Top news stories for Season 2, Episode 20 (June 14, 2018):

THIS WEEK IN VOICE SEASON FINALE - SEASON 2

PREVIEW OF DIGITAL BOOK WORLD 2018

October 2-4, Nashville TN (registration here)

1a) Popular Science: Navigating Amazon's increasingly complicated collection of Alexa-enabled devices

1b) Provide a letter grade for Amazon's Alexa ecosystem thus far, and why

2a) Voicebot.AI: Google Assistant Most Used Voice Assistant For Shopping, Outpacing Siri And Alexa

2b) Provide a letter grade for Google's Assistant ecosystem thus far, and why

3a) CNET: Siri Shortcuts won't beat Google Assistant or Alexa

3b) Provide a letter grade for Apple's Siri ecosystem thus far, and why

Looking ahead to Digital Book World 2018:

4a) The Publishing Industry's Digital Audiobook Revenue Is Up 32.8% in Q1 2018

4b) Is Voice Set To Be The Next Big Thing In Marketing?

Walt Mossberg's last column, The Disappearing Computer, is discussed over the course of this episode.

This Week In Voice available via:

Apple Podcasts

Google Play Music

Overcast

SoundCloud

Stitcher Radio

TuneIn

YouTube (+ closed captioning)

Panel for Season 2, Episode 20 (June 14, 2018):

Walt Mossberg, who will deliver the DBW 2018 keynote address, is widely credited with pioneering the modern, consumer-focused technology review and commentary. He is in the process of writing a book, about the combination of breakthrough technology and the people who brought it to us, which will capstone his career. This book will be published by St. Martin's Press in 2019.

Karen Wickre, who will deliver a plenary session at DBW 2018 around the importance of industry networking, is a technology-oriented corporate communications veteran. She worked at Google, within Global Communications and Public Affairs, for a decade before transitioning over to Twitter, where Karen was Editorial Director for another five years. She is also in the process of writing a book, which is titled Networking For People Who Hate To Network: An Introvert's Guide To Making Connections That Count.

TRANSCRIPT

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:00:11] Hi, and welcome back to This Week In Voice - the Season Finale of Season 2.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:00:20] We never thought it would get this far, we have to be honest. We're thrilled that people have enjoyed the show. Our audience has grown. Thank you for listening to this show, last season and this season. We really appreciate it, and we try to do as good a job for you as we can.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:00:38] Thank you to our sponsor, VoiceXP. VoiceXP has been with us almost from the very beginning. VoiceXP is a St. Louis, Missouri-based developer of voice experiences - Alexa skills, Google Home actions. I had the privilege of just seeing Bonnie Snyder, their business director, out in San Jose, California, for the WITI Summit. She was part of the panel on "Women In Voice Technology." If you need a company to hold your hand and help you develop the voice experience that will help take your company...your organization...you yourself to the next level...I encourage you to reach out to Bob Stolzberg, Bonnie Snyder, Mark Tucker, any of their crew. Let them help you. Have a conversation with them. You'll be glad that you did.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:01:23] We are very honored today to have two phenomenal speakers with us on our panel. First up is Karen Wickre - Karen, say hello!

 

Karen Wickre: [00:01:31] Hello everybody.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:01:32] Karen, we are thrilled to have you. You are a longtime corporate communicator - a corporate communications expert. You have a book coming out very soon about the importance of networking. Share with us a little bit about yourself, about your career, and about your upcoming book.

 

Karen Wickre: [00:01:50] Thank you Bradley. It's nice to be here. Yes, it's true, I've lived in the San Francisco Bay area for almost 35 years, and have worked in technology about all that time, often as a writer and editor and content strategist, as well as gotten into corporate communications. So I'm very interested in how companies communicate their messages, good and bad, and I've been doing that work as a consultant this last couple of years. I left Twitter about two and a half years ago - that was my last corporate job - and that sort of led me to fall in to write a book about networking for people who hate networking, which apparently is everybody that I hear from. People hate the certain sort of woodenness of it and the inauthenticity. And so my book suggests a lot of ways, especially online, that people can discover and connect with each other, you know to an unprecedented degree, that does not require the same kind of business card trading and looking past the person you're talking to for the next interesting one, which is one of those things people also tell me they hate. So the book comes out in late November and I'm very excited about that. I'm on Twitter all the time. I can tell you I'm a news junkie and a news hound and I'm always watching to see what's happening across a lot of fronts.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:03:12] At the forefront of the voice-first technology movement is simply the ability to communicate. And therefore there's nobody better to provide her perspective on the evolution of voice-first technology and the stories that we have represented this week than Karen Wickre. Karen, thank you for joining us.

 

Karen Wickre: [00:03:29] Thank you.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:03:30] Our next guest is Walt Mossberg, legendary technology journalist. Walt, say hello!

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:03:34] Hello, Bradley!

