Top news stories for Episode 13 (September 28, 2017):

1) AMAZON THROWS DOWN THE #VOICEFIRST GAUNTLET:

Amazon hosted a special event in Seattle on Wednesday, in which they announced a slew of new Alexa-enabled, voice-first devices.

Those devices, in order: 2nd-gen Amazon Echo, the Echo Plus, Echo Connect, Echo Spot, Amazon Fire TV, and Echo Buttons. (Voicebot.AI coverage of the announcement is here.)

We will go through each product announced and discuss, with each one receiving a letter grade from each member of the expert panel based on relevance + functionality + price.

1b) Amazon also announced three other news items:

- the Echo Show launched in Europe

- Alexa is fully integrated with new BMWs

- The company now has over 5,000 employees working on Echo and Alexa: more than Fitbit and GoPro combined.

2) Google takes its ball and goes home: YouTube pulled off the Echo Show with zero explanation

3) Google is working on a high-end speaker called Google Home Max.

4) Voicebot.AI Story Of The Week: VoiceFirst.FM's The VoiceFirst Roundtable interviews tech luminary Tim O'Reilly on voice technology, thriving tech ecosystems, and much more. 

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Panel for Episode 13 (September 28, 2017):

Carrie Claiborn

 

Carrie Claiborn is a UX consultant for voice user interfaces, serving as Senior VUI Architect for Interactions LLC, and helps companies create compelling, brand-appropriate, usable voice interactions.

 

Tara Kelly

.Tara Kelly is President and CEO of SPLICE Software Incorporated, a company which prides itself on selling telecommunications SaaS with a distinctly human touch. She served as a board member for the International Board for Voice User Interface Design as well.

Cathy Pearl

Cathy Pearl is VP of User Experience for Sensely, and author of the O'Reilly book Designing Voice User Interfaces.

Transcript

Bradley Metrock: [00:00:10] Hi, and welcome back to This Week In Voice for Thursday, September 28, 2017. My name is Bradley Metrock. I'm CEO of a company called Score Publishing based in Nashville, Tennessee.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:00:24] Our sponsor for This Week In Voice is VoiceXP, blazing the trail in voice technology. VoiceXP is taking the lead in developing Alexa skills for some of the best brands in the world. With VoiceXP, all you have to do is say it to revolutionize your marketing strategy. And I say it again and again: if you don't know these folks - if you have no idea what they do, or don't know about them - stop the podcast for a minute. Go to the browser - www.VoiceXP.com - and check them out. You'll be glad that you did.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:00:59] Very, very pleased to be joined by a phenomenal panel of guests. Our first one is Carrie Claiborn - Carrie, say hello!

 

Carrie Claiborn: [00:01:08] Hello!

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:01:09] Carrie, thank you for joining us. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.

 

Carrie Claiborn: [00:01:13] I've been working in voice user interface design for about 15 years, on and off, for a number of different companies. Right now I'm working with Interaction, and I primarily work on voice user interface devices that are used in the customer service channel with emphasis on usability.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:01:30] Very cool! And you're based in Charleston?

 

Carrie Claiborn: [00:01:33] I am actually in Columbia, South Carolina - about 90 miles away.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:01:37] OK, cool. South Carolina is a great place. Thank you very much for joining us today.

 

Carrie Claiborn: [00:01:41] Thank you for having me.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:01:42] Our next guest is Cathy Pearl. Cathy, say hello!

 

Cathy Pearl: [00:01:45] Hello!

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:01:46] Cathy, thank you for joining us. It was great to meet you face-to-face back in San Francisco a week or two ago. Share with us about what you do for Sensely, and a little bit about your background.

 

Cathy Pearl: [00:01:58] Sure. I am the Vice President of User Experience at Sensely. We have a virtual nurse avatar we use to help people with chronic health conditions. You can talk to the avatar and the avatar talks back. And recently I published the O'Reilly book, "Designing Voice User Interfaces." I'm really excited to see this resurgence in voice technology - a little bit different than the IVR world that I started in, back in the late '90s! And thank you so much for having me back on the show.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:02:23] Yes, thank you for joining us once again. And we have Cathy's book in the show notes. Check that out - it's through OReilly.com. Our next guest is Tara Kelly - Tara, say hello!

 

Tara Kelly: [00:02:34] Hi there!

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:02:35] Tara, thank you very much for joining us. And ... just a little bit of background. There was a big mixup on my part, and VoiceFirst.FM's part: you were supposed to have joined us weeks ago. Thank you very, very much for your graciousness with us and your patience with us.

 

Tara Kelly: [00:02:50] No problem at all. Life is busy.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:02:52] Share a little bit with us about Splice Software and what y'all do.

