Last week Microsoft made it clear that Cortana would only work with Microsoft’s browser and search products making people question its cross platform efforts. I think it is time to explore just what products like Cortana, Siri, and Alexa (the personality of Amazon’s Echo, Dot, and Tap) are and just what they are not. To net this out Cortana and Siri were concepts created for products that primarily had touch, mouse, and/or keyboard interfaces and Alexa was created for a class of products that just have voice.
Let’s talk about the differences this week.
Apple’s Siri, Google Voice, and Microsoft’s Cortana were created using a similar idea that folks using a phone hands free (mostly while driving) needed a way to interface with the device. The focus was mostly tied initially to search so you could ask a question and your smartphone would give you an answer. Cortana was expanded to become more of an assistant where you could have it make appointments, and it would run actively in the background to identify tasks that need attention and things it could do automatically like alert you of flight delays.
But in all cases, the primary interface for the devices all of these products were more traditional. If you really wanted to get something done you’d have to use the primary interface on the device. These were more of an enhancement to applications from Apple, Google, and Microsoft than they were some type of a universal interface replacement that would work with third party apps.
Alexa works on the Amazon Echo family of products and what makes these products different is they don’t have a touch screen, keyboard, or mouse. Therefore, Alexa is “the” interface; there is no other to fall back on. As a result, Alexa has to work with everything that runs on Alexa – both Amazon’s own apps and the third party apps that run on it.
The Echo class of product is relatively new; they are more like robots that don’t yet have mobility. You converse with them; you don’t do data entry on them. If we were to create a Darwin like evolution you’d start with Siri (mostly a search interface), move to Cortana (a limited digital assistant), and then you’d have Alexa which takes us to a stationary robot.
After Alexa you’d have offerings that are likely to see as well as hear, and eventually products that could actually and physically carry out orders. In short: real robots.
Wrapping Up: Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon’s Problem
In many ways Alexa is the beginning of a new technology tidal wave. The last big wave like this was the iPod, which grew up to become the iPhone and iPad displacing Microsoft with Apple as the most powerful tech company in the world. It is interesting that the prior tech tidal wave was Netscape and the Internet which eventually made Google the most powerful company in the world replacing Apple this decade. And, recalling that Apple’s PC revolution actually made Microsoft the most powerful tech company in the world displacing IBM in the 90s makes you realize that just because a company starts the wave more often than not doesn’t assure they will actually be the one to most benefit from it. Smartphones were actually launched with a product called the IBM Simon and IBM has never even been associated with Smartphones past that first event.
But Alexa represents a new wave and Amazon is already the king of both on-line selling and cloud services so they are certainly a power to be reckoned with. If they can maintain their dominance they are on track to replace Google as the most powerful company in the world and a future of products that descended from Amazon’s client products and cloud services could turn them into a power that would exceed even Google. Ironically, in that scenario, the retail effort that founded them would likely become a competitive problem because it would be a massive distraction from making this happen giving Apple, Microsoft, Google and others a chance to get to this endpoint first.
A decade from now we may no longer have PCs, smartphones, or tablets but devices we wear and robots that work for us that we interface with like we interface with people, by talking to them. Echo and Alexa is the beginning; we don’t yet know what the end will be.
President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group
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