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:03:35] Walt, we appreciate you joining us. Just like Karen, take a minute...tell us, you know for the unwashed, about your career, all the things you've done, and about your book. You've got a book coming out early next year. Share with us about that as well.

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:03:50] Well I just retired about a year ago, and before that I spent almost fifty years as a journalist, and the last twenty-seven of those years as a technology columnist and reviewer and commentator, mostly for the Wall Street Journal, but also for AllThingsD and Recode and The Verge. I am writing a book - I'm about a year behind Karen. My book probably will not be out till...it might not even be till later in 2019. But my book is basically about what I saw starting in around 1991 in the tech revolution - the seminal products, the seminal people behind those products, some of the anecdotes that I encountered along the way, but also the future. Gonna try to talk about the next 10 years, and what I call 'ambient computing.' And then the unintended consequences and how we're going to have to deal with them.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:04:58] You've had the privilege of overseeing many changes in technology over your great career. You've seen a number of tech revolutions in your time. There's nobody better to comment on the current revolution going on with voice technology than you. Thank you for joining us.

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:05:18] I'm delighted to be here.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:05:19] Both Walt Mossberg and Karen Wickre will be speaking at Digital Book World 2018, coming up October 2nd through the 4th in Nashville, Tennessee. We're going to include information about that in the show notes. We're very honored to have them there. We're honored to have them here.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:05:36] With that, we'll get to the news.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:05:39] Story number one...and as you will note in the Season Finale, just like we did last year, we're going to roll through some stories that allow us to provide a letter grade to what some of these major companies are doing.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:05:52] Story 1A, from Popular Science: Navigating Amazon's Increasingly Complicated Collection of Alexa-Enabled Devices. So this has come up on the show before; there was a press event in fact, I think toward the end of last year, where out of nowhere Amazon had this press event where they announced this slew of devices. And it was almost too much to even keep up with - there was like five or six devices. I think the Echo Show got announced at that. There were several other devices that they revealed at that press event, and we commented on this show, I know, at that time, that it's tough to keep up with. Amazon's moving at such a velocity that it's a little tough to keep up with, and this is the first question for the panel, and Karen and I'm going to start with you. From your perspective, and where you sit right now, just share with me and the audience, do you have an Echo device in your house? Number one. And number two, is this a little too much for you to keep up with, or what is your take on the Amazon Echo ecosystem at this point?

 

Karen Wickre: [00:06:57] Well I have to confess: I'm not an Echo owner. I'm perhaps, not surprisingly, a Google Home owner. And I don't have a lot of experience except through friends who have long been Echo users and fans.

 

Karen Wickre: [00:07:10] This article interested me a lot because it showed how cluttered and complicated all the devices are that are coming out, and I have to say the Pop Sci view was mine, which is Amazon has not done a particularly good job of making - maybe on their sales site, they do - but in this story it was. There were so many particular use cases. I was struck by "this one's for travel" and "this one's for, you know, at home with the TV" and this one is for something else. I give them all kinds of credit for being there really first, being super early with this. I was just struck by the device proliferation.

 

Karen Wickre: [00:07:54] And I will say that Amazon, and the other players, are operating in a super-complex home entertainment technology industry, right? It's more than any of the voice players and speakers. There's a ton of complexity now around which preferences you want for streaming and music and Wi-Fi and everything else. Maybe that Amazon was the early caused some of this proliferation because a lot of these things don't all match up with each other, and it all depends on who is partnering with who. I just worry that consumers don't really win with this kind of splintering effect that's going on, and I don't think Amazon is helping with that proliferation.

 

Karen Wickre: [00:08:37] Reading that story, I also had a question: I wondered if we all know, you know, planned obsolescence of products. What happens when an old model is obsolete? And I'm sure that happens every year. They not only pile up, but all that voice data I assume goes into further machine learning for Amazon and the others.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:08:57] There's a thought that all smart speakers, sooner than later, will be obsolete, and that the voice assistant will begin to blend in to existing furniture, appliances, tablets, devices. It's a pretty widely-held notion that the smart speaker is just a blip - a flickering instant - on the radar, and that it will soon go away. But you raise an interesting point. Amazon does seem to have this sort of Darwinian thing going on where whatever devices die along the way - that's just casualties of the process. And whichever ones emerge victorious are the ones they'll go with in the future.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:09:38] Before I ask Walt the same question, Karen let me conclude with you on this: with everything you just said about the Amazon ecosystem, share with me what it might take to put an Echo device in your house, given that you have made a decision not to do that so far, and assign a letter grade to the overall Amazon effort with voice so far.

 

Karen Wickre: [00:09:59] I don't know that I could ever be won over; because I don't know how many smart speakers I need from different players. And part of this is that they tie into the ecosystem - whatever else you have - and I don't have Amazon Music...I don't know. I admit I haven't looked that deeply into it, and I'm frankly somewhat of a Google loyalist, so I can't imagine why I would go to an Echo and add Amazon into the mix at this point.