 

Tara Kelly: [00:02:56] Splice Software is an 11 year old company, and we focus on really bringing the art and science together with customer connections, with really a voice-first focus. We believe that every transaction in life happens based on a foundation of trust. Trust is both an emotional connection as well as a logical connection to transact. So when we build voice applications for retails, finance, insurance - we really focus on making sure that that voice connection is creating the emotional connection that you want so that you can do commerce. And we have a ton of fun with it and working with companies about how much data is really ready. So it's pretty exciting times these days, as we move from telephony into additional speaking devices all throughout the home. I've been sort of championing "This is the year of voice!" for like nine years - and I think it's finally starting to happen. So we're excited to see this space just really exploding right now.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:03:52] Thank all three of you for joining us and giving us some of your time and sharing your insight and expertise - with not just me but the audience today. We are greatly, greatly appreciative. So with that, we will get to the news -and what a week! In fact, what a last 24 hours! Amazon didn't really give us a lot of indication that they were going to shower us with new hardware and inundate the marketplace with new information and products. And this is where we're going to start this episode today.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:04:25] AMAZON THROWS DOWN THE #VOICEFIRST GAUNTLET: In the special event that they hosted in Seattle on Wednesday, they announced a slew of new Alexa-enabled #VoiceFirst devices - and these devices, in order, were: the 2nd-generation Amazon Echo; the Echo Plus; the Echo Connect; the Echo Spot; Amazon Fire TV; Echo Buttons; and a partridge in a pear tree. So - fascinating approach. I think there's some potential debate as to should they have focused on a couple of things, or should they have just spammed the market with all these things? Tara, I'm going to start with you. Before we get into each product, which we'll do, I want to get your and the rest of the panel's just sort of general reaction to yesterday's announcement and event, as well as if any one particular product caught your eye more than the others. Give us your reaction.

 

Tara Kelly: [00:05:21] I love it. I'm a big believer in A/B testing, and this is A to G testing! I think you've got to get out there and see what the people want, and I think it was bold, and I think it was a great move. I kind of fell in love with that little Spot. We're giving them out for Christmas for sure, everywhere. But I love the new Spot. I think it sits beautifully on your nightstand. I think the design is great and I like that they made things pretty. Their first versions were just not aesthetically pleasing. So I was pretty excited to see the investment they made, into realizing your home is a sacred place - and what the feel of it is, is really critical from a visual aesthetic perspective. I was all thumbs-up for this slew of options that they put out to market.

 

Carrie Claiborn: [00:06:06] I think the one that really jumped at me is the Echo Plus. But in integrating with my Home Hub features, I have in my not-too-distant past what I call "the lost weekend," which involved trying to get different lightbulbs, security systems, thermostats all up and talking to each other. It was a tremendous amount of work - and one that was only made better when the housekeeper unplugged my router and I was starting from scratch again. The experience I had could theoretically have been a barrier for entry for many consumers. And this, I think, is a huge, huge improvement over any virtual assistant platform to incorporate that integration. Certainly it goes a bit overwhelming. I feel like you lose a bit of focus when you see several things being released at once. But it makes you very excited to see what's coming! This is obviously demonstrating once again a huge commitment to voice interactive and #VoiceFirst.

 

Cathy Pearl: [00:06:56] For sure, and to Carrie's point - one of the things absolutely about the Echo Plus is this whole idea of making it easier to do integration with your home automation things. I mean, any time you can replace a user manual with a conversation, I'm all for it. I'm thinking about when the Echo did a recent update, and when it finished the update a yellow ring lit up - a new ring color I hadn't seen before. And I just said "Alexa, what's up with the yellow ring?" and it said "Oh, that's a new feature to get reminders." How great is it that you can just ask your device how to use the device? It's almost like having somebody from the Geek Squad come over to your house and help you set something up, rather than having to go online and look through obscure user manuals.

 

Cathy Pearl: [00:07:39] But I think the one that stuck out to me the most is, like Tara, the Echo Spot. I'm somebody who likes to have my phone not be in my bedroom, so I leave it downstairs when I go to bed. Recently I was trying this meditation out, though - which meant I was bringing my phone into my bedroom and I didn't like it, because I started scrolling through Twitter and doing all the stuff that I really didn't need to be doing. And the thing is - it's the aesthetics. The Echo Spot can look just like a pretty alarm clock sitting on your nightstand or have a photo of a family member, or something like that. Most of the time. So rather than the Echo Dot, which is kind of like this little thing sitting there, it would actually enhance a look in my room and not lead me into just mindlessly surfing the net - but just do a couple of things that I would want to do in that space.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:08:23] So it sounds like the consensus is: excitement, enthusiasm, positive reception for Amazon's event yesterday. I think one of the outcomes of the blitzkrieg of product announcements is that if you are a casual observer who's not following any of this - this isn't your profession, this isn't your sector; maybe you have an Echo or maybe you don't; you don't follow this stuff - and you see that Amazon has a special event in which they announce, like, 80 new products all involving Alexa - you would probably conclude that this is a big deal. And you'd probably conclude that voice technology is not some flash-in-the-pan, ephemeral fad - but is instead a permanent shift in computing. So I think from that standpoint, it's really valuable - and to that extent I agree with the panel as well. Let's go through these.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:09:28] Let's just start with the second-generation Amazon Echo - which, Tara, I think you touched on. Just give your overall impression of the product - we're going to do this for each one: impression and a letter grade based on relevance, functionality, price - whatever you think matters the most. Cathy, I'll start with you for this one.

