Hold on to Your Butts: Why Samuel L. Jackson and Alexa Broke the Internet

Why are we so excited about Samuel L. Jackson’s voice coming to Alexa? 

On September 26, Amazon announced that Jackson will be the first celebrity to lend his voice to the Alexa voice assistant. Later in 2020, if you use Alexa, you’ll be able to add a Samuel L. Jackson skill, meaning that you can ask Alexa to perform a number of tasks in the voice of the beloved actor. He’ll do everything from tell jokes to sing happy birthday. And yes, the skill comes with both a G-rated and a profane version, in case you’d like Alexa to unleash full-bore Big Kahuna-munching Jules Winnfield on your living room through your Amazon Echo speaker.  

You can’t make Alexa talk like Jackson all the time – the skill is limited to whatever it’s been programmed to do. The skill employs neural text-to-speech technology (TTS), which translates written text to spoken word with a tone and voice to reflect a personality. Businesses are exploring TTS to inject personality into voice-based interfaces such as bots and content that requires voice-over narration. 

The Internet Rejoices

Even though the Jackson skill sounds basic, just the notion of having Samuel L. Jackson dropping F bombs as he delivers the weather report sent the internet into a tizzy of joyful celebration. Social media celebrated a life in which Alexa would sound like the man who told us to hold on to our butts in Jurassic Park and pondered the path of the righteous man in Pulp Fiction:

And journalists did, too:


But why did the news trigger such an outpouring of excitement about an Alexa skill that performs rudimentary tasks? 

Voice Assistants Catch On

Well, for one thing, voice assistants are rapidly catching on. An estimated 40 million Americans, or 12 percent of the population, own an Echo, versus 30 percent who own iPhones – not bad penetration for a product that was released (in limited distribution) only five years ago. All told, about a third of Americans say they use voice assistants regularly in some form. 

Moreover, the Amazon Echo — and the Alexa voice assistant that powers it — most certainly enjoys strong name awareness due to Amazon’s marketing muscle. Amazon announcing a new Alexa skill featuring the voice of Samuel L. Jackson is going to generate buzz, more so than if, say, Microsoft did the same for Cortana. Super Bowl commercials are now featuring Alexa, as a sign of how how familiar we are with Alexa.

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A Need for the Familiar

But I believe the enthusiastic response points to something deeper: a need for the familiar. Voice-based technology is coming on strong, as the big tech companies–Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft–race each other to lead a voice-first future. The makers of voice-based apps are betting that the general population is ready to transition from text-based search to using our voices to get what we need, whether we’re searching for a nearby restaurant or finding out the Dow Jones Industrial Average. So they’re barraging us with a slew of products for the home and on the go.  

But the hype around voice can be disquieting. We’re still getting used to the idea of a machine listening to us and talking to us in the most intimate places in our lives, including our bedrooms. There is a fear that these AI-fueled devices will insinuate themselves into our lives in the creepiest way possible. As The Atlantic’s Judith Shulevitz discussed in the November 2018 article “Is Alexa Dangerous?”:

For the moment, these machines remain at the dawn of their potential, as likely to botch your request as they are to fulfill it. But as smart-speaker sales soar, computing power is also expanding exponentially. Within our lifetimes, these devices will likely become much more adroit conversationalists. By the time they do, they will have fully insinuated themselves into our lives. With their perfect cloud-based memories, they will be omniscient; with their occupation of our most intimate spaces, they’ll be omnipresent. And with their eerie ability to elicit confessions, they could acquire a remarkable power over our emotional lives. What will that be like?

Recent news reports about voice devices recording what we’re doing – and employees of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft listening in on our private conversation – have ratcheted up the discomfort to a general alarm. Now we have to worry about machines and people eavesdopping on us?

In response to the backlash, tech companies explained that they monitored select voice samples to do quality control and to teach the machines to get smarter; they also rapidly discontinued the practice. In addition, Amazon recently announced new features to give people more control over their privacy when they use Alexa

Nick Fury to the Rescue

In this context of unease, along comes Samuel L. Jackson lending his voice to Alexa. He has starred in more than 130 movies, including blockbusters such as The Avengers and cultural touchstones such as Pulp Fiction.

And we’ve heard his voice in animated entertainment such as The Incredibles and Grand Theft Auto. It’s a stretch to say that he’s warm and cuddly. But he is familiar and, well, just about everyone’s personification of cool. As with Morgan Freeman, part of his allure is his voice – in Jackson’s case, confident, reassuring, in control, but righteously emotional when the situation calls for a display of passion.

