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.
Amid all the excitement and hype of last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) – products demonstrated included a games console for dogs and a smart belt (unfortunately called the Welt) that monitors your waistline – there are some big trends that will potentially affect us all.
While last year was all about wearables, CES 2016 was focused on travel and transport. In fact, there was more noise about cars than at the once dominant Detroit Motor show held a week later. GM announced a $500m investment in Lyft, as well as launching its latest Bolt electric car. BMW showed off a concept car controlled by gestures (taking giving the finger to another motorist to a whole new level), while Ford talked about its progress in self-driving cars. There was even a hoverboard or two – though not something that Marty McFly would recognise from Back to the Future.
What’s interesting is that it shows that the traditional car makers are waking up and fighting back hard against tech companies in the battle for future motoring. As cars essentially transform into computers on wheels, manufacturers risk becoming relegated to providers of hardware (the car chassis), with all the value and ongoing profit going to the tech firms providing the software that makes them intelligent, self-driving, more efficient or more comfortable spaces. Allied to this, there is a lot of talk about the Uber effect, with younger consumers turning away from car ownership and instead just hailing one when they need it or renting on an ad-hoc basis.
So car manufacturers are worried – fewer people buying their products and margins squeezed as the profits go elsewhere. Personally, I don’t think it will be as bad as some naysayers predict – younger people have been hard hit by the recession, so don’t necessarily have the money to buy and run a car. And owning your own vehicle isn’t absolutely necessarily if you are one of the 54% of the world’s population that lives in a city. For those living in the countryside without Uber or buses, the picture is very different.
But what is interesting is how the car giants are changing their behaviour. They have realised that they are up against a smaller, more agile foe – but one that has access to new ideas, brands well known for innovation, and no preconceptions about the business. They have to market themselves better, embrace technology and work together to convince consumers that traditional car makers have what it takes to meet their future needs. Hence investments in start-ups such as Lyft, car clubs and the joint purchase of mapping firm Here by a consortium of VW/Audi, BMW and Daimler.
But both sides face significant marketing obstacles. Aside from a few supercar manufacturers, the majority of car companies are not sexy – and VW’s issues with faked emissions tests back up the view that they can’t be trusted. Cars are expensive to buy, depreciate quickly and require ongoing maintenance and fuel. I’m not saying that tech companies are angels, but the majority of people pay nothing to use Google’s services, even if that means that they themselves become the product. So tech companies need to convince consumers that they combine style and innovation with security and safety, and that they won’t have to reboot their self-driving car before driving away in the morning. Essentially the incumbent needs to show a bit of excitement, while the new player needs to demonstrate a bit of gravitas – a classic marketing dilemma.
As the battle moves from the phony war to full on combat, and new companies (such as Apple) join the market, then expect a much greater focus on marketing from both sides – as each one aims to convince us of their benefits in the brave new motoring world. My money is on whoever develops a proper hoverboard first…………….
Rumours are currently rife that Apple is about to open an office, albeit a small one, in Cambridge. The research and development centre would initially employ 20 people, so while it is a coup for the city, it is obviously a drop in the ocean compared to the estimated 54,000 tech employees in Silicon Fen. I’d imagine more people currently work in the electronics department of the city’s John Lewis selling iPads and iPods.
The move comes on the back of Qualcomm buying CSR, HP acquiring Autonomy and the opening of research and development centres by Microsoft and AstraZeneca in the area. Taken together these investments can be seen as a real demonstration of the importance of the ideas and skills within Cambridge – and, the potential benefits (business and PR) of associating with the Cambridge Phenomenon.
However, I think there are positive and negative sides to the interest from tech giants in Cambridge. On the plus side, it reaffirms the city’s strengths as a hub, attracts more skilled staff to the area and, in turn, spawns new startups as employees with ideas leave corporate life to launch out on their own.
But there are also two downsides that potentially impact the good news stories. Firstly, there is a risk that with big investment the tech culture can become too corporate. After all, a lot of Cambridge innovation has come from finding solutions to problems in quirky, very different ways. For example, Intel wouldn’t sell Acorn chips for its new range of computers. The company couldn’t afford to build a billion dollar factory to make its own chips, so came up with the first fabless design. Acorn spun off this knowledge as ARM, now Intel’s biggest competitor.
Before that Clive Sinclair built a scientific calculator that used clever algorithms to run calculations on a single, relatively standard chip. Rivals such as HP used five chips and consequently built machines that were much more expensive. The SureFlap microchip controlled cat flap was created by a physicist who didn’t want neighbourhood moggies invading his house. All of these are examples of the lateral thinking that Cambridge is famous for – but could potentially be stifled by corporate politics (and, ironically too much money).
However I think that while the Cambridge culture may change, it won’t unduly impact its DNA. After all, in Silicon Valley enormous behemoths and nimble startups co-exist with people moving between the two. What is more serious is the second threat of a lack of infrastructure, particularly affordable housing within the city and its locality. It is currently as expensive to live in Cambridge as in London, but with less in the way of facilities. There are plans to build 33,000 more houses by 2031, but the majority are outside the city. And if people live further out and commute by car, rather than bike, it will add to congestion and put further strain on key roads.
Obviously Apple’s 20 researchers aren’t going to add too greatly to current housing woes, but as Silicon Fen grows, now is the time to address infrastructure concerns – or risk losing the city’s status as a tech hub to better equipped rivals.