Boom! Amazon Makes Voice a Whole Lot Bigger

Amazon just extended its influence on how everyday people live.

Today Amazon announced the launch of Alexa Blueprints, which makes it possible for anyone to create their own Alexa skills and responses with the popular voice assistant – and no coding is required.

In doing so, Amazon has found a way to build on its lead in the smart speaker category, where Amazon is crushing its competitors with a 70-percent market share through its Echo product powered by Alexa. But Alexa is more than the heart of the Echo. Alexa is helping to change the way people live through voice-based experiences.

Not long ago, the idea of using our voices to play music, organize recipes, manage our smart homes, and order pizzas seemed far-fetched in a world dominated by text-based searches and commands. But Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft have been steadily developing assistants intended to get people to use our voices to manage machines. Now nearly half of Americans use voice assistants on their mobile phones alone. By 2022, 55 percent of Americans will have installed a voice-powered smart speaker in their homes.

Amazon is leading the way in the adoption of voice. Alexa is the most widely used voice assistant and enjoys higher rates of engagement than competitors such as Apple’s Siri. In fact, Alexa is the heart of a rapidly evolving network that relies on voice commands to manage our lives. Home base consists of the Alexa-powered Echo smart speaker, which reside principally in our homes. Since launching Echo in 2014, Amazon has sold an estimated 20 million Echo units on its way to achieving a commanding lead in the market for smart speakers.

But Jeff Bezos wants Alexa to go beyond our living room. It’s already well known that automobile manufacturers are incorporating Alexa into their vehicles, and Amazon recently launched an offering to extend Alexa into the workplace. At CES 2018, businesses showcased a number of products integrating Alexa – ranging from smart glasses to bathroom fixtures.

These applications of Alexa do something important: make people more comfortable with the voice interface. As Bezos told Billboard, “Alexa is primarily about identifying tasks in the household that would be improved by voice.”

But Amazon needs Alexa to perform more skills for the assistant to become the common fabric of our lives. According to Amazon, Alexa performs 25,000 skills including checking your bank account balance and cooking thanks to interfaces with  third parties. And with Blueprints, Amazon puts the tools of production into the hands of the owners. By empowering end users to create personalized Alexa skills and responses without needing how to code, Amazon has created a compelling way to accelerate the uptake of Alexa. Now anyone can create their own content and customize the product to do what we want. The Amazon website offers a number of suggestions such as helping the babysitter find things in your home, mastering subjects with your own voice-based flash cards, and creating stories.

Making tools more accessible is a common approach employed by technology companies such as Apple and Google. Apple, of course, made smartphone adoption explode by opening up the iPhone to third-party app developers. More recently, Apple released ARKit for developers to launch augmented reality products. Google has taken an even more democratic approach over the years by releasing tools that you don’t need to be a developer to use, such as Google Analytics. Google is now ambitiously trying to make virtual reality more popular by launching tools to create VR experiences.

Apple and Google face bigger challenges making AR and VR more mainstream although Apple less so because AR is easier and less costly to adopt. On the other hand, voice-based experiences are becoming more intelligent and accessible. Plus, it’s far less expensive for people to use voice assistants especially as they become more embedded in products we own already.

With Blueprints, Amazon is widening its lead in the marketplace for voice assistants by changing how we live. Amazon is now Amazon Everywhere.

 

6 Reasons Why Jack White is the Lord of Vinyl

In 2017, sales of vinyl records rose for the 12th straight year. Although vinyl records still account for only 8.5 percent of total album sales, their 14.32 units sold in 2017 represent the most since Nielsen began tracking record sales electronically in 1991. But the numbers don’t tell the entire story of vinyl’s resurgence. Buying vinyl is about enjoying the packaging – unwrapping the album, studying the album cover art, holding the disc, and collecting different formats, such as multi-colored discs and alternative covers. And few people appreciate vinyl as like Jack White does.

The man who led the garage rock revival has built a life around a celebration of all things analog, including the glory of vinyl records. If you’ve seen the guitar-god documentary It Might Get Loud, you understand White’s passion for the authenticity of analog music: in one of the movie’s more revealing scenes, he constructs a guitar out of found parts including a Coke bottle and plays it. His passion for the simplicity of analog music has manifested itself in some striking and sometimes curious ways. As 2018 Record Store Day approaches, let us count six of them:

1) His new album, Boarding House Reachhad the fourth-biggest sales week for a vinyl album since Nielsen began to measure vinyl sales in 1991. His 2014 album Lazaretto holds the record for the biggest one-week sales performance of a vinyl album.

2) He has released a trove of rare and eccentric vinyl, including 100 copies of a single that was stitched into furniture he upholstered.