 

Karen Wickre: [00:10:25] I have to say though I give Amazon an "A" for getting into this pretty early, at a time when it didn't make a lot of sense in terms of what else they were doing - even a few years ago. And what's interesting is of course that ... all that they have collected in terms of voice samples and machine learning data feeds their ecosystem, so they certainly get an A for being a pioneer, I think, in some ways. And they're way ahead in market share as a result. I think I read the eMarketer's story said, you know, they have 40 million Echo's already installed. But on the marketing front, I have to give them a C-minus, as their landscape's seems very cluttered and confusing.

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:11:09] Well I do own an Echo. I use it very little. And I think I'm fairly typical in that sense. On the proliferation of devices, which was the topic of that Popular Science piece, I think Amazon is essentially conducting a massive public beta test. They have gone in every which way, including you know the Look, which had a camera in it and you were supposed to put it in your bedroom. I can't imagine many people bought that for a whole bunch of reasons, some of which should be obvious. The Show, I don't think has done very well - that's not a camera, but a screen. I mean, it has a camera also, but it's primarily a screen. Something like the Dot is a great idea, and the evolution of the Echo - the second-gen - and the path they're on with that is fine with me. But I think they literally are just conducting a giant beta test.

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:12:10] I agree with Karen. I think they're confusing consumers. I think they would have been better off sticking to the basic voice-first - not just voice-first, but voice-only - Echo, and not experimenting with a bunch of other things.

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:12:28] I will say your comment, Bradley, about the blip idea...last spring, I think it was, May of 2017, I wrote my last of my weekly columns and it was called "The Disappearing Computer." And it was about this idea of 'ambient computing,' which is you know a phrase a lot of people use, but I think I was one of the first to use it, and it supports what you were saying. The notion that the intelligence for computing, and particularly the use of voice, will allow us to not have to have devices - whether they are Echo's, or any kind of computing devices, or at least not to have to rely on them very much. And I believe, I think if anything you're being too conservative about it. I don't think it's just going to be built into a few things. I think that we're going to eventually live in a world where it's going to be built into the floors and the walls and the ceilings. We're going to have augmented reality around us, and we're going to have voice technology. But I think that's 10 to 20 years away. Jeff Bezos told me in an interview I did with him in 2016...I said "Are we in the first inning of this voice and AI technology?" And he said, "Oh, it's more like we're in the first batter of the first inning." Now, there's a little time that's passed since then, so maybe we're in the third batter, or the bottom half of the inning, but it's very early days.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:14:08] Yeah it is. And thank you for that commentary. I'm sure you're right, people will surprise us, I have no doubt, in how they manage to integrate computing...into what devices they will find a way to cram computing into, whether it serves us well or not. Just like Karen, share with us your overall letter grade for what Amazon has done thus far, given everything that you just said.

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:14:40] It depends whether you're talking short term or long term. Because of what I just said, about how early we are in this, and how extremely limited I think these devices are in everyday use...they may have thousands of skills, and Google may have thousands of actions, and Siri may be able to do theoretically lots of things, but I don't think people use these things, or feel that they can be successful using these things, for more than a very limited number of devices. So if we're looking at the entire, you know, where we are in speech, then I think they all get a C-minus or a D, because we're just starting. It's not...it's not to be critical. I would maybe give Siri a lower grade than anyone, for reasons we can discuss, but if we're talking just the short term, I give Amazon an A for coming up with the idea of a stationary, dedicated voice-computing device - cloud device. I should remind everybody that they were not the first with a voice thing, you know, a voice-controlled computing device, or even a voice-controlled cloud system. You know, Siri preceded Alexa. And if you really want to go back in history, you know, things like...and if you're just talking about voice, and not AI, you can go all the way back to Dragon Dictate, and Dragon Naturally Speaking, and I mean that's 20 years or 25 years.

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:16:19] Voice itself is not brand new. I think people have a tendency to think it is. But when I think Amazon did was the first stationary, voice-activated, voice-operated computing device. You didn't need your phone - the phone could be somewhere else in the house altogether or not even with you, and you could still use your Echo. And so they get an A for that. I just think it's way too early to give anyone an A on the overall utility of this stuff.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:16:50] One more question before we move on to Google, and you brought up the Echo Look...the Echo Look was one that Amazon actually has handled differently from all the others. They only released the Echo Look on an invitation-only basis when they announced it last year. And it's just in the last week - I think in the last week, week and a half, its recent - where they opened it up to the public, where the public can buy it now. I have a specific question for you on that. Yeah, the idea of having a camera owned by Amazon.com, Inc., you know in your bedroom, I understand is not appealing to everyone. But as we've talked about on this show before, and with the Voice of Healthcare Summit coming up in August, actually taking place on the campus of Harvard, there's a lot of thought that Amazon is going to move quickly, and the Echo Look is a great example of a way they could do this, of using their devices with a health care slant and applying some health care applications to them. I myself am a survivor of melanoma. This device would be a perfect fit to evaluating your body, and doing a doctor's scan of your skin on a daily basis, and collecting that data. Walt, does that move you at all off of your attitude toward that product, or do you still sort of..."eh, it's not for me"?