 

Cathy Pearl: [00:09:50] The only thing I really thought about this new version of the regular Echo is the fact that they have these different looks to it, so it almost looks a little bit more almost like Google Home. I think it's a nice thing to have the different fabrics and things like that. Price is good. I'm assuming the exact same performance I get from my current Echo. So I would say if I give my Echo a A - which I do - then I would give this the same grade. Assuming it behaves the same.

 

Tara Kelly: [00:10:15] I'm going to give it a B. I find it frustrating that it can't play at the volume levels I want; it can get lost in large spaces. I was super excited about the felt option, the woodgrain option. I think they're getting much more cool and hip. But if you're going to appeal to the Creative, you'd better do something about your speaker amplification quality sound. I'm going to give it a B. I think they're moving in the right direction, and I'm a big fan. And I don't give A's very easily.

 

Carrie Claiborn: [00:10:41] It seems like it's a very consumer-market oriented change. I can see a lot of people being excited by it, and I love the new feel. I think that improving the speakers is probably worthwhile, and I'll be very interested to get a first-hand impression on how the microphone rate is going to actually improve recognition, especially if it's a little bit noisier or if distance is involved; I think that might be the most compelling thing in terms of its actual functionality. But I'm almost tempted to go down to B minus, because from a voice user interface perspective it doesn't really bring much to the table. But certainly from a marketing perspective, it's cool, it's new, it's shorter, it's got cool colors; perhaps that gets more eyeballs on it. Just in time for Christmas!

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:11:19] Next up is the Echo Plus. The Echo Plus is the hub version of the Echo that's a little bit pricier but a little bit more robust. Let's do the same thing: get impressions and a letter grade. Cathy, I'll start with you on this. What do you think?

 

Cathy Pearl: [00:11:34] I think if you're into home automation or nicer speakers, this probably great for you. I'm not really into either of those things, so it's not something I'm going to run out and buy. But as we were saying earlier, the fact that if you do want to do any kind of home automation - that you can do it in a conversational way, I think, is is a big win. So for people who are in that space, I think it's good.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:11:56] And a letter grade?

 

Cathy Pearl: [00:11:56] Grades are tough! For myself, I'll give it a B because I'm not that interested in it. But for somebody with home automation, maybe an A.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:12:03] You don't need to provide a caveat - if you're not interested, give it whatever. You're good.

 

Cathy Pearl: [00:12:06] OK, a B for me.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:12:10] There you go. Tara, your thoughts?

 

Tara Kelly: [00:12:12] OK, I'm going to give this one an A. I have gone to the effort of setting up everything with Samsung Hub. I love this space. I'm super excited that Philips is part of their partnership. I think they have some of the greatest deep investment in the home space, including a lot of their different bulbs for their funkier modern lights, [00:12:31] for pot [0.5] lights, etc. I'm going with the LEDs as well as security system integration. I think that this is a risk, though. I'm excited they're making the gamble. There are so many other connected devices in your home that they're going to have to be able to talk to. And I think time will tell. If they drop to a D minus, because I think there's a ton to seamlessly integrate with, and voice can only do so much. So you might be using your Show before you know it. So I'm going to give them an A for now, but it's a tightrope they're walkin'.

 

Carrie Claiborn: [00:13:02] Love this. I definitely give it an A. I think that it's going to be a significant improvement in the initial installation, it's going to make life easier for those of us who are interested in trying to get smart housing. Any barrier for entry here, because this is a speech-enabled device and we take our human language instinct so personally even though subconsciously we can't make mistakes here - being able to take just another area that could potentially be a road bump into getting adoption moving, I think is a fantastic change. And personally, obviously with my experience, trying to get different hubs working and different technologies working is going to be major. So I hope that the developers will align in putting something on the market to make your integration more seamless.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:13:48] Next up is the Echo Connect, which - correct me if I'm wrong - is the version of the Echo that plugs into the phone line and allows you to take phone calls over your Echo. Very interesting product. I'll switch the order - we'll go in reverse this time. Carrie, what did you think about the Echo Connect? What grade would you give it?

 

Carrie Claiborn: [00:14:09] I'm giving it an A for interesting reasons. I think it opens, or re-opens, the market back to an older population who may not necessarily be so tech-savvy. Family members who might be buying this for a grandmother or an older parent are going to be able to provide an integration that would simply make their lives far more meaningful to the folks living and interacting with that device in their homes. If I'm not mistaken, I believe this also took off the reliance on smart phones for setup, which I feel is a huge win. And the price obviously is very manageable.

 

Tara Kelly: [00:14:43] I think this one might just be my A+, and I might just give it to only one of those. So I'm really excited. Not having to rely on a smart phone, I think, was a really great move. I think the fact that you can immediately become actionable - we want to gain information and have a lot of back and forth, and that's great. But there still are a lot of times where we need some human assistance to close the last mile, and you're just really connecting that last mile for the customer. I think it's not even just for the elderly population, although it certainly is more likely for the people that are like "Hey, now I need a human." But I think it just makes tons of things really actionable. And it just creates a seamless movement between interfaces. I'm pretty excited about it. Definitely want to clarify for everybody: it doesn't mean you have to have an old-school landline coming into your home to use it. So when we talk about attaching it to the phone line, it doesn't just require that. I'm super excited about this product, and I'm A+ for genuine usable value exchange functionality.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:15:43] So wait a minute: you don't have to have a phone or you don't have to have a landline to use it?