3) In 2016, he launched the first phonographic record to play in outer space. A recording of “A Glorious Dawn” by composer John Boswell along with audio from Carl Sagan was launched in a balloon 94,000 of feet above the earth, where a “space-proof” turntable played the recording for more than an hour. Continue reading

Artists Don’t Believe in Accidents

Artists create beauty from accidents.

One morning in Chicago’s Union Station, I found myself with a few spare moments before the work day began. I felt like watching some James Brown for inspiration and searched YouTube until I came across a 1974 performance of “The Payback” in Zaire. The performance did not disappoint. After a rousing welcome from an enthusiastic emcee (“This man will make your liver quiver!”), the Godfather of Soul entered the stage, slowly and deliberately like a lion in command of his kingdom. James Brown removed his overcoat to reveal a muscular body threatening to pop out of a powder blue and black jumpsuit. He then became a whirling force of nature. He did the splits – twice, in rapid succession. He twirled. He thrust his hips. He caressed the microphone, alternatively grunting, screaming and singing “The Payback.”

About 2 minutes and 20 seconds into the performance, he did something that happened so fast that I almost missed the moment: as he sang “I don’t know karate, but I know Ka-Razor,” he dropped his torso down to do yet another fluid leg split, and the tall microphone stand in front of him toppled over, landing on his right shoulder. As his legs Continue reading

Led Zeppelin Invades Record Store Day

They come from the land of the ice and snow, invading Record Store Day April 21 like land-grabbing Visigoths of Yore: Led Zeppelin recently announced its first-ever Record Store Day release, a 7-inch single consisting of unheard mixes of “Rock and Roll” and “Friends.” Both mixes, produced by Jimmy Page, have elevated Record Store Day from a celebration of vinyl to a homecoming as the band emerges from the mists of Avalon to celebrate its 50th Anniversary.

“Rock and Roll” is the better known of the two songs, with its rousing opening drums and anthemic power. But “Friends” has always intrigued me more than “Rock and Roll.”

Whereas “Rock and Roll” is powerful a call to arms, “Friends” is a more subtle, evocative song that rewards repeated listening. The second song on Led Zeppelin III, “Friends” captures the mystery, adventure, and musical versatility that has always set Led Zeppelin apart from hard rock bands such as Deep Purple. The song, employing strings and bongo drums, a folk acoustic turn from Jimmy Page, and a piercing Robert Plant vocal, imparts a distinct Middle Eastern vibe that is even more pronounced in the stunning live version that Page and Plant recorded with an Egyptian orchestra in 1994.

A version recorded with the Bombay Orchestra was released as part of the deluxe edition of Coda in 2015, which features a more dissolute vocal from Plant.

When you experience “Friends” in its three most popular versions — the original, the Coda reissue, and the collaboration with the Egyptian orchestra — you can hear the foundation that Led Zeppelin was building for “Kashmir,” five years later. “Friends” stands alone as psychedelic, cross-cultural masterpiece.

Why #DeleteFacebook Is Dead

Facebook has big problems. But #DeleteFacebook isn’t one of them.

With a quarterly earnings announcement only days away, Facebook has weathered a slew of negative news mostly related to the company’s failure to respect the personal data of its 2.2 billion monthly users around the world. The Congressional appearance of CEO Mark Zuckerberg April 11-12 received mixed reviews. His prepared testimony, which laid out steps Facebook is taking to better protect user data, will probably not be compelling enough to prevent governmental regulation.

Adding to Facebook’s woes, Nielsen recently issued a report that Facebook users are spending less time on the platform, which, to be fair to Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg had predicted would happen earlier this year. Along with declining numbers, of course, is the rise of the #DeleteFacebook movement. According to a study by Tech.pinions, as many as 9 percent of Americans surveyed say they deleted their Facebook accounts, joining high-profile people such as Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak.

But I don’t think #DeleteFacebook is a threat to Facebook. Here’s why:

  • Most importantly: we need our Facebook friends. I already know of friends who said they were going to delete Facebook and even did so — but returned because they couldn’t bear being away from their network of Facebook friends. I know of users who were tempted to leave but ended up simply changing their privacy settings. The Facebook community (myself included) views Facebook from two different lenses: Facebook the business (viewed suspiciously) and Facebook the community — in other words, our friends and groups, where we share, listen, and connect, true to the company’s mission.
  • Deleting Facebook is difficult and not just because we’re attached to our Facebook friends. It’s literally difficult to untangle Facebook from all apps and sites we either log into with Facebook or give permission to interact with our data. Frankly, Facebook is too much of a utility for living our lives beyond the platform.

In a compelling April 14 column for the New York Times, “I Can’t Jump Ship from Facebook Yet,” Kathleen O’Brien, the parent of a 7-year-old with autism, summed up Continue reading