When the chips are down, you want the Nick Fury who Samuel L. Jackson portrayed in The Avengers on your side. And we want him on our side when we venture into a voice-first future.

What Happens Next

Amazon was careful to point out that Jackson is the first, not the only, celebrity, to lend his voice to Alexa. In fact, technically he’s not even the first. In a popular 2018 Super Bowl ad, Alexa assumed the voices of celebrities such as Cardi B and Anthony Hopkins.  You know where this is headed, right? It’s only a matter of time before Alexa will assume the form of A listers with familiar voices such as Benedict Cumberbatch (for when we need British cool) and Scarlett Johansson (who famously played the voice of an AI voice assistant that forms a relationship with a human in the movie Her).  

Meanwhile, Amazon may gain something important from a relationship with Samuel L. Jackson: cultural relevance. Through a relationship with Jackson, Amazon hopes to make its brand more relevant to the beliefs, attitudes, and interests that bind us as a culture. Through his popular persona, Samuel L. Jackson is part of our cultural fabric. Amazon is a popular utility on which we buy things; it helps us live our lives. But we don’t feel an emotional bond with a utility. Amazon wants to give its brand a face – and a voice – to start forging one. 

Why Amazon and Kohl’s Need Each Other

Amazon and Kohl’s are expanding a relationship that appears to be working for the two frenemies. As announced recently, all 1,150 Kohl’s stores across the United States will accept Amazon returns, thus expanding a program the two companies began to pilot in 2017. Kohl’s will accept eligible Amazon items (without a box or label) and return them for customers for free. As a result, Kohl’s becomes a product return center for Amazon. 

How Amazon Returns Work at Kohl’s

In early 2018, I visited a Kohl’s location in Woodridge, Illinois, shortly after the store began accepting Amazon returns. A giant banner at the front of the store made it clear that Amazon returns were welcomed. The designated Amazon returns station was set up near the entrance. I asked a sales associate why the Amazon returns center was at the front of the store. Wouldn’t it be better to place the center in the back, which would generate more foot traffic throughout the store? She replied that Kohl’s already operated its own returns counter at the back of the store, and having an Amazon returns counter at the same area was confusing to customers. But to encourage foot traffic, Kohl’s gave Amazon customers coupons with discounts for in-store purchases.

In April 2019, I visited the same store. I noticed that the Amazon returns desk had been moved to the back to an all-purpose service counter for customers of Amazon and Kohl’s (for both online pickup and returns). Signs throughout the store directed Amazon customers to the consolidated returns center.

Each person at the service counter accepted all returns, whether from Kohl’s or Amazon. It was clear that the associates had been trained to fulfill both types of returns based on how quickly they managed the process. An associate also confirmed that Kohl’s continues to provide coupons (with a one-week expiration date) to encourage Amazon customers to stay in the store and shop for Kohl’s merchandise. Someone at Kohl’s must have gotten the message: when you see an opportunity to get customers walking through your store, you take it. With the passage of time and the assistance of clear signage, customers will figure out where to take their returns.

In addition, near the entrance, an Amazon-branded pop-up store offered a wide range of Amazon products, including different Echo speakers and Fire products. Here was an attempt to make Kohl’s a distributor for Amazon as well via a pop-up store. But apparently the attempt failed to take root. Amazon recently announced the discontinuation of pop-up locations including those at Kohl’s stores. It should be noted, however, that Kohl’s will stock Amazon products, just not in an Amazon-branded space. So Kohl’s has become a retail outlet for Amazon after all. Why bother with a pop-up store if Kohl’s will stock your merchandise, anyway?

Does the Strategy Work?

Data from Earnest Research suggests that the partnership is paying off for Kohl’s. After Chicago stores began accepting Amazon returns in 2017, “Chicago sales, transactions, and customer growth all outpace the same metrics nationwide for 2018,” according to Earnest.

And the relationship certainly makes sense for Amazon even if the pop-up stores have failed. Having Kohl’s as fulfillment partner attacks one of the headaches of buying online: ease of returns. And Amazon enjoys the services of a returns counter without having to own a brick-and-mortar store. Of all Amazon’s services, such as retail, advertising, cloud computing, retail remains particularly costly. It behooves Amazon to find better ways to contain expenses (which the company is doing based on its latest quarterly earnings report). Even the mighty Amazon needs partners 

Meanwhile Kohl’s is maximizing the value of its floor space in other ways, such as by leasing locations to Planet Fitness. And Kohl’s is not the only retailer leasing floor space. Macy’s has been leasing space to retailers such as Sunglass Hut and LensCrafters

What’s Next?