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:18:14] Well, I'm only evaluating it on the terms Amazon has so far surrounded it with, which is that it's a consumer product. If they turn it into a vert...you know, health is a great example of a vertical, where you could...I mean, never mind the Look, you could build an even more specific device, with even more specific kinds of capabilities, for something like skin cancer or any other kind of health thing where some sort of sensor would be useful. To be honest, I'm not even sure you need voice for that. But yeah, if you want to ask about a theoretical vertical thing - could be industry, could be education, could be health, could be a lot of other things - then we're talking about a whole different game. My feeling about it is, as a broad consumer device, it's not just that some people aren't comfortable with that. I would venture to guess that most people are not comfortable with putting a camera...remember we're in the middle of a big, what some people call "tech-lash," and it may be fair, and it may be unfair, whatever, but it's a fact. People are reconsidering their feelings that they might once have had of trust in these companies. It's nothing particular to Amazon, although they did have, as you know, a kind of mini-scandal about recording of stuff they weren't supposed to be recording, and I'm sure you've discussed it on the show. And they regard it as an extremely rare edge case, and they may be right, but it just adds to the sense of mistrust. And that was with something that didn't have a camera. The answer to your question is sure, if Amazon comes up with a health-oriented version of the Look or anything else, and it's judged by the doctors and the medical community to be effective and useful, I would be for it. And I might even own it. But I'm just judging it as a consumer device.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:20:19] Cool. So yeah, I just wanted to explore that a little bit before we move on. Thank you both for your commentary on Amazon.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:20:26] We're going to move on to story number two, which is related to Google. Voicebot.AI, this is a story from them - we want to thank them as well for their excellent commentary and news and original research that they've provided throughout Season 2, throughout Season 1, from the very beginning of everything going on with voice. This story is from them.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:20:45] Google Assistant - most used voice assistant for shopping, outpacing Siri and Alexa. And Karen, you worked for Google for approximately a decade, and you mentioned Google Assistant earlier. I want to start with you with this story. Share with me and us your thoughts on Google Assistant - you touched on it before, but share with us once again your thoughts on Google Assistant as it sits right now. Do you agree that it seems to be gaining momentum? What's your take on Google in the voice realm at this point?

 

Karen Wickre: [00:21:18] They have a different kind of lead and some different assets that Amazon does. For one, they have a team with serious technical chops and voice recognition. They have some people who have been working in that field for 20, 25 years and they have long been interested in voice in different ways. You may recall Google Voice, which came out of their purchase of, their acquisition of Grand Central. But of course the other...the elephant in the room, perhaps, is Android. They have obviously a big stake and a big interest in integrating all of that with an unbelievable amount of search data and the Android platform. So they certainly have a leg up. And what was most interesting to me when Google Home first came out was, you know, they've not really been in the forefront of consumer-friendly home products, right? I mean, Android aside, they haven't been in that space, which Amazon of course has been for some time. So I think they've done a good job with that. And they've not been so cluttered. But I have to say I think the technology behind it is very solid.

 

Karen Wickre: [00:22:34] One interesting thing I noted in the Voicebot.AI story that I also wonder about...here's a quote: "the key hurdle to get over consumer suspicion about voice assistants is that they won't execute shopping processes accurately." eMarketer is cited as saying 63 percent of consumers, in this one study, said they don't trust any of the voice assistants. That's not only Google's problem, but it is very interesting about the incredible amount of data and machine learning that you need to have for all kinds of, not only languages and accents, but just inflections and volume and use of language. I mean, just sort of how people work. If these things are going to be successful, it can't be that you're having to speak in a robotic way for the device to understand you. So they're already pretty good collectively. But it is a very interesting hurdle and I feel like Google here has a leg up just because they've studied voice technology. I remember I was there when Google acquired Grand Central and we got beta access to Google Voice and were encouraged...I think we could even invite friends for limited tests or something. But the whole point of it was to train the system in a huge variety of voices and accents and all the rest of it. And that, I'm sure they've done that a million times since, but that is sort of an interesting problem. But I would say the fact that Google is tied to Android - and we'll get to Siri - it's like "here's an interesting pairing of two smartphone platforms with voice technology." I just think Google has a lot of advantages here. I will say I don't use my Google Home constantly but when I use it - and it's often to sort of try out different features - I just noticed that they've just announced you can make a multiple request in a single ask. For example, what's the weather in New York and San Francisco, or something like that. It now can handle two or three queries in one, rather than having to ask. So they continue to test and improve, as do all of the platforms. But that's a feature I appreciated.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:24:48] It's great that you pointed that out. Both at the voice assistants now have got their baby steps into, you know, more conversational AI sorts of things, where I can say "what's the weather in San Francisco?" And of course going to tell me 80 degrees and sunny - I just came back from there, it was gorgeous. And then I can follow up and say "what's the cheapest Southwest Airlines flight to get out there?" You know what I'm saying? And it will say "oh, ok, well that's going to be 302 dollars, leaving at 5..." or whatever. They've made some advances on that front, and that actually is a good segue into what I wanted to follow up with you about...

