Amazon Echo and Spotify are a dream team in the smart home

It has become a rare occurrence that a piece of consumer software manages to impress me. It’s 2017, after all. But Spotify has just pulled that off. More specifically, Spotify’s seamless playback and sync ability across different devices.

Since I purchased an Amazon Echo speaker some weeks ago, I now frequently access Spotify on four different devices. Already before buying the Echo, I appreciated Spotify’s handover procedure to switch the device that you are listening music from (e.g. from the notebook to the smartphone). But with the addition of the Echo, the complexity of the cross-device integration has risen, without that I noticed a single issue so far.

I can ask Alexa (the smart assistant that runs on the Echo) to play Spotify, and then control the playback on the Echo either through voice or from any other of my devices that Spotify is installed on. I can skip the song playing on the Echo from my iPhone, hand over playback from the Echo to the iPad via my notebook, or reduce the volume of the Echo’s Spotify playback from my iPad. Or anything in between, except one thing: I cannot control playback on the other devices through the Echo/Alexa – but I never have felt I needed to either.

Having this kind of freedom to control one’s music playback at home is truly liberating, and it makes me wonder a bit what Apple plans to make better with its upcoming HomePod speaker. HomePod is supposed to offer a superior music experience in the smart home. But with Echo’s  outstanding music playback performance and a seamlessly integrated third party music app (such as Spotify, in my example), I wouldn’t know what to wish for more.

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The mainstream appeal of Amazon’s smart speaker Echo

Here is a German version of this article.

I have been following the transformation of Amazon’s smart speaker Echo from an unsuspected newcomer to the leading force within the field of voice-controlled (home) computing with quite some excitement. After a long hesitation, motivated by the hope to see the emergence of a “startupish” competitor or even an open source contender, I finally gave in and purchased the cylinder-shaped black loudspeaker. In order to be able to keep commenting on the evolution of voice technology, I felt that I have to personally use its main driver.

This is not a review. I haven’t played around with it enough, and there is no shortage of personal experience reports from long-term Echo users anyway. But I want to write about the moment of Echo’s first utilization – which I actually had together with my parents. Since Amazon doesn’t ship Echo to Sweden (or to any other country where the device hasn’t officially been introduced), I had to have the gadget be delivered to my parents’s address. And so I figured that I might as well show them the future. Initially I noticed some skepticism about the purpose of the device and the privacy implications – which is understandable. A microphone-equipped internet-connected device that sends every word it catches to the servers of one of the most powerful companies on this planet certainly matches the characteristic of an integrity-violating trojan horse. But I did not expect what happened after I started to talk to Alexa, the personal assistant software that runs on Echo. Continue Reading

From someone in a country without Amazon, a few questions about Alexa

Switzerland and Sweden have a couple of things in common. First, the names seem to be similar enough in many languages so that mixing up both countries is a very common phenomenon. Second, there are certain commonalities in regards to people’s mentality, for example a tendency to avoid conflict (for me, as a German living in Sweden and working with Swiss companies, there has been and still is a lot to learn). Third, in neither of the two countries, Amazon is operating its online store. This is in so far remarkable as I know that many people in Amazon’s core markets cannot even imagine anymore how life would be without the e-commerce giant. The reality from a customer perspective: It’s a bit inconvenient.

For the Swiss, Amazon.ch forwards directly to Amazon.de, offers free standard shipping above a certain order value, and obviously there’s no language barrier navigating the site. However, if you order from Switzerland which is not part of the European Union, you might end up having to pay additional customs charges in order to be able to pickup your package. In Sweden and the other Nordic countries, people are also forced to order from Amazon sites in other European countries (or the U.S.). Local versions in Nordic languages don’t exist. In Sweden, amazon.se is only a parked domain. Continue Reading

The Smart Home’s Trojan Horse

Here is a German version of this article.

Trojan Horse
Despite at least a decade of buzz and anticipation, the smart home is still not a mass phenomenon. A few geeks and highly progressive regional clusters aside, the majority of people even in the most developed countries still has to manually push a button to turn on a lamp, still has to make guesses about the amount of milk left in the fridge, still has to open the entrance door with a physical key, still cannot turn off the heating remotely and still has no clue about their detailed energy consumption at any given moment.

It’s obvious that so far, people’s desire to realize these kind of use cases in their homes has not been very huge. At least not bigger than the assumed effort and costs to make it happen. In the cost vs benefit analysis, the smart home fails to look attractive to most. Yet.