It will be interesting to see how this relationship unfolds. Will Amazon lean on Kohl’s to sell more of its products, such as its fast-growing stable of house brands? In fact, Motley Fool speculates that Amazon could buy Kohl’s outright. The notion isn’t that far-fetched (see Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods). Retail apocalypse or opportunity? Stay tuned.

Amazon Prime Video Seeks Cultural Relevance with All Voices Film Festival

Amazon Prime Video wants to empower diverse voices with a new film festival. On April 8, Prime Video began accepting entries for the first annual All Voices Film Festival. According to Prime Video, the All Voices Film Festival is designed to uplift underrepresented communities. Prime Video invites filmmakers to submit short (40-minute) films with the following requirement:

The writer, director, cast or theme of the short must reflect underrepresented communities. This includes but is not limited to people of color, ethnic, gender and religious minorities, members of the LGBTQI community, people with disabilities, veterans, young, aspiring filmmakers as well as older adults, and other groups that are underrepresented or marginalized in the US or globally. 

A panel of judges will select winning entries in July. Prizes range from a $25,000 royalty bonus and paid trip to visit Amazon Studios to a $10,000 royalty bonus. 

My take: the All Voices Film Festival is a smart move for Amazon Prime Video, Amazon’s streaming service. The festival, if curated well, should lend cultural relevance to Prime Video, a follower to Netflix and Hulu.

Amazon Prime Video Plays Catch-Up

Amazon Prime Video distributes both third-party and original content (the latter made by Amazon Studios). Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has characterized video content as a stepping stone for creating more Prime members. As he once said, “We get to monetize [our subscription video] in a very unusual way. When we win a Golden Globe, it helps us sell more shoes. And it does that in a very direct way. Because if you look at Prime members, they buy more on Amazon than non-Prime members, and one of the reasons they do that is once they pay their annual fee, they’re looking around to see, ‘How can I get more value out of the program?’”

The problem is that being a stepping stone for selling more shoes detracts from the legitimacy of Prime Video. Prime Video has certainly distributed popular and prestigious content. But Prime Video doesn’t create buzz and shape mainstream cultural tastes as Netflix – and, to a lesser extent, Hulu – does. Netflix creates cultural relevance by shaping pop culture (see Stranger Things and its impact on 1980s nostalgia) and influencing behavior (as Tidying up with Marie Kondo has done by making so many people want to streamline their homes that resale shops are being overrun). 

A Step in the Right Direction

The All Voices Film Festival is a step in the right direction. Netflix has been building a reputation as a haven for New Hollywood visionaries who want to make personal movies that Old Hollywood won’t touch, an example being Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. The All Voices Film Festival may give Amazon Prime Video the high ground for emerging talent. And its focus on under-represented voices – ranging from LGBTQi to veterans – taps into an important national conversation about diversity and inclusion that is much bigger than the movie industry. Being a source of content that connects at a topical level nationally is what cultural relevance looks like.

As Latasha Gillespie, Amazon Studios’ head of diversity, equity, and inclusion, told Variety, “At Amazon Studios, we are looking for passionate storytellers who reflect and represent all backgrounds, specifically so that we can share their experiences and stories. We created this opportunity because we wanted a way for underrepresented voices to be heard.” 

A Warning Shot Across the Bow

The All Voices Film Festival also represents another warning shot across the bow of Old Hollywood. Although Netflix gets credit for challenging Old Hollywood, Amazon Studios was actually the first streaming service to release a movie nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (Manchester by the Sea). Its feature-length titles include Cold War, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Amazon Studios is also producing the anticipated Lord of the Rings television series. The All Voices Film Festival could give Amazon Studios the inside track to emerging talent and position Amazon Prime Video well against Netflix, too.

Everything now comes down to execution: developing potentially exciting new talent and using good marketing to promote it. Amazon has deep pockets. Money doesn’t buy you good judgment and cultural relevance. But Amazon Prime Video is off to a promising start.

How Advertising Helps Amazon Change the World

Amazon is an advertising powerhouse.

The company is the third-largest digital advertising platform in the United States and the fifth-largest ad spender. But as CNBC noted in a recent article, Jeff Bezos wasn’t always a believer in advertising. Ten years ago, he said, “Advertising is the price you pay for having an unremarkable product or service.” Why the change of heart? Because Jeff Bezos wants to change the world. And changing the world costs money.

How Amazon Is Changing the World

Jeff Bezos is a market maker. As I wrote in Fast Company in 2013, market makers do more than sell products. They influence beliefs and behaviors. Jeff Bezos is changing how people live and businesses operate through voice and cloud computing.