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:25:25] When Amazon started this whole thing with the Echo, it led to them sort of bamboozling the market with new features, new features, new features. A horde of evangelists. They really invested into the technology in many different ways. All the devices - we just talked about that. And it just seemed like, you know...we've talked about it on this show almost from the very beginning, that Google was on the defensive, on the defensive, on the defensive, trying to tread water. You know, trying to catch up, catch up, catch up. And really, this year, at CES, they took out advertising...it was actually well documented all the Google advertising. It was the subject of several reports. They took out as much advertising as they possibly could - every back of a park bench, every billboard you know had something about Google. And it wasn't just Google - it was Google Assistant.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:26:22] And from that point they have caught up, caught up - this is sort of the marketplace perception - to the point just a few weeks ago where we had the announcement of Google Duplex, which was largely considered a very offensive move. Amazon doesn't have that. That's Google landing a roundhouse punch, really for the first time since all of this began. That's sort of the perception. I want your opinion. Do you agree with that assessment? Do you think Google's been on the defensive, until very recently? Or does it even matter? And also, like Amazon, go ahead and assign a letter grade overall to what Google has done with Google Assistant and the hardware ecosystem to this point.

 

Karen Wickre: [00:27:04] I guess one view, and I understand why you're saying that, would be they're on the defensive. But the other way to look at it is Google pays attention and it keeps its eye on what other people are doing. But meanwhile developing what it's developing and at times it to you know what it's ready to do. It's going to be market sensitive but it's not like they scramble because of what Amazon was doing to come out with something for CES. I'm sure everything they were working on was long in the works. And again what's interesting to me is how over the years their marketing machine has ramped up in a way that once would have seemed very strange because it was not at its root. You know a consumer marketing kind of company. But I remember seeing that coverage of how they were coming all the way out at CES. And then yes this is duplex announcement got a lot of notice for various reasons.

 

Karen Wickre: [00:28:01] I just think all these companies pay attention to what everybody else is doing and they timed their hit and sometimes they land squarely, as you noted. So I would say I'd give Google an A for seeming to come from nowhere after Alexa so you know sometime after Amazon. I do think they've done better marketing tied to a brand and tied to Google friendliness which is the way that they want to show their consumer products. And they have this deep bench in voice recognition and the Android platform which I'm sure we'll continue to see more of.

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:28:39] Well the biggest surprise in that article to me was that Siri was second. I couldn't believe that because Siri just needs a lot of work. Obviously it's more ubiquitous and you know just to do a tangent for a second here. I think we need to remind listeners that Amazon has never released sales figures on its devices. I'm not sure about Google, but we know how many iPhone's an iPad's and Mac's sell and Apple TVs. We don't have a stationary device with Siri but we know how many devices Siri is on roughly, it's quite a lot. So I was surprised that people relied on Siri at all. I guess I was also a little surprised that after all Amazon is a commerce company primarily. One of the very first features they built into Echo I think on launch actually, and I know you both of you know this, was a reordering feature.

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:29:45] You can do much more now but right at the beginning, first day, you can reorder stuff that you had bought on Amazon so I found that quite interesting. My overall view of Google, I don't own a Google Assistant for exactly the same but it's an opposite behavior but it's the same reason as Karen's, which is I don't think I need...you know...when I was testing things I had both, then I had decided to buy one and I bought the Echo because I thought it was more developed at the time. It may be that the Google Assistant is now better, but I'm not going to buy another assistant right now. I think we have to be careful. I know that this is voice-first and voice is kind of the key word in all this, but voice and AI are not the same thing. And I agree with Karen wholeheartedly that it is a challenge just to recognize the voice command properly, so inflections, accents, all those things. And that's true for all these assistants and has been for a while. But once you recognize it, even if you do recognize it correctly, that's where your machine learning and your AI comes in. And to be honest again, I remind you, it's all very crude so far, but it's my impression that Google is the leader in that. Now there are different strengths and weaknesses you know, because as Karen noted the Google Assistant is tied into a mobile ecosystem in Android and Siri is tied into a mobile ecosystem in IOS. They're better at doing things like controlling actions on the device which is kind of an irrelevant category for Alexa, at least so far. And so they have different strengths and weaknesses.

