Home automation is the next battleground for technology. Following on the heels of Amazon’s launch of its Echo and Echo Dot devices, which feature its voice-controlled personal assistant Alexa, Google has unveiled its plans for a range of hardware to control the smart home. The Google Home speaker features a virtual assistant, excitingly called Google Assistant, that lets you give commands and then either provides information or controls your smart devices. For example, you can stream music, control the temperature and turn the lights up/down/off, as with the Echo. And Amazon and Google are not alone, with Apple announcing its HomeKit standard which will allow users to control devices through their iPhone via either apps or Siri.
When it comes to mass adoption, it is early days in the home automation market, and each one of the major players will need to overcome four big obstacles:
1 Do we need it?
Smart home kit has yet to really take off, with many consumers not willing to pay extra for internet-enabled light bulbs or thermostats. While Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa can do more than control your home, with the ability to find information, check the weather/traffic, book an Uber taxi etc., you don’t really need a separate device for this. You have one – your smartphone. So what each player has to do is find ways of encouraging people to adopt it, developers to create apps that use its functions, and manufacturers to incorporate it into their own hardware. Given that we’re talking about white goods such as fridges which are replaced infrequently and are normally price-sensitive purchases, this last point is going to take some time. As an early adopter I’m going to give Alexa a go, but I can’t see a compelling reason for mainstream consumers to buy an Echo or Home, until the ecosystem around them are more mature.
2 Is it clever enough?
As an existing Siri user I know that for a smart assistant it can be pretty dumb. It doesn’t really know enough about me to provide helpful answers and most attempts at ‘conversation’ end with switching it off and trying a Google search instead. Amazon and Google promise that their assistants will be much cleverer and will learn about you in order to provide a personalised experience that understands your context, location and previous behaviour. The jury is still out on whether it can be intelligent enough to replace human interaction for basic tasks.
3 Is it private?
The self-learning promise of Assistant and Alexa also has a darker side. Essentially, you are putting an internet-enabled microphone in the heart of your home, where it can listen and learn about you, before sharing that information with Google and Amazon. While both have privacy safeguards, the less you let it share, the less useful it will be. Many people will be concerned about where their data is going, and how it will be used – particularly given the amount of information Google and Amazon already possess about us all.
4 Are we going to be trapped in silos?
For me the main issue behind each of these platforms, is that essentially they are silos. You can’t play any music stored on iTunes on either of them for example, but have to either rely on Amazon Music, Google Play Music or Spotify. Even in an age of technology giants, very few of us rely on just one platform – we tend to use bits of each and value the fact that we can pick and choose where we get email, buy products or listen to music from. By their very nature, rivals are not going to push their competitors’ services, and no-one wants to have to buy multiple hardware to cover all their bases. What is needed is some form of interchange between all platforms, a kind of one ring to rule them all – but I can’t see that happening soon.
As with any innovation there’s a lot of hype around virtual assistants, and the hardware that they control. What is needed is some equally smart marketing that overcomes the objections listed above and really focuses on the benefits – otherwise mainstream consumers are likely to simply keep their dumb homes as they are.
There’s currently a press frenzy about the death of the printed book, driven by the rise of the tablet/iPad and Amazon’s recent announcement that it is selling more e-books than paperbacks. Commentators are beginning to prophesise rampant e-book piracy and publishers going the way of the record industry in the brave new digital world.
But if you take a closer look you’ll see we’re nowhere near a digital tipping point, particularly in the UK. While Amazon is selling more e-books on the Kindle in the US than paperbacks, the margin is not that great (105 e-books vs 100 print books). However as pointed out in PaidContent, in the UK we’re nowhere near that yet. Amazon is selling more e-books than hardbacks (by a factor of 2 to 1), but not paperbacks.
Add in that the revenue for each e-book is much lower, and you’ll see that while e-books are having an impact, digital isn’t yet reaching market dominance. The PR behind this reminds me of Amazon’s claim that more people bought e-books last Christmas Day than hard copy books – eye catching as a headline, but hardly surprising as new Kindle owners added content to their toys. How many book lovers spend Christmas buying physical items that won’t be delivered for a week at least?
I’ll admit I’m biased but I think there’s a way to go before e-books take over. Screen technology needs to improve further and usability has to take into account the mass market, rather than early adopters that are happy to fiddle with technology. So don’t believe the hype – the physical book will be alive and well for years to come.
- Sales of Kindle books outstrip print books (i-programmer.info)
- Amazon UK selling twice as many e-books as hardbacks (telegraph.co.uk)
- Amazon and Waterstones report downloads eclipsing printed book sales (guardian.co.uk)