Voice First

Amazon is ushering in a voice-first world along with Google. With astonishing speed, Amazon has unleashed products such as AI-powered smart speakers that rely on voice commands to manage our homes, search for things, purchase goods and services, and navigate our cars.

In the United States, 74.2 million people will use a smart speaker in 2019, according to eMarketer, up 15 percent over 2018. The Amazon Echo smart speaker, introduced in 2014, owns anywhere from 63 percent to 70 percent of the market depending on which source you read. In addition, according to Amazon’s January 31 fourth-quarter earnings announcement, Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant continues to make inroads in the home and the automobile. Meanwhile, Amazon is extending Alexa aggressively into the workplace. Here’s how Bezos’s vision for a voice-first world is playing out:

  • In the home: per Amazon, the number of devices with Alexa built-in more than doubled in 2018. More than 150 products have Alexa built in, ranging from headphones to smart home devices. Consumers can choose from 28,000+ Alexa-compatible smart home devices from more than 4,500 brands.
  • On the go: more than one million customers requested an invitation for Echo Auto, Amazon’s new Echo designed for vehicles, shortly after Amazon announced its availability. Several automotive partners announced support for Alexa at CES 2019. For example, Telenav, a provider of connected car and location-based services, announced a relationship with Amazon that makes it possible for drivers to use the Telenav Alexa-powered navigation system to do the same kinds of functional tasks that they can do with Google Maps.  
  • At work: in 2017, Amazon launched Alexa for Business to begin a voice-first transformation inside enterprises. Amazon wants employees of businesses to rely on Alexa to schedule meetings, manage their personal calendars, and handle a host of other tasks. Brooks Brothers and Conde Nast are among the companies that use Alexa for Business to manage meetings according to Amazon. In addition, businesses are creating Alexa skills to manage several functions. To wit: financial services firm TIAA recently announced a new Alexa skill that helps its customers get financial information and obtain customer service. And now that Amazon has made it easy for anyone to create Alexa skills, I predict that so many more businesses are going to adopt Alexa that the creation of an Alexa skill won’t be news. 

Jeff Bezos is so enamored with voice that he mentioned Alexa six times in Amazon’s fourth-quarter earnings announcement. In fact, Alexa is about all he talked about in a prepared statement:

Alexa was very busy during her holiday season. Echo Dot was the best-selling item across all products on Amazon globally, and customers purchased millions more devices from the Echo family compared to last year . . . The number of research scientists working on Alexa has more than doubled in the past year, and the results of the team’s hard work are clear. In 2018, we improved Alexa’s ability to understand requests and answer questions by more than 20% through advances in machine learning, we added billions of facts making Alexa more knowledgeable than ever, developers doubled the number of Alexa skills to over 80,000, and customers spoke to Alexa tens of billions more times in 2018 compared to 2017. We’re energized by and grateful for the response, and you can count on us to keep working hard to bring even more invention to customers.

Typically in earnings announcements, CEOs don’t dive into the details of how their products are evolving. But not so with Jeff Bezos. His words demonstrate his belief in the power of voice.

Bezos’s comments about making Alexa more accurate might make him sound a bit geeky, but accuracy matters. Amazon needs to make Alexa more effective at recognizing human speech to make us comfortable using the voice interface to buy things — which is what Jeff Bezos wants us to do while we are on Amazon. Right now, for the most part, people use their smart speakers to check the weather and listen to music. Jeff Bezos’s vision for voice is all about commerce, not checking sports scores. The question is not whether, but when, Amazon will realize that vision.

Cloud Computing

Going hand in hand with voice computing is Bezos’s ambition for businesses and people to manage their lives on a virtual network known as the cloud. Amazon founded its cloud computing business, Amazon Web Services (AWS), in 2006. Today AWS provides the backbone of Amazon’s entire voice ecosystem. When you use Alexa in your home, on the go, or at work, you use AWS.

Bezos envisioned the rise of cloud computing long before voice came along, though, and the cloud powers more than Amazon’s own voice ecosystem. In his 2007 letter to shareholders, he wrote of people using their Kindle e-books to read and record margin notes “on the server-side in the ‘cloud,’ where they can’t be lost.” Eight years later, in his 2015 letter to shareholders, Bezos spoke of the cloud in much more grandiose terms:

Whether you are a startup founded yesterday or a business that has been around for 140 years, the cloud is providing all of us with unbelievable opportunities to reinvent our businesses, add new customer experiences, redeploy capital to fuel growth, increase security, and do all of this so much faster than before.