 

Tara Kelly: [00:15:47] Correct me if I'm wrong, but looking at some of the different blogs on this (and I've not used one myself), you can I believe attach it to Voice over IP. You can attach it to a traditional landline, but it doesn't require a traditional landline. So it's built to last, I think, in its design and structure.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:16:07] Interesting, thank you for sharing that - I must have completely missed that. Cathy, what are your thoughts on this?

 

Cathy Pearl: [00:16:13] I am also very excited about this one. I think it's going to be under the radar a bit for people, but to me what it may bring back is the concept of the family phone line. I mean, only about 50 percent of people in the US have landlines anymore. And my co-worker was saying the other day - he was calling his parents, and he had to decide "Who do I call, my mom or my dad? You can't just call home." And I think we lose out on that a bit. Kids who don't have phones yet - they have to, say, ask their parent to text their friend's parent "Can I come over and play?" They can't just place that phone call themselves. And so I think it's going to bring back that idea of the home line. And I really like that. So I'll give it an A.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:16:49] The next one is the Echo Spot. I will start with you, Tara, for this. What are your thoughts on this, and your grade?

 

Tara Kelly: [00:16:57] I'm going to give this one an A. I would give it an A+ if they would have given it to us in, like, a rock - so it really could have had that tactile presence. I actually was surprised they didn't offer a felt or wood version - I think it's just a black and white right now. But I love it. It's the right size, it's the right function. I definitely agree a lot of us are trying to keep our going-to-bed routine a secret place, where we get back to self and all things real and connected and not mindless browsing. I think it creates a little bit more intention. And I think there's a lot of opportunity for sound quality there, too. And it just gives you a lot of functionality without a lot of real estate that you're losing on your night stand. So I love it. I also think it's funny that people are talking about "Oh my gosh, there's a camera facing my bed!" And I'm just going to argue that people have been putting their phones on stands - they say the average person does put their smartphone on their nightstand. And tons of them have a little stand for it, because they're using it as a clock. So this is not the first camera that's been staring at your bed. And I think that it's going to be a non-issue for people and I was surprised to see as many articles on that as I did.

 

Cathy Pearl: [00:18:03] Yes, this one excites me as well. I'm going to give it an A. It seems to me the most likely next Amazon device I might buy. I haven't bought the Echo Show, I haven't bought any Dots - but this one is intriguing, and so much of it is this multimodal nature. We we talk a lot about #VoiceFirst, but often we don't think about the nature of having voice AND visual. And this is obviously a small screen - I think it's two and a half inches - so there's only so much real estate. But that might again be the perfect thing for the use case of promoting having it in your bedroom - because I don't want tons and tons of - I don't want to end up sitting there scrolling my little Echo Spot! So, having just the right amount of information on the screen is perfect - because then it can ask me a question, and display a picture, and I can respond to that much more easily. I think it's a very interesting move, and certainly to me the most intriguing one.

 

Carrie Claiborn: [00:18:58] This is probably the one that I have the most reservations about - because it almost feels like this is the one that brings me into the product spam territory - there are a lot of things out there, and this is another one. That said - it's eye-catching, it's handy, it has a good price point - and again, with the holidays ... But there's just something to this: I don't feel like we're ready for this, necessarily. I have hesitations that this might go the way of the Look in terms of public opinion once it's about there. That said - I've already got it on order, so I guess they sold me. I'm going to give this one a B.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:19:33] Moving on to the Amazon Fire TV. One thing that I thought was interesting about this is that it can be coupled with the Dot to provide even more #VoiceFirst functionality to it. Carrie, I will start with you on this: what did you think about the Amazon Fire TV?

 

Carrie Claiborn: [00:19:50] I was going to give this one a satisfactory, simply because I haven't used the Fire TV or any of the other products. I'm a Roku user. It seems very eye-catching me. But this might change my opinion, and I may have to go out there and make another purchase. It's just something I don't have enough exposure to, necessarily, to weigh in on it.

 

Cathy Pearl: [00:20:10] We tried an early version of the Fire TV and we ended up uninstalling it because we had some problems. The promise of this product is something that I would absolutely love to have because it's a real first-world problem issue in my home - which is that I have so much trouble controlling our television. We have a universal remote. To me the biggest difficulty for all these products - I mean, I know that they say they're going to be integrated with Netflix, et cetera, et cetera - but going between the things is always such a challenge. I cannot for the life of me ever remember how to get from the TV to the X-Box to do Netflix to YouTube to get back to the TV. And my husband has been spending many hours programming our universal remote. He'll just be, like, "First you press Watch TV, then you press Control TV, then you press ..." And I'm like "No. I just want to press Play TV!" And so the premise of this to me is fantastic. I want to say "I want to watch 'The 100.'" I don't want to know when it's on, where it's on, which device it's on. Something that goes above the entire TV-cable-Internet ecosystem and just gets me what I want by voice I think is fantastic. I would give it maybe a B minus, based on previous experiences. Once it works I will love it. But until then I'm pretty skeptical that it will work across all the things I want it to.

