Echo is great if you want to turn on your lights at home. iPhone is great if you want to turn them off from down the street.
I'm going to be a jerk for a moment and parody the Wall Street Journal, flipping it one-eighty:
AI-powered voice assistants can directly replace interactions with mobile devices. It isn't that screens will go away completely, but screens unattached to objects that can listen, talk back and operate with autonomy will rapidly become obsolete.
Computers we talk to can be anywhere. To work best, they have to be everywhere—at home and in the office, in our cars, on the go. Apple Inc. had a surprise hit with the voice-based assistant Siri and its embodiments, iPhone, iPad, CarPlay, Apple Watch, Apple TV, and most recently, the Mac. Alphabet Inc.'s Google was close behind with OK Google and now Google Assistant on the Pixel and Google Home.
Amazon is clearly aware. It is partnering with other companies to get its own Alexa assistant onto phones and other devices. But the conspicuous absence of such devices with comparable functionality makes it hard to believe Amazon isn't already behind, despite being the darling of the U.S. tech media scene.
Amazon didn't respond to the lack of a request for comment for this article.
I do this to highlight the incredibly subjective nature of technology reporting. We tend to be ethnocentric at heart and to have trouble balancing multiple truths. For example:
Echo is great in the home. It has multiple beam-forming mics, unlimited power, needs to understand less than a handful of languages and dialects, and requires conformity of syntax. That makes for high reliability within a small problem space. Speak U.S. English and want to turn your lights off at home? Alexa will nail it.
Siri is great for on-the-go. It's connected to your phone, tablet, car, watch, TV, and computer, understands a plethora of languages and dialects, and can handle a variety of syntaxes. That makes for incredible convenience and availability within a larger problem space. Speak Canadian English, French, Cantonese, Hebrew, etc. and want to turn off your lights from down the street? Siri has you covered.
Both are providing a natural language voice interface that can answer questions and execute commands but coming at it from two very different directions.
A tale of two assistants
Siri doesn't yet offer the same range of third-party application programming interfaces (API) but the domains it does cover have more robust syntaxes and its core functionality is available in a wide range of countries and regions. Alexa doesn't yet offer the same range of international availability but its API, syntax dependent though it may be, is incredibly open and allows for numerous skills and integrations.
Both have done a good job integrating with accessories, Siri through Apple's HomeKit and Amazon through Alexa compatibility. Because Siri is available in far more countries and regions, HomeKit is useful in far more places. Amazon is willing to license Alexa out, though, so Alexa itself will soon start to be available beyond Amazon.
(Amusingly — or not — despite tech media angst that HomeKit products were taking too long to come to market, they're now available in a wide range of categories and, more importantly, are actually shipping and are secure. It's fun to complain about end-to-end encryption being burdensome until rogue IoT devices are used in denial of service attacks that take down service across the east coast...)
Amazon, by virtue of Echo being a home product, is letting anyone who can talk interact with Alexa. iPhone and iPad, being personal products, have the rudiments of Voice ID and can reject commands from anyone who's not the owner.
Neither is doing multi-personal assistance yet. That means I can't ask for my messages, calendar, or shopping account and, by voice and/or trusted device proximity, be granted exclusive access to them while my roommate, with a different voice and/or trusted device proximity, gets exclusive access to her services.
We're in the very early days of voice assistants and none of them are very smart yet. Far from artificial intelligences, they're more like automatons right now. And if you start really asking, everyone will more than happily tell you how whatever voice assistant they use fails and frustrates them on a regular basis, even as it surprises and delights them enough to keep it around.
Much as my U.S. colleagues love to praise Echo and Dot, they're still not available where I live, so by the same ethnocentricity, I'll ding them for not even showing up to play. All's fair in tech and lack of perspective taking, after all.
I'll also point out that, according to the tech industry, Apple is always too late and too early to market for every product. We're terrible at handling boredom so the minute the tablet shipped all we wanted was the watch and the minute that shipped we demanded the car and now the home hub and the minute they ship, we'll tear them apart for being first generation and not living up to the expectations we set in our dreams.
I do think few companies ever see their obsolescence coming. IBM didn't see Microsoft. Microsoft didn't see Google. Google didn't see Facebook. Facebook bought Instagram and WhatsApp, but Snapchat eluded them.
Apple's been pretty good about not mistaking its products for its business, though. They pushed past the command line with the graphical user interface and started transitioning from traditional computers to mobile with iPod. Then they turned iPod into an app on iPhone. Though they've had their ups and downs, Apple has managed to stay relevant from the Apple II to the Apple Watch. And while the past offers zero guarantees for the future, right now, as smartwatches, in general, have been collapsing, Apple Watch — despite baffling supply constraints — had a terrific 2016.
Expectations drive narratives. Apple Watch outselling Amazon Echo by 3x yet Apple Watch is deemed a disappointment vs Echo a raging success.— Neil Cybart (@neilcybart) November 29, 2016
Apple Watch being the most personal, attached Siri device Apple makes. Except, perhaps, for AirPods, which puts Siri literally in your ear, and with beam-forming mics all Apple's own.
That's what makes voice interface and related devices and services so interesting right now. I mean beyond the tiresome narrative the media keeps clinging to. It's what's fresh and new and will, along with things like augmented reality and real artificial intelligence start to define the next generation of personal technology.
I still think Apple needs a dedicated VP of services experience to make sure Siri is rock-solid on every device, for every query and command, every time, but neither Apple nor Amazon — nor Microsoft, Google, Samsung, Nuance, Facebook, nor anyone else — are late to that game yet. The game is only just being figured out.
This year different Android phones will ship with Google Assistant, Samsung Viv, and Amazon Alexa — that's a sign we're still in early days.
All that to say, expect more from Apple and Siri in the home and everywhere else when you see it. But don't worry about whether it's early or late. Worry about whether or not it's a great product that enriches your life.
The winner in any generation of technology only ever arrives when it does.