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Tuesday, February 05, 2019

How Alexa captured me as a customer and dragged me into the post smartphone era

I can clearly remember when I knew I'd been captured by Garmin as a customer: it was when I bought their stupendously expensive Smart Scale, which I still use every day. I had a similar epiphany last week, when I started using Alexa on my Moto X4 instead of Google Assistant.

Here's what happened. During Prime Day, I snagged an Audible membership for about $5/month for 3 months. I used it to buy several audio books, all of which were quite long. Google Assistant can start Audible, but for whatever reason it's unable to tell it to resume playing the last book I was listening to. Alexa on the Moto X4, however, not only can do that, but can also fetch the book I want to listen to by title and resume at the last known point. I took a look at the app and to my surprise, what the Alexa app on Android phone doesn't do is to start Audible and start the book, but instead, directly streams the audio from Amazon's server by itself without starting that app! Not only does this mean I don't need to have the Audible app (I do anyway so that I can cache books on the SD card), the latency is also much lower than having Google Assistant start the Google Music app and have it start playing. I haven't tried, but I'm pretty sure the Alexa app also streams music directly without starting the Amazon music app.

I shouldn't have been surprised, but because of my history working for Google and using Google products, I knew that in a million years, no Google product manager would take this approach. I systematically broke down how I ended up with no less than 3 Alexa products in regular use: the Fire TV Cube, the Echo Dot, and now my Moto X4. The Echo Dot was the easiest to explain: it was so Bowen could listen to audio books (again, from Audible).

The Fire TV Cube turned out to be a great entertainment center control device, and now replaces our Logitech Harmony Smart Control Hub, which I sold. Google doesn't have an equivalent unit, because to have one would be to acknowledge that other devices exist outside the Google eco-system, which apparently is a no-no, leading to the elimination of the headphone jack/audio output port from not just Google's phones, but also the Google Home smart speaker series of devices. Which meant that the nice speakers in the living room are now "owned" by Alexa, and so my wife added an Amazon Music subscription, even though all my personal music was sync'd to Google Music. Doubling down on higher end audio, Amazon is even launching an amplifier that supports Alexa.

Similarly, I ended up using Amazon Photos for RAW photo backup, because it was already folded into the Amazon Prime subscription, which bundled in TV shows for the kids that are turning out to be very good. And because of that Prime subscription (as well as the huge collection of books on Amazon), we now have 2 Fire HD8 tablets that the kids use as general purpose Android tablets as well as just video streaming.

I scratched my head as to how Amazon ended up with me as a loyal customer despite my background, and I realized that this was where Amazon's product design/product managers trumped Google's superior engineering. Sure, Alexa is not bilingual, while Google Home/Voice Assistant is. But since all that speech recognition is done in the cloud anyway, I'm comfortable waiting for Amazon to implement it eventually (or if it doesn't, we've learned to live with the limitations). But not having a device that can hook up to our entertainment system meant that Google Home speakers was never in the running for the living room. You can't upgrade hardware that doesn't have the proper I/O channels, while you can easily upgrade software in the cloud!

Similarly, not having a decent e-book reader meant that the default e-book reader of choice was always the Amazon Kindle, which has superb integration for my favorite book vendor of choice, the local library. And ever since Google abandoned the low end Nexus 7 tablets in pursuit of Apple-like prices (and presumably profit-margins) for Android tablets, that meant that the tablets would default to Amazon's ecosystem as well, since no one else is selling decent tablets at $50 each.

What would I do if I was a Google product manager trying to counter this onslaught? There are probably some things Google will never do, like produce a decent e-reader, so that's probably out. But bringing back a decent low-end Android tablet is probably something Google can do, since it has done so in the past. I'd bundle Google's services: Google shopping express, Youtube Red (or whatever it's called), Google Drive storage/Google Docs should all be bundled in together in one price. Put out a Fire TV Cube equivalent with sufficient control for other devices in the living room (an I/R blaster is enough) Even all that might not be enough, but at least it would make it feel like Google is trying. As it is, it definitely feels like Google doesn't have a coherent, integrated strategy where everything fits together, while Amazon does (and at a very high value to price ratio!). Google's strategy feels like a company that's chasing after Apple's customers, but with none of the integration, social prestige, and marketing prowess that Apple puts into its efforts.


Scott said...

I agree with most everything except your jumping-off point. I could COMPLETELY see Google trying to take ownership of vendor's content in the interest of a slight latency improvement, because that's why they push things like AMP.

And I think you're right about the difference between Apple and Google, where Apple tries to have an integrated strategy in pursuit of particular non-engineering goals. Amazon, though, feels like they just concentrate on identified pain points (as opposed to hypothesized pain points), so for many people it feels like they did a good job simply because they already knocked down the biggest blockers. So the problem for Google is that they aren't willing to shift integrated leadership out of engineering, but they also want to be smart and implement to a prediction, so we often get well-done products which don't solve problems for people.

All that said ... I'm gradually losing faith in Apple. For the past decade they've been neglecting their "real" computing hardware and software, which is the infrastructure that their cash cows are built on. Amazon's goal of moving fast and supporting the things which get traction can go a long ways in the long run (witness Intel x86 or Microsoft Windows, both of which had numerous brainiac competitors which couldn't reach velocity).

Piaw Na said...

I think it's more that one Amazon division is helping another Amazon division, which you never see Google departments do. I remember when the marketing divison at Google continued to strictly promote Google events on Twitter, ignoring Google plus/buzz at a time when Google was trying to push Google+. It took quite a bit of sarcasm for Google marketing to start using Google+. Say what you like about Amazon, they're very good at cross promotion. Amazon's front page constantly pushes Amazon devices and streaming services, and Amazon streaming services constantly pushes Amazon Fires.

Scott said...

Yeah, true, Google has a huge cookie-licking problem. I do feel like Amazon is more willing to kick people off the campus if they aren't working on ways to interconnect and keep relevant.