And he was not exaggerating. By 2015, AWS was providing the backbone for businesses to adapt to the cloud. Today, AWS powers so many companies that it made $25.7 billion in 2018. For example, if you use Airbnb to book a room or Slack to send a message, you’re relying on a business that uses AWS. And Netflix famously relies on AWS to keep its 24/7 content stream going.

Meanwhile, cloud computing, led by AWS, Microsoft, Google, and Alibaba, continues to change how businesses operate – helping them provide services faster and more efficiently around the clock by freeing them from the confines of physical infrastructures. It’s the cloud that makes it possible for Lyft to provide ride-sharing services or Instagram to operate. According to Gartner, the global public cloud services market will grow by 17 percent in 2019 to total $206.2 billion. As with voice, Amazon faces plenty of competition, but Amazon commands the greatest market share.

Where would cloud computing be today without Amazon Web Services?

Vision Costs Money

But building voice and cloud-based products and services costs money. In 2018, Amazon increased its marketing and advertising costs considerably. As noted in CNBC, Amazon reported a $13.8 billion marketing expense for 2018, up 37 percent from the prior year. Nearly 100 million viewers of Super Bowl LIII saw some of that spend in the form of a number of 30-second spots promoting Alexa. Those spots cost $5 million each.

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And here is why Amazon’s advertising services, bundled under Amazon Advertising, are so valuable. Amazon Advertising gives Amazon a way to recoup its costs though an increasingly lucrative revenue stream. Through Amazon Advertising, businesses on Amazon promote their products through various forms of display advertising and sponsored product displays that appear in a consumers’ search results on Amazon, similar to how advertising on Google works.

Amazon Advertising is the result of Amazon becoming an increasingly powerful search platform. More people begin their product searches on Amazon than they do on Google. It was only a matter of time before Amazon realized it could monetize that search traffic as Google has done. Businesses are responding. According to a recent study by Nanigans, about one in three marketers are shifting their ad spend from Facebook and Google to Amazon. Amazon Advertising generated $10 billion in 2018.

Amazon’s ambitions for advertising go beyond serving up ads on Amazon itself. As the New York Times reported, Amazon also targets ads to people across the digital world by tapping into the data it has amassed about consumers’ purchases made on Amazon itself. Since Amazon knows exactly what you’ve searched for and purchased on the site, Amazon can advertise for other brands with pinpoint accuracy, as these examples from the New York Times article illustrate:

When a chain of physical therapy centers wanted new patients, it aimed online ads at people near its offices who had bought knee braces recently on Amazon.

When a financial services provider wanted to promote its retirement advisory business, it directed ads to people in their 40s and 50s who had recently ordered a personal finance book from Amazon.

And when a major credit card company wanted new customers, it targeted people who used cards from other banks on the retail site.

The advertisers found those people by using Amazon’s advertising services, which leverage what the company knows better than anyone: consumers’ online buying habits 

Just the Cheese, a brand run by Specialty Cheese Company in Reeseville, Wis., makes crunchy dried cheese bars that have taken off as a low-carb snack. By using algorithms to analyze how Just the Cheese’s search ads performed on Amazon’s site, the ad agency Quartile Digital noticed that people who searched for keto snacks and cauliflower pizza crust, both low-carb diet trends, also bought a lot of cheese bars. So Quartile ran display ads across the web targeting Amazon customers who had bought those two specific product categories. Over three months, Amazon showed the ads on websites more than six million times, which resulted in almost 22,000 clicks and more than 4,000 orders.

That 20 percent conversion rate — a sale to one out of five people who clicked on the ads — was “amazing,” Mr. Knijnik said. “That is the kind of powerful granularity for building the target audiences that just Amazon can give you.”

Like other ad networks, Amazon uses cookies and other technical tools to track customers from its site onto other websites. They let the company know that a person who recently bought a diet book is now reading news on CNN and could be targeted on that site with an ad for a protein bar. Amazon does not tell the advertisers who that user is, but it does serve her ads on the brand’s behalf.

And, just like that, Amazon is upending the digital ad industry while creating a mini-industry of companies such as Quartile Digital that offer services related to Amazon’s advertising products. And herein lies an undeniable reality: Amazon giveth, and Amazon taketh. With advertising, Amazon takes business away from established players like Facebook and Google while spurring the launch of new companies that capitalize on Amazon. 

“Amazon Is Not Too Big to Fail” 

Advertising has helped Jeff Bezos pull off a feat that is extremely hard for a publicly traded firm to do: invest for the long haul while rewarding shareholders in the short term. He also does not take Amazon’s success for granted. As he told employees recently, “Amazon is not too big to fail. In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail. Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be 30-plus years, not a hundred-plus years.” 