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:31:37] I'm sure there are some things on which the AI and Alexa does a better job than Google's. But overall I think Google for all the reasons we know that have to do with Google's whole business and its business model of collection of data, its emphasis for many years way before the Google Home came out or even the Google Assistant came out, its emphasis on AI machine learning. I think Google has a lead there. I think they're as good or better at recognizing the voice command, and I think they're a little better than anyone else right now in AI, and for quite a while. I can remember at least three years ago going to Mountain View before what we now called the Google Assistant, before the Google Home and they were super proud to show that they could maintain the state of a conversation, which is what you were talking about Bradley with your San Francisco example about the weather and then an air fare. The example they actually used was "how many sheep are there in New Zealand" and you asked Google and with voice and it told you how many sheep there were and then you could say "who's the prime minister", and it would answer that correctly. Remember you were talking about New Zealand which is what humans do. None of these things do a great job of that yet, but the duplex example was a jaw dropping thing that is still in the labs and nowhere near shipping, they were very careful to make that point. I give them the edge on the AI part. I'm not as sure as Karen that they're far ahead on the voice part. I think they're all about the same there.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:33:22] So you would give them an A in some regards, if not most?

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:33:26] Yeah, I would give them an A, again I'm gonna stick to this rubric, short term long term. Long term, nobody gets an A, nobody even gets a B. I mean long term nobody gets an A. Short term, they would get an A I think on the AI. Everybody gets about, well Google and Amazon get, I don't know, a B or B minus on the voice recognition part. I think Siri gets a C or a C minus.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:33:55] We're going to move on to story number three. Of course we have to cover Apple on the show. Story 3A from CNET, "Siri shortcuts won't beat Google Assistant or Alexa." Walt I'm going to start with you on this. Apple has been maligned, they've been slandered, I have been a chief culprit in that with this show, I don't like what they're doing one bit. I think they've made a lot of mistakes. I want to get your perspective on this. You've covered Apple a long time. You've got almost a one of one type of perspective on this. Share with us, and you touched on it a little bit just now, but share with us your perspective on number one Siri shortcuts. Is this a good idea, bad idea? What was your take on that and then more largely, your thoughts on Siri and the HomePod at this point.

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:34:49] Apple started with the shortcuts. It's hard to judge because we haven't, I at least haven't used them or played with them yet, but they're basically a way of getting the user assisted by the app developers to put together...you could call it, you could compare it to seems or strings of commands. And it is like that but really I think what they're trying to do, the name shortcut is oddly apt, they're trying to shortcut their way to better AI than they have. They have the weakest AI. They also have the weakest voice recognition. And it's ironic because what they don't have, where that where they are not weak, is in distribution of devices and Siri is on well over a billion devices, a billion with a B. That's a lot. Sadly, it's not very good. The shortcut thing is a shortcut to try to get better quicker while they work on the AI.

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:35:52] As you know they just made some key hires in the AI and voice area. I think they are finally serious about it, more serious about it than they had been. Nothing new but they blew a lead. They had the lead. Siri was a separate, I don't know how many listeners know this, well your listeners probably do know this, I don't know how many of the general public knows this, but Siri was a separate company. It was an app on the Apple App Store. They actually launched at a conference that I co-produced. Search YouTube and you'll find a video of that launch with me and my partner Kara Swisher onstage with the founders of Siri. Then Apple bought it some months later and about a year after that brought it out on the iPhone. I think it was 2011 so they had a lead and they blew it. There's just no other way to say it. They blew their lead.

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:36:45] I don't know exactly what you mean when you say you are unhappy with everything Apple does. I assume you're talking about Siri and voice. I think Apple has done a lot of things right. I just don't think Siri and voice is among them. So I think the shortcut thing is, it kind of depends, if it's mostly you and I and Karen, assuming we own Apple devices, going through and having to do work to put together the ability to produce an answer to a voice question that AI can produce on these other platforms. That sucks. That's bad. If the app makers, because there isn't going to be an API and a function for this, if the app makers give you sort of a button to click where you can kind of automatically do this that would be a lot better. But it still I think just a kind of buying time step.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:37:41] For me personally my anger at Apple stems not from voice, but actually from publishing, where I was upset and not just me but many other people, when Steve Jobs passed away. The handling of iBook's author in the iBook's ecosystem from that point, they have got caught up in a big lawsuit, but it's not a stretch to say the lack of vision that has damaged Siri and HomePod was replicated in the publishing and book side of the business. And today's a new day. They've just rolled out Apple Books so hopefully they're turning the page on that. We'll talk more about that at Digital Book World, predictably enough. But no I'm not upset at the whole organization, just a few specific things. Walt from your standpoint, given what you've said and blowing the lead, what letter grade would you give to Apple at this point given the hires, ya they made some positive moves. What letter grade would you give them?

