The Amazon Echo created a new category of speakers, the smart speaker. With the Alexa voice assistant, the speaker found a new market in the smart home.
Being first to market can be a big advantage. Everyone knows this. However being first to market doesn’t automatically make you the best, or keep you the best option out there.
I’m an owner of two Echo Dots. My smart home is voice controlled by Alexa. We prefer saying her name over something like “ok Google”. It’s more natural. But there’s something very annoying with Alexa.
If you’re in the US, chances are you haven’t experienced this, but Amazon and Alexa treat you differently based on where you are. I live in Australia, where Amazon haven’t officially launched yet, and where Alexa is not “officially” available. I get it, I shouldn’t really be complaining, Amazon are free to choose where they want to sell their products.
If you live outside the US, UK or Germany you can’t set your address