Whether Jeff Bezos is correct about Amazon’s future remains to be seen. In the meantime, he has helped unleash technologies whose impact is incalculable.

Why Amazon and Google Are Fighting to Lead the Voice-First Economy

To no one’s surprise, the story of CES 2019 was the battle between Amazon and Google to lead the emerging voice-first world.

CES was awash with announcements about products such as alarm clocks and thermostats powered by Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant and Google Assistant, prompting coverage such as CNET’s “Who Won CES 2019: Amazon or Google?” and USA Today’s “CES 2019: Google vs. Amazon, Who Won?

In the aftermath of CES, though, one question looms: What exactly do Amazon and Google get out of winning this battle?

Numbers Galore

Both Amazon and Google used CES to state the case for their leadership of voice (Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung, while certainly players, are not the leaders in voice although Apple is a strong challenger). Google announced that Google Assistant is on one billion devices, up from 500 million in May 2018 (a figure boosted by the sale of Android phones that contain Google Assistant by default). Amazon disclosed that it has sold more than 100 million devices that rely on its Alexa virtual assistant. In addition, the number of people who use Alexa every day — and who own more than one Amazon Echo smart speaker — doubled in 2018. 

Meanwhile, during CES, more telling numbers were disclosed. According to research conducted by Edison Research and NPR, 53 million adults in the United States (or two out of 10 Americans) own at least one voice-activated smart speaker. The number of smart speakers in homes has increased 78 percent year over year. And on January 8, Accenture reported that half of online consumers globally use digital voice assistants, up from 42 percent one year ago.

These figures don’t mean that people are actually using their voices to buy things from businesses. In fact, most people use voice assistants to perform everyday tasks such as listening to music and getting weather information. But the usage data is important nevertheless. It shows that even if we’re not exactly living in a voice-first world, we’re getting there – and doing so quickly considering that the Amazon Echo didn’t exist until 2014, and Google Home just two years later. In addition, by 2016, 20 percent of all Google mobile queries were voice searches.  

The rise of voice also helps explains why so many companies continue to launch products fueled by voice at CES, and 2019 was no exception.

Gadgets and Software Integrations

CES unleashed a dizzying array of products powered by voice, usually through Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. These products typically focus on making it easier for people to use their voices to live in their homes and navigate their cars. For instance:

In the Home

Lenovo announced an alarm clock powered by Google Assistant. KitchenAid and GE rolled out smart displays that rely on Google Assistant to help you get recipes, watch videos, and do anything else to keep you occupied and entertained in the kitchen. Currant’s new smart wall outlet, which can be controlled by Alexa and Google Assistant, monitors energy usage and suggests which products to automatically turn off to conserve power. The Dalkin smart thermostat works with Alexa and Google Assistant to control the climate in your home.

You can learn more about major product announcements here and here. (For those of you keeping score, in November 2018, Recode reported that Google Assistant works with 10,000 smart home devices versus 20,000 for Alexa.)  But the most intriguing products, such as the Currant smart wall outlet, use artificial intelligence to not only act on your voice commands but also give you information and manage your home without your intervention.

On the Go

Both Amazon and Google showed that Alexa and Google Assistant are powering our lives on the go, too. Google formally integrated Google Maps with Google Assistant, which is important because of Google Maps’s popularity for mobile wayfinding. As Mashable noted, “Google envisions users asking it for directions home, or to nearby restaurants and saved locations. You can ask the assistant to search for places along your route (like gas stations) or add a stop — all things that used to require some button pushing.”

Amazon announced a stronger push into voice-powered automobiles. CES was barely under way when Amazon and Telenav, a provider of connected car and location-based services, announced a relationship that makes it possible for drivers to use the Telenav Alexa-powered navigation system to do the same kinds of functional tasks that they can do with Google Maps. And then Amazon formally launched Amazon Echo smart speaker for the car. Google announced a similar product through a relationship with Anker’s Roav automotive accessory, which is essentially a Google Home for the car.

These announcements continued a battle for on-the-go voice experiences that has been going on for some with Google, Apple, and Amazon all rapidly launching products and software designed to be the de facto infotainment systems for different car manufacturers. The irony is that major auto makers have been announcing dips in sales for 2018. But overall, automotive has been a strong industry over the past several years. And now cars are getting smarter.

What Do They Want?

