, it played safely. It’s hard to fault Mountain View for being cautious with its next big product, the very thing it may expect to be the future of the organization, but you also can’t deny the amount of recognition Alexa, and the Echo, have with the larger public. Average consumers that I’ve encountered in the last year have at least an idea of what Alexa is, or Siri for that matter, but the Assistant is a mystery. Until you explain it as “Google’s Alexa.”
The Lenovo Smart Assistant, essentially an Echo with better speakers.
Ubiquity is something artificial intelligence needs in order to succeed. People who aren’t tech-obsessed or early adopters must see why it would benefit them to have an artificially intelligent assistant, and once they do, they’re likely to go with the familiar name. Right now, that name is Alexa and CES showed that she’s on the path to becoming even more recognizable. If Google wasn’t worried before, and Sundar Pichai’s subtle shade throw at Amazon during the keynote of last year’s I/O conference is indication it wasn’t, then it should be now. Amazon has been aggressive with allowing other companies to utilize its AI, a bold move could leave the Google Assistant in the dust.
It may have sounded like a dig when Pichai said Amazon deserves credit for pushing the industry in this direction, but he’s not wrong. Amazon wasn’t the first company to put out some form of artificial intelligence, but its efforts with Alexa focused the industry. Now, with its AI on the precipice of becoming the household name, Amazon has a lot of work to do. CES displayed a possible future where Alexa is ubiquitous, but in order for that future to come to pass, she needs to get better. Google should be scared at how many companies are taking the leap to put her in their devices, but we should be scared too. If she doesn’t get better, if Amazon doesn’t have the ability to substantially improve her in the next five years, we could end up with a sea of “smart” devices that aren’t that smart.
In this devil’s advocate view, I’m reminded of cars. Think about all the times car companies have attempted to infuse technology into the dashboard, like Ford and its SYNC platform. For the most part, all of those instances have been disasters, which is why more and more companies are opting to include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in current or future models. Alexa isn’t as bad as those horrendous car systems, and Amazon is a legitimate tech company unlike Ford or GM, but the fact is she’s not great yet, and an ecosystem of Alexa devices could either be fantastic, or frustrating.
Amazon has proven its willing to play well with others when it comes to Alexa, now it needs to prove she’s worthy of being picked first.