amazon echo

Challenge to Assistant developers

Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon are all competing in the digital assistant field. There are pros and cons to each. Yesterday I received an Amazon Echo Dot (2nd gen) and I’ve been dabbling with it. So far Alexa reminds me more of the command-driven voice apps I tinkered with on the CBM Amiga decades ago than she does of Hal, but there is promising progress.

You’ve heard me rant about Cortana, I don’t have a Siri to tinker with and while I’ve had a highly positive experience with Google’s voice recog, for some reason I just haven’t used it in anger – I’ll try and remedy that in the next week or so.

But having the discrete device like this finally gave form to the notion that’s been percolating in the back of my head this last year or so of watching the assistants emerge: Makers.

One of these assistants needs to cross the bridge for home enthusiasts that empowers them to interact with their devices and applications in their terms.

I should be able to rustle up a few dozen lines of code and create my own little agent that transforms into a feature of my assistant exclusive to me and my ecosystem. Once I can do that, someone will build tools to make it easier and more accessible for idea people who aren’t interested in learning to program.

The problem is that to thrive, it’s going to have to be open. Hold your horses there, I’m not anti-proprietary, I’m just stating this simple fact. Apple and Siri aren’t contenders because the winner is going to be enabling a farmer who got his kids to write a raspberry-pi controller to check on his irrigation system from 10 miles away.

I don’t see Alexa being the winner, because her value in is selling Amazon Prime and Amazon Prime Music subscriptions. I suspect anything beyond that is gravy of the cold, lumpy kind from an Amazon perspective, but I’m happy to be proven wrong.

That leaves Google and Cortana.

Google sells advertising, but they have a history of open APIs. Bringing makers into the fold and enabling personalization has all kinds of value potential to Google, starting with bringing you into the android fold, disinsentivizing you from using Apple or Amazon, etc.

Microsoft is built on the success of open architecture and they’re making a large push to support IoT stuff, so this would be a return to roots for Microsoft that could really make WinIoT attractive, so long as they can manage to focus on the role of a driver and not try to restrict it to “must run on Windows”.

There is one more potential contender, though: Facebook.

Mark has shown an interest in exactly this kind of field with Jarvis. They’ve invested a lot in AI, they like releasing the stuff they build into the community. Their mission statement is “to make the world more open and connected”. This notion fits in with the ideas behind Facebook’s internet.org

It’s not that it’s currently impossible to do these things, but there’s a huge barrier to entry. For example, the simple task of turning on (or off) my PC? Voice control is largely going to be about inter-action; set the heating in another room, check on the house while you’re away, remind me of something in 30 minutes when I might be in a different room or building or vehicle…

(*Edit: You can actually build your own Alexa skills. But it’s definitely not entry-level stuff)