No wonder so many “Google versus Amazon” stories have proliferated throughout January. But the more important question than who “won” CES is what do Amazon and Google get out of all these voice-powered products? The answer is simple:

  The company that owns the ecosystem monetizes the voice-first world.

Owning the ecosystem yields practical benefits, such as revenue gained from the sale of smart speakers. Amazon commands a strong leadership of smart speakers, but Google is catching up. As of 2019, Amazon is capturing 63.3 percent of the smart speaker market, with Google Home accounting for 31 percent. The numbers matter for another reason besides revenue: smart speakers connect people with other smart devices, thus acting as a gateway for product integrations. As Accenture noted in its survey of global smart assistant users, “[n]inety-three percent of consumers globally expect their home device purchases, such as smart TVs or computers, to be based on ease of integration with their standalone smart speaker.”

Google’s Motivation

For Google, being the backbone of voice protects the company’s online advertising business, which accounts for more than 70 percent of Google’s revenue.  Google needs to keep giving people reasons to keep using products such as the Google search engine, Google Maps, and the Google Chrome web browser. As people stay on Google, Google can continue to deliver audiences to advertisers and learn from audience behavior. As people use voice, Google can keep them on Google by incorporating voice into its products, launching new products such as Google Home, and making Google Assistant part of other companies’ products, which is the alarm clocks, thermostats, and cars using Google Assistant come into play. 

But it’s not all about advertising for Google. Google also wants intelligent voice assistants to make Google software and hardware (such as Pixel phones) more useful and popular, a dramatic example being Google’s Duplex software, which can make convincing phone calls on behalf of human beings.  

What Amazon Wants

Amazon has its own motivations. Amazon is already a popular search engine for product searches, with half of online shoppers starting their searches on Amazon. Amazon also needs to incorporate voice to keep those shoppers using Amazon as they become more comfortable using voice – not just because Amazon wants them to buy things from Amazon with their voices, but also because Amazon is building an online advertising business that is already the third largest in the industry, behind Google and Facebook

As Amazon creates its own advertising business, it, too, needs to show potential advertisers that it can deliver an audience to them – in the home and on the go, whether they use their voices or text to get what they need. In 2018, it was reported that Amazon was in talks with advertising giants such as Procter & Gamble to permit them to advertise on Amazon Echo speakers. Amazon has denied that it’s going to permit advertising through Alexa. But even if Amazon does not offer ads, per se, it can use voice to mine valuable data about its customers that would be useful to its advertisers, such as Google can.

Amazon is already working with businesses to monetize skills. Through premium content known as in-skill products that reside within Alexa skills, businesses can sell premium content such as in-game currency. For example, Stoked Skill offers free games such as Escape the Room and Escape the Airplane. The games are set up as Alexa skills. Players use Alexa skills to find clues that will help them escape spaces such as jell cells and cars. Customers can pay for optional “hint” packs (in in-skill product) that make it easier for them to escape. 

I could see Amazon also offering branded content and products to Prime customers who use Echo, such as discounts at local restaurants unlocked exclusively through Amazon Echo Auto. Doing so would monetize voice without more intrusive advertising that lack any useful offers.

Finally, Amazon has other plans to monetize voice in the enterprise, such as Alexa for Business to help enterprises use Alexa to improve workforce productivity. As these examples show, companies are using Alexa for Business to book conference rooms, manage the connection status of shared devices, and other workplace tasks. But Amazon has competition in the enterprise most notably from Apple and Microsoft.

What Business Should Do

Brands have a clear mandate: prepare for a voice-first world, and one where Amazon and Google call the shots for now. When consumers start really buying products and services via voice assistants, brands will need to play ball with the companies that control the voice ecosystem. Here is how Recode envisions one way that world will play out:

How it works now: If you ask Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant to buy, say, shampoo, they’ll surface what they think you’ll want. Alexa uses several criteria to suggest a purchase option: Your order history, whether a product is eligible for free Prime shipping and whether the product has the “Amazon’s Choice” seal of approval — “highly rated, well-priced products available to ship immediately.”

Google picks products from merchants thatare most relevant to the query. It also considers purchase history and information about user preferences, as well as an item’s availability and proximity.

Both companies say there is no favoring of specific retailers — or their own products.

Brands also can’t pay for visibility — yet. For now, Amazon and Google are trying to build trust among new — few — voice buyers by making their search results as relevant as possible. It doesn’t, however, take much imagination to see a future in which Amazon or Google merchants could pay to have their products suggested by their smart assistants — like sponsored ads that crowd their websites — as a way to generate more ad dollars.