Because something is happening. Despite the apparent lack of serious interest in the “traditional” concept of the smart home – household appliances connected to the Internet – people’s homes are getting smarter. A different type of device category is slowly connecting parts of people’s homes: Personal devices that are not primarily marketed as smart home gadgets but are built for the usage at home. Continue Reading

Smart Home: Google, Apple and Microsoft are watching the cake while Amazon is eating it

Here you can read this article in German.

The success of Amazon’s voice-controlled personal assistant Echo is by many considered a surprise. It’s easy to understand why: There was comparatively little media hype after its launch, the product category was unproven and Amazon’s track record regarding hardware products (other than the Kindle) has been rather mixed. But one and a half year after its release, the device, which so far can only be purchased in the US, has become a huge hit, highly rated by both Amazon reviewers as well as the technology crowd. Furthermore, thanks to the Echo, Amazon’s smart assistant software Alexa has become a poster child for the thriving category of artificial intelligence-powered assistants.

Here is what’s at least as surprising as the rise of Echo: The absence of competing products by the other big three: Google, Apple, Microsoft. Continue Reading

Talking with the machine: The race to create “Samantha”

You can read this article in German here.

A few days ago I returned from the South-by Southwest Interactive conference (SXSW) in Austin. This year, the unofficial slogan of the SXSW might as well have been “The event about the science fiction film ‘Her’”.

During many of the panels and keynotes that I attended, one of the speakers eventually made a reference to the 2 1/2 year old movie in which a shy man falls in love with his voice-controlled, Artificial Intelligence-powered personal assistant “Samantha”.

My impression that “Her” was ubiquitous at SXSW certainly had been influenced by the fact that I specifically chose sessions and talks focusing on topics related to Artificial Intelligence (AI). However, AI nowadays is one of the most crucial aspects of many, if not all IT and technology disciplines. Even more “mainstream”-like SXSW keynotes such as the outstanding and entertaining talk between Slack CEO Steward Butterfield and the NYT journalist Farhad Manjoo did not miss out on the opportunity to mention the movie. Steward Butterfield actually asked Manjoo if he had seen it, to which Manjoo surprisingly responded “no”. Continue Reading

Siri is not ready to take over the smart home yet

As I explained in my recent critical take on the Apple TV box, I was nevertheless curious about the next generation of the device. It was presented a few days ago on Apple’s big product event and pretty much reached up to my expectations, without exceeding them.

From my perspective, the new Apple TV is not a milestone or a big deal, but there is one aspect that I am excited about: the voice control capabilities powered by Siri.

Unfortunately, based on the information from the press release and early reviews, Apple falls short of actually adding a smart personal assistant to the Apple TV box. Instead, Siri’s focus lies on voice search for TV shows and movies across an initially very limited number of content providers (= apps). So at least for now, Apple TV users won’t be able to rely on the device as a full-fledged smart assistant that greets them in the morning with a friendly “Hello Martin, how do you feel? What can I do for you today?”. Although apparently asking about the weather will work. It’s also a bit sad to learn that initially, the Apple TV version with Siri will only be available in 8 countries. Continue Reading

The next “iPhone moment”: Smart assistants for the home

Ever since Apple released the iPhone in 2007, people have been waiting for the next “iPhone moment” – the market introduction of a device or technology that dramatically changes the game. This is what the iPhone did. It changed the game. It invented a new product category (previous “smartphones” did not deserve the moniker), turned it into a mass-market sales success, inspired competitors to produce their own solutions, created a billion-dollar ecosystem, disrupted numerous existing industries and completely altered the way how people use the Internet.

However, until today there has not been another iPhone moment. The iPad did not reach up (despite its category-defining character). Neither did Google Glass, fitness trackers or smartwatches. It still remains to be seen where the Apple Watch will go in terms of mass appeal and game-changing potential. Right now it seems unlikely though that it will have the large-scale impact of the iPhone. Possibly virtual reality headsets will fly off the shelves once they are being introduced to the broad public next year. But many question marks remain. Continue Reading

I want a smart home personal assistant, but not from Amazon

jambox

I was just sitting on my couch with my notebook in my lap, when I heard an unexpected, but familiar voice: “Jambox is ready to connect”. Familiar, because this one of the typical spoken comments my Jambox bluetooth loudspeaker is capable of. Unexpected, because I had not done anything at that moment to turn Jambox into pairing mode. For a second I was surprised, then I reminded myself of that Jawbone’s relatively popular bluetooth loudspeaker occasionally develops a life of its own. And shortly after it hit me: I want that. I want a smart speaker that interacts with me when sitting at my couch, kitchen table or elsewhere in my apartment. Continue Reading