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:38:37] Oh I think they get a D on Siri overall and on Siri's progress. Very lately, in the last month or two, I have noticed some improvement. I don't know if you have. I've tweeted quite a few of what people call "Siri fail tweets" where you do a screenshot that shows how poorly it either understood your voice request, or more importantly, when it did understand voice request and came up with a completely off base answer. I've done quite a few of those, but just in the last week or so I did a Siri success because my wife and I were having a conversation about the French Revolution. Now why were we have an conversation about that? it was a book review she was discussing with me about the American Revolution and the writing of the U.S. Constitution. Were they influenced by the French Revolution and we couldn't remember the date of the French Revolution. So I just without much confidence picked up my iPhone, which happened to be right on the table, and asked Siri and Siri gave me a great answer. And so you know fair is fair so I tweeted that. That's a low bar. The fact that it was interesting to me that Siri cleared it just reinforces my D view.

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:39:57] I do want to say one quick thing about HomePod. I don't own a HomePod but I have tested it. I think HomePod is another example of Apple scrambling to keep up. And what I mean by that is I don't believe HomePod, in fact I know HomePod was never developed over at least the first few years of its development. it was never developed to be a voice activated stationary device for Siri. It just wasn't. It was developed to be a music speaker, period. It might have been that they intended to use Siri, I'm sure they did intend to use Siri in fact to control your song selection and so forth. But as far as answering other kinds of questions or initiating other kinds of commands with IoT devices and other things, I think that was a very late addition that was influenced by the release into the Echo and the Google Home which is partly why you notice it's limited. I mean putting aside whether it works well or not on those things, Apple limited the domains in which the HomePod could work. It's much smaller than the domains in which they're saying Siri works on the iPhone for instance. So again I just think Apple is in a position of having blown the lead. Now they realize it, I don't mean now today, but sometime in the last year or so I think they decided to get super serious about it. But it's just going to take time for them to catch up.

 

Karen Wickre: [00:41:35] And I'm looking at a line I have noticed on the CNET story, "as it stands the shortcuts demo looked robust but complicated. Shortcuts could also turn out to be quite annoying." So when I did a double take and saw that it was a separate app, I thought no this is a mistake. So no, the shortcut doesn't compel me in any way. I have an iPhone, I have been an iPhone user for many years. But it's interesting I'm not tempted by Siri. I guess I should play with a little more. I have to agree with Walt, I'd say D in their overall effort. I appreciate that Apple has worked hard in some ways to make sure Siri is integrated obviously in the phone, but then spending beyond that. But I just don't think technically they have everything in place they need to. I would also note I read a separate piece from storms, and this line stuck with me, "as we saw at CES this year almost every new device shown had an Alexa and/or Google Assistant capability. I think we kind of see from that, Apple is a special case as always, but the other two are making much deeper inroads."

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:42:54] So with that in mind what letter grade would you assign to Apple at this point, either with the very short term in mind, you know these additions they've made from a personnel standpoint some of the changes in attitude and warming up to voice on whatever metrics and analysis that you deem important. How would you give them a letter grade at this point?

 

Karen Wickre: [00:43:16] Well I'd say as Walt did, a D, Yeah.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:43:21] So that's better than enough, so that passed that. Okay, perfect. Yeah, so that's great.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:43:30] The Siri shortcut thing I have to agree with one commentator I read basically saying, okay Apple, and Walter as you noted they squandered the lead, so Apple's solution to this somewhat ingeniously is the way you could look at it. Amazon and Google have gone to great lengths to cultivate the developer community and add all these functions to the device and that's really the net output of the third party skills. And the Google Home actions that are developed that's just adding new functionality and new functions that people can use. Apple solution is, "you know what...we just slept through the last five years so we're going to open this up to you and let the user and let you create your own utility, your own functionality out of this." And that's not bad. You know what, like that's not the worst thing that they've done, that actually could be quite robust. Karen as you said, robust but complicated. We'll end up seeing very soon how many users end up actually taking advantage of that. Thanks to both y'all for your commentary on that.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:44:33] To close us, we're going to look ahead to Digital Book World 2018 and we've got two stories. 4A the publishing industry's digital audiobook revenue is up 32.8 percent in Q1 of this year, 4B is voice set to be the next big thing in marketing? Both of y'all have a book coming out. You both are part of the publishing industry right now because you are working on publishing a book. In publishing, as in many other sectors, there is this convergence going on between audiobooks podcasts and voice assistance/smart speaker. These three things are coming together to converge in a way that I don't think is incredibly widely understood, and there's a lot yet to be written. I just want to get y'alls perspective to close this show. Karen I'm going to start with you, and then Walt again to you, in the preparation that you're doing for your book to release are you thinking about the audiobook, are the people that work with you to publish it thinking about the audiobook? Are you then thinking any further than that about how it might extend into the voice ecosystem or are you just heads down trying to get your book wrapped up? The concepts presented in either of these two stories 4A or 4B, given that you're working on a book right now, do they resonate for you or that's something you'll sort of table and looked at later?