Today, businesses are participating by creating sometimes clever and inventive voice-based brand building experiences, such as HBO’s voice-activated Westworld game, in which people use Alexa to explore the mythical Westworld. Other businesses have created their own branded Alexa skills. With Tide’s Stain Remover skill, you can get stain removal instructions shared with you through Alexa. Campbell’s offers recipes through Campbell’s Kitchen. Presumably, these businesses could offer in-skill products if they wanted to, an example being HBO offering a premium-tier Westworld game for purchase. And businesses are optimizing their content to be found through voice search. 

Amazon and Google are not the only companies doing the heavy lifting, but they are leading the way to a voice-first world. Smart companies are going with them. 

Shareable Custom Alexa Skills Bring Us Closer to a Voice-First Future

Amazon continues to create a voice-first future.

In April, Amazon launched Alexa Skill Blueprints, which makes it possible for anyone to create their own Alexa skills and responses, with no coding required. And now Amazon has made Alexa Skill Blueprints shareable through channels such as Facebook, text, Twitter, and messaging apps.

With Alexa Skill Blueprints, voice becomes a source of user-generated content, such as creating skills that help the babysitter find things in your home or skills that help you learn new subjects through your own voice-based flash cards, among many other potential uses. Here’s an example of how to create your own family trivia game:

Empowering people to create their own Alexa skills without any coding experience is important to Amazon’s vision for making voice the connective tissue of commerce and everyday living. Alexa fuels an entire voice-based commercial ecosystem that includes, for example:

  • The use of Echo smart speakers to manage our smart homes, listen to music (preferably by streaming Amazon Music), and order products and services. Echo is Alexa’s primary vessel, enjoying a commanding 70 percent marketshare.

For Amazon to achieve its vision, consumers have to become comfortable using their voices to accomplish tasks that we’re accustomed to doing with our fingertips. So far, Continue reading

Why Amazon Prime May Be the Future of On-Demand Living

Amazon fed investors a smorgasbord of impressive performance statistics in its quarterly earnings announcement April 25 – such as a 43-percent increase in year-over-year revenues and the generation of $1.4 billion in operating income for Q1 2018.

But by the tine Amazon announced its Q1 earnings, the company had already disclosed an even more intriguing statistic via CEO Jeff Bezos’s April 18 letter to shareowners: 100 million. That’s the number of Amazon Prime members, a figure Amazon had never before shared. Amazon Prime is bigger than Costco. Amazon Amazon Prime also represents the future of Amazon and possibly the on-demand economy

Prime Is Amazon’s Future

For a fee (which is increasing to $119 annually), Amazon Prime members enjoy a number of advantages unavailable to non-Prime customers, such as free two-day delivery on orders and access to exclusive entertainment content via Prime Video.

With Amazon Prime, Amazon is redefining convenience as a premium service by creating an on-demand lifestyle. Just as Starbucks convinced people to pay more for fast coffee, Amazon wants us to pay more to get access to an even more exclusive tier of on-demand services. Continue reading

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.

 

Amazon: One Industry to Rule Them All?

For once, Amazon is playing catch-up.

The great disruptor is just another player in the entertainment space. Amazon Studios, its TV and movie arm, is still looking for a blockbuster like Game of Thrones to compete in an elite league defined by HBO, Hulu, and Netflix. Amazon Music is a follower behind Spotify and Apple Music.

But recently Amazon has made some moves in a bid to transform itself from a follower into a leader. Let’s take a closer look. Continue reading

Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg Want to Change How We Live

Recently Amazon and Facebook announced new products that will extend their reach into the corporate world:

  • Amazon’s Alexa for Business, unveiled November 30, is a platform for a business’s employees to use the Amazon Alexa voice assistant (in Amazon Echo speakers) to manage everyday tasks such as scheduling conference calls and managing calendars. Amazon believes that with Echo smart speakers embedded in corporate conference rooms and offices to manage the mundane things, people will be freed up to focus on more productive work.

  • Facebook’s Oculus for Business, announced October 11, is a bundled set of Oculus products designed to help businesses apply virtual reality (VR) to do everything from train employees to design cars. In fact, although VR has experienced slow adoption among consumers, the corporate world is a different story, where VR is penetrating industries including entertainment, financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, and retail. Facebook believes that by making it easy to purchase hardware, accessories, and associated services needed to employ VR in the workforce, more companies will adopt Oculus over competing products.

These announcements are more than landmark moments for Amazon and Facebook. Alexa for Business and Oculus for Business are also manifestations of something else: the ambitions of Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg to be market makers with artificial intelligence-based voice assistants and virtual reality.

Continue reading