 

Tara Kelly: [00:21:23] Yes, I'm going to give this one a D. I don't think they're playing to the market of who's got the TV. I think that there's a street fight going on, and Hulu is not putting up a good fight yet either, and we've got Netflix - and you're right, I've got so much going on in my house. I tried Echo Connect when it came out and I loved it. I loved the motion control and being able to navigate through the device. I'm always trying these new things. I did earlier as well give it a try. I don't think that they've spent enough time in market. So my take on this - even though I give them a D - is God bless 'em for getting out there and getting their butt kicked in street fight. They're going to a lot of good feedback and I'm sure they'll get it figured out. So welcome to the street fight, but please tell me you're going to start doing better faster.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:22:06] Well, if you give this a D minus - my lord, do you give the Apple TV a zero?

 

Cathy Pearl: [00:22:11] Yeah, it's close. It looks pretty, so you get marks for that! But yeah.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:22:17] The last one is the Echo Button. This one I will actually start with, because I saw a lot of hate for the Echo Button on Twitter and stuff like that when this was announced - but this is the one I'm actually the most excited about! I'm giving this an A++ because I'm fascinated by the fact that Amazon has said this is going to be some Trivia - they gave these Trivia game use cases, but I think it's going to take all of about two seconds for somebody to figure out something else to do with it. I think you could have all sorts of creative applications. I could see a health care application where you hit the Echo Button if you're having a heart attack - or in restaurants where you hit the button to summon a waiter, like in a Sonic or something. I'm very fascinated by this. Now, I don't mean to bias the grading ahead of time - but I did want to share my opinion. Tara, I'm going to start with you on this: what did you think of the Echo Button?

 

Tara Kelly: [00:23:25] At 20 bucks a pop, I like the price point. I'm going to give it a B. I think they're playing to find out how else human beings want to interact. I think there's a little bit of play here. I also think it's interesting, though - they're going to hear a different type of conversation with permission. And I know that that is important. So when you're playing Trivia, when you're playing games with your family, when you're doing these other things that they've designed it for - you're going to get this really neat human casual interaction that you're asking it to listen to. I think what Amazon as a whole is going to get out of this could be really awesome. And I definitely think when they open it up to the community, people will figure out useful things to do with it. Whether or not it's going to get adopted enough to add big value - jury's out. But I'm going to give them a B. I like that they're trying it, and I feel like it's a gamble.

 

Carrie Claiborn: [00:24:14] I was not 100% thrilled about the Button. Brian Roemmele has written something on his ReadMultiplex site, which I thought was interesting. The physical modality of the remote that leads itself to new use cases...I don't think that's how design is supposed to work. I believe that we're supposed to have a use case and design to it. Right? So it feels a little bit like - "we're putting something out there that's new and cool. BUY IT because it's cool! (and not because you have a use for it.

 

Carrie Claiborn: [00:24:39] That said - I like the idea of being able to have a physical interface that skill developers can take advantage of. It does open up a lot of doors. And I'm hoping in the future that once the official gadgets come into play, that can continue to do that so somebody can see something, and find something, that they can build well with. That it meshes. But I also think it would be an even better choice to open up an API that allows developers to take advantage of being able to write to their own widget, whatever it is, so that they can employ that to a skill as well. Let the folks that already have technology build the interface, as opposed to trying to build new interface mechanisms that now we have to somehow integrate to our lives meaningfully.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:25:23] I agree with you from the standpoint of ... I just assume that Amazon is going to give developers a wide berth to do what they want with this Button, rather than be shoehorned into the Trivia game use case. But is your grade a "P" for "Pass" on this? Or do you have another letter?

 

Carrie Claiborn: [00:25:40] No, it's lower simply because it feels like it's a little cart before the horse to me. I'm giving it a D. And again, it's not so much the Button proper. I don't necessarily think that they're going to limit the developer's ability to interact the Button through other skill development. I'd like to see - just open up an API where you can write to this - to have your whatever physical device now be integrated into to a skill, right? Something that perhaps Amazon hadn't thought of.