 

Karen Wickre: [00:45:53] They're very interesting articles. For me, and I think Walt can tell his own story here, but it was a part of the publishing contract with my publisher Touchstone Books which is part of Simon and Schuster. They'll decide and they'll pay attention and they'll choose to do an audio version or not, but it's written in the contract. We the publisher will be the ones to do that. Now in some cases we see that those rights are carved out for the author and they can make their own deals. My guess is though, especially based on this article about the publishing industry and how they're dealing with audiobooks, they want to have control of all the means and methods of distribution for all their properties because one thing or another needs to keep them afloat. And the fact is audiobooks make sense to me that they are on the rise because that's a way that people like to consume books. So I disagree with the first story about it being yet another gimmick or fad the publishers are chasing. It's not a gimmick or fad. This is people have phones that are ubiquitous. This is a way that people want to hear content and it's similar rise and explosion of podcasting. Publishers have to pay attention.

 

Karen Wickre: [00:47:06] I personally am not having to pay attention at the moment. I imagine there will come a point when they will say we were going to do the audiobook. I gather some authors can be the narrator, sometimes they say we've got one for you and there's a world of discussion about how those selections are made. It does happen and I would call out probably a story that you both have seen about Michael Lewis's new book being released first on Audible, and he's a big enough name, powerful enough, successful enough author that he could make his own deal with audible and that to me is a very interesting trend especially name authors can kind of break through and take it there. In addition, not just publishing but other kinds of content, podcasts being one, but I've been struck, I'm a longtime NPR listener, and I've been struck by how quickly they adapted even their house ads to say "tell your smart speaker this" or "ask your smart speaker this" to plug you into an NPR program. That's striking to me that we're getting used to you know listening to lots of content on audio, and again I say it's not a fad it's not going away.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:48:09] That audible Michael Lewis story is fascinating. I'm glad you brought that up and that will definitely come up at Digital Book World as well. There's a whole can of worms there as you described that may be best for another day.

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:48:22] I agree with everything Karen said. I myself listen to audiobooks, a little less often now that I'm retired, because I don't have a long commute at least for this conversation. I use my Echo to listen to audiobooks, as well as podcasts. More podcasts than audiobooks to be honest because there are just so many podcasts I subscribe to and interested in. In the case of my own book, I am just heads down worried about the book, and it's a publisher's decision. As with Karen, my publisher St. Martin's Press and its publisher's decision, our mutual decision I guess, the question of will there be an audiobook, when will there be an audiobook, who will narrate it, and that sort of thing and to me that's a second order far off issue right now. Look there are authors whose works I've totally discovered through audiobooks, and in most of those cases I've gone on to read them and their subsequent novels on an e-reader or, I don't read much in the paper books anymore, but I'm not at all surprised by that article about the rise of audiobooks.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:49:43] The day is not far off where somebody will be able to say Alexa or Google Assistant or Siri, "who is that guy I just heard on that podcast," "who is that woman I just heard on that podcast, they mentioned the book, I want to download that." Or Alexa, "what's the definitive book about networking for people who don't want to network. Please download that to my kindle right away, I want to read that tonight." Amazon's like "ok we got this thing right here, here you go." Or "what's the definitive book on the evolution of technology and the people who have brought it to us over the years. I want to read something about that. Go find me that." I feel like it's sooner than any of us realize in the convergence of these audio sources, audiobooks podcasts and voice assistants will bring us there. And also, and Walt I'll tell you this, if you need a reason to get your Echo out or use it after tonight when the show goes live, it will be live at 9:00 p.m. Central time, or before you can say "Alexa play This Week In Voice" and it will play the most recent episode of This Week In Voice. At least we got that right.

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:50:48] Thanks to both of you for this time, this insight, sharing it with us. It's greatly appreciated.

 

Walt Mossberg: [00:50:55] Well thank you for having us.

 

Karen Wickre: [00:50:57] Yeah, it was fun thank you.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:50:58] Both Walt Mossberg and Karen Wickre we will be part of Digital Book World 2018 this fall, October the 2nd through the 4th in Nashville, Tennessee. The website for that is DigitalBookWorld.com. For everybody who has listened throughout the season, throughout last season, we greatly appreciate it and we will be back. The season premiere of This Week In Voice is Thursday September 6th. And that's going to be a special show as well. We can't tell you who that's going to be, you'll have to wait.

 

Bradley Metrock: [00:51:28] For season 2 of This Week In Voice, thank you for listening, and until next time.

© 2017-2021 VoiceFirst.FM, a division of Score Publishing

Feedback on a podcast? Email VoiceFirstFM@gmail.com.