 

Cathy Pearl: [00:26:07] I was watching a video of somebody showcasing all these new Amazon things - I think it was on The Verge - and I thought there's something about this cute little Dot that I think - their Button - that people are excited about. Again, will there be good use cases? I'm not sure. One thing it does address, I think, is this whole multi-use issue. If you're playing a game or something like that with the Echo, it can't separate, say, three people shouting out at once - or tell, even if it's one at a time, who it was. So I think it's a very quick solution to the identification problem we have right now, which is it doesn't know who's speaking. So perhaps that could be taken past the game concept. But as as everyone's saying - the low price point, and just throwing it out there - it's like basically Amazon's getting free ideation. People are just like "What can we come up with?" And somebody may come up with something fantastic. And Amazon got someone else to do it. So it seems like a smart move on their part. And for a grade - I'll give it a B+ because I want to see what's going to happen with it.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:27:07] All in all, based on the grades, it was a mixed bag, as to be expected. But seems like there's a lot of positivity about the product line. And certainly I think the consensus of public opinion agrees with that.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:27:21] Moving on to #1B: Amazon had other things that they announced in addition to all these products, and we'll hit them all sort of in one fell swoop here. The Echo Show launched in Europe - specifically, I think it was the U.K. and Germany. Alexa is now integrated with new BMWs, which is pretty cool. And it appeared like there was no hardware. There was no Echo sticking up, or anything like that - it was just baked in, which is sort of interesting. And the big one - Amazon now has 5000 employees working on Echo and Alexa. More than Fitbit and GoPro combined. Now, I don't know why this article decided to choose those two companies - they could have chosen whatever companies they wanted to - but 5000 employees is a whole lot. I think the three of these things combined sort of gives an additional angle on the whole press event - just shows incredible momentum in the marketplace. And I want to get the panel's reaction to this. And Carrie, I'm going to start with you.

 

Carrie Claiborn: [00:28:28] Five thousand from a thousand is a lot, and 5000 is a lot in any conversation in terms of dedicated resources working on technologies. And that's just personally. If somebody who works in voice does something really exciting and reinforces that we're definitely going to see great things coming ahead ... I think that native automobile integration though is my very best eye-catching...one of my reservations in interacting with virtual assistant platforms is how these disparate technologies ... I already have an iPhone. I'm not going to go and shift to something that uses something else. And then I've got Alexa here, and then I've got something else in my car. To have Alexa in the car, I think, starts to tie the entire experience together and makes a much more compelling kind of environment. And if we do have to dedicate ourselves to a platform - suddenly we'll know - well, maybe this is the one. As opposed to "Well ... I don't need this, and I don't need that." Having access to the same interface consistently is going to accrue adoption - people can use Alexa in much more meaningful ways.

 

Cathy Pearl: [00:29:40] Like Carrie, the one that jumped out at me was the car integration. That's another use case where in my life I really wish I had options. I listen to a lot of podcasts and music in the car and I have no way of controlling them with my voice, which is really frustrating that I can't even pause or skip to the next one. So I look forward to that integration. I'm always skeptical about the microphone quality - that's always been a really hard thing for voice in the car. It's a very noisy environment. Are they going to place mics in the back as well, for anyone in the backseat? There's a lot of just difficult recognition tasks, period - let alone how you actually allow people to control devices in the car. But I hope that they are doing a good job with that - and in which case I would love to have this in my car. I mean, already often my son will say "You know, I wish Alexa was in the car." It's certainly something that's come up in our household.

 

Cathy Pearl: [00:30:34] In terms of the announcement about the 5000 employees: I'm always a little skeptical of these numbers. I mean - are they including people who work on AWS servers (because that's tangentially related) or is it truly working on the product? That being said, it's great there's so much interest in voice. When we've got all these companies like Google and Amazon and Apple who are who are able to afford and take all that talent - it just makes it really hard for some of the other players in the space. Look at something like Mycroft, which is an open source home assistant which seems pretty cool. But they're going to have such a more difficult time because they're just not going to have access to 5000 people to work on the product. So I think it makes it a challenge for those not in the space.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:31:13] That's an interesting observation. And by the way - if you want to hear Joshua Montgomery, CEO of Mycroft AI - I interviewed him for the first episode of Artificial Intelligence which is on VoiceFirst.FM. (Shameless plug.)

 

Tara Kelly: [00:31:26] I think with the 5000 number ... I think it's to be expected. I thought it was almost comical that they used companies that are struggling right now to stay relevant and are having a hard time. They already have so much market presence - how much more can they get? They're getting a big collision from everybody who makes beautiful watches, like Fossil, the Apple Watch, Samsung, etc. So, that one - I don't know - it just was like "Yeah, we're trying, too and we're showing our commitment for the small startups and for the rest of the ecosystem."

 

Carrie Claiborn: [00:31:59] I think the job thing was interesting. For me the real story was the BMW announcement, and I was curious as to why are we so excited about BMW? We've seen Ford announce this earlier, also Volvo. And I think as driverless cars become real - and of course there's a lot of speculation as to when - but we all know it's coming, and coming faster than we think - the voice interactions in the car are going to be everything. And I'm very curious on the actual logistics of where you're placing the mics: How are you dealing with the different sounds? How that's going to play out as you look at changing the seats to what they were when the car was first invented - when people faced each other and drove in that vehicle. So you're going to see the collision of the driverless car and speaking in that automobile. And I look at public transit and think, where's that going to mash up? When is Alexa going to be talking on your phone? I think it's once we have our vehicle and we have our home, then we'll start to have "what is the public space interaction?" And now we're back to the smart phone. And I think it's going to be interesting to be Apple and Samsung - and I think Amazon is going to have an interesting situation because Samsung has a wider breadth in actual physical locations of devices, whether it's their fridge, or washer and dryer, or the phones that are so prevalent. So I think it's really about the automobile. That was the story that I thought was most interesting. And I'm really curious to see the collision of all of these innovations at the same time and how they're going to address it.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:33:34] The employees aspect - with Amazon - I think the good thing about that is that it's just another one of these things that demonstrates credibility, long-term viability, to the marketplace. If Amazon's got 5000 employees - even if it's sort of rounding up a bit with that, or counting other people that maybe are doing different things within the company - that's still a lot of people. And it just shows outside observers who are sort of watching this all play out: hey, this is for real. And I think that is certainly a positive to take away.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:34:11] Moving on to STORY #2: GOOGLE TAKES ITS BALL AND GOES HOME. This is a really sort of pathetic story, but a sign of things to come, I think, with how some of these tech juggernauts will begin to interact with each other in the voice space. YouTube pulled off all of its video functionality on the Echo Show this week and provided no explanation whatsoever - simply stating this violated their terms of service, or whatever. This is bad news for both of them. This is bad news especially for the Echo Show because YouTube is a pretty important application for that. Having that screen, it just seems to be such a natural fit. It's a bad thing for Google because so many people are using the Alexa ecosystem, and this is just a fantastic gateway into using more and more YouTube content and consuming that. So I want to get the panel's perspective on this. Cathy, I'm going to start with you.

 

Cathy Pearl: [00:35:16] I guess I'm not terribly surprised, given that Google is obviously trying to compete in the same space. Maybe Google's going to unveil their own version of the Echo Show, and they only want YouTube to be on there and they can have the market share since they're definitely in the minority in terms of home assistant devices that have been sold. They also claim it has to do with improving the user experience, although I am very skeptical of that. And I do think it damages their own brand a little bit because people are going to be mad that they can't see YouTube videos, which is the most common way to see videos. I think it will get resolved to a point; maybe they'll have more limited content available, or something like that. But - especially the sort of abruptness of it, and suddenly not allowing people to have this feature that's probably really, really important to Echo Show users. Seems like kind of a bad way to go about it.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:36:09] I know, I had to explain to my 5 year old why he can't watch Daniel Tiger on the Echo Show - and it fell on deaf ears, I'll put it that way. But that's the impact it had in our house.

 

Tara Kelly: [00:36:22] The moment I read it, the first thing that flashed into my brain was Adobe Flash versus Apple. How many people went through that? So if you're asking me to make a bet on it - Google vs. Amazon - I can't do it. This is the lunacy - and I think it goes to the culture of the organizations - it goes to whether you're building a cult culture or a connected one. I think that we're going to have these kind of scraps, and it's unfortunate; it's not in the best interest of the public. And hopefully we will find our way through it as fast as possible, eventually. You can get and download your own Flash player for the MacBook. So hopefully we can all get over it and move on quickly. I think that the question is, if I was Google - it's a big bat - you're kind of daring Amazon to address this issue. And YouTube was one of the best purchases they made, probably to date, if you look at it for what it really did for them. And I think that that was a big fight to pick. And you better hope that you didn't dare them into finding something else really excellent - because there's no rule that says YouTube will dominate forever. It sure is right now. But you just dared the giant - and I get it; Google feels just as giant, and they are ... but, wow. Like, congratulations. Let's see how this goes down. So yes, I think it's going to be like Adobe Flash and Apple eventually will all come around and play nice. I just don't know when.

 

Carrie Claiborn: [00:37:50] I really agree with Cathy that the user experience mentioned in Google's statement, I felt, almost resonated like a cop-out. What user experience issues? The user experience is that they can't do the thing that they were doing, often with differentiating products purchased in the same place. That said, it's Google's product; they can do with it as they will. I feel like it's very poor timing on their part because it does feel very tit-for-tat: "Hey, here's our new line! Hey, we're going to undercut you!" That's problematic. And the fact that they haven't expanded on their statement - where Amazon's making lots of noise about how they're willing to send a team down to Mountain View - we're not getting more public input from Google about what exactly went wrong. It kind of just begs the question of what folks were thinking on this. The timing could have been better, I think, to disassociate it from the launch. When your son asked about Daniel Tiger and you have to look at him sadly that you're right up there with that - there was enough public interest in bringing back YouTube access that they're going to have to find some sort of solution for this right away.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:38:54] Google did, like I said, announce a new product - and this is STORY #3: THE GOOGLE HOME MAX. We'll touch on this just briefly. This product is another sort of "me, too" product in the audiophile space. I want to get each of y'all's opinion on this product itself, and then also your thoughts on whether the HomePod - Apple's high-end entrant into the smart speaker market - can possibly be successful at this point. You've got the Google Home Max now competing against Amazon in the second-generation Echo - which, the entire selling point that Amazon made about it (or one of the big ones) was increased audio fidelity. Share with me your perspective on this product itself. And if you think that HomePod is dead on arrival, or if you think that Apple's got a shot at competing with it. Tara, I'm going to start with you.

 

Tara Kelly: [00:39:54] I think any time you bring the quality in, there's room in that market. I can't believe how much room there is in the high-end speaker audio market, but there continues to always be a large space. And so if you've done something slightly better and you brand it - it's a lot about how you brand and sell. And so, I'm excited about Max from Google. I think that it is a good angle; they're trying for a slightly different segment of the market, and maybe they'll meet in the middle. I think they're partially recognizing that the people that are just looking to streamline their life have already kind of gone the way of Amazon - and I think they're trying for a different wedge. I think it's a good move. And as that relates to Apple - I think that Apple is good, VERY good, at marketing. And if they can get that right - are they as good as they used to be? I don't know; the new phone's not a good indicator - but if they're as good as they had been, then I think they have a fighting chance. You know, you watched the Bob Marley speakers come out - no one saw that coming. You see some of those partnerships; you look at Samsung coming in with the Harman products within the home, connected home - I think there's going to be lots of space there to fight it out. With the stereo, you've got a different need. You've got a different buyer driving some of that decision. And so they're not going to be as fussed about how smart is this, how good is the AI. I think when you start to look at it as a whole home, you're going to get the collision - and all of this deep knowledge on the AI side is going to really, really matter. But as far as the speaker goes, a smart speaker - yeah, I think there's room. I think people will spend some money. These guys are used to spending a lot of money on these devices. So yeah, I think there's some room.

 

Carrie Claiborn: [00:41:34] I think that the sound quality is an interesting piece to it, just that they're pushing the improvement there. I don't know, though, for the casual user, if that's truly the differentiator that makes them get their wallet out. Feature phones or smartphones are trying to find that the multiple differentiator in the pack, and often not with a tremendous amount of success. If I'm a sound aficionado - which unfortunately I'm not - I would be looking at my mini, for example, to plug that into my existing Bose sound system or something like that to really improve my sound quality. So here's my secret hope for HomePod. This is my secret hope for voice. I'd love to see inter-operability rise so much stronger. I'd like to be able to use the interface mechanism of my choice in whatever channel I like - my car, my cell phone, in my home, or my television. And I'd like them to play well together and not act like they've never met. I assume that we've seen a bit of that in some areas. But I think that would be the one area that HomePod could really make or break the entire industry - if there's not a differentiator to that level: that big, big thing that changes the way we're thinking about the industry, or changes the way Amazon and Google have to approach this going forward. But they're a little late in the game and they might not be able to pick that up as they'd like to.

 

Cathy Pearl: [00:43:00] I know there are audiophiles out there who will pay more money for this type of product. I've never been one of those so it's not something I would plan to buy, just as a boost for sound quality. The other thing - just my experience with sort of high-end speakers and things outside of the home assistant space - is that it's always more complicated. We were at a friend's, trying to play a song on Spotify - and the husband was spending all his time trying to get it to play from Spotify on the phone to his nice speakers, and his wife was like "I just want to hear the song!" And I'm kind of in that same position: I will give up a little bit of sound quality for the ease of use. But it sounds like there are people, though, who will pay the extra money for that extra quality. Is that enough? We'll see. As far as Apple goes, they are certainly late to the game. How many people are such loyal Apple followers that they'll go ahead and buy the product anyway? Is it enough to make a difference? As Carrie said, will they have some other kind of differentiator? I think it really remains to be seen. I think it could go either way.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:44:02] I think the fundamental problem that Apple's going to have is - it's hard to describe audio fidelity. It's not easy to say if maybe the HomePod had 40 percent better audio fidelity than the second-generation Amazon Echo - what does that mean? I'm a classically trained musician since early in my childhood, and I live in Music City USA, and I can't tell you what that means. I think Amazon's taken the right approach. They sort of just provided a general framework in the general verbiage, like "the audio fidelity on this is better" - and people will take one look at the fact that the HomePod is over triple the cost. It's a tough sell. Not to say that it may not be successful if they come out with some sort of killer use case. But it's just going to be a tough sell, and I appreciate all the perspective on that.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:44:57] And the last story - there's actually no need for commentary on it, it's just something I want to share. Make sure, if you're listening to this podcast, to not miss this month's episode of VoiceFirst.FM's The VoiceFirst Roundtable, in which I interview a true tech luminary, Tim O'Reilly - and it was a thrill to interview him. That interview is available on VoiceFirst.FM, and wherever you prefer to listen to podcasts. So that's our Voicebot.AI story of the week. Voicebot.AI and Bret Kinsella wrote up a great complementary piece (complementary with "E" in the middle) to that podcast - so check that out by going over to Voicebot.AI.

 

[00:45:40] Carrie, Cathy, Tara - thank you very, very much for being part of this. This was fantastic.

 

Carrie Claiborn: [00:45:45] Thank you.

 

Cathy Pearl: [00:45:46] Thank you very much for having us.

 

Tara Kelly: [00:45:47] Thanks, it was fun!

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:45:48] Thanks to all three of you for being part of this - being so generous with your time - sharing your perspectives. It's greatly appreciated. For This Week In Voice, September 28, 2017 - thank you for listening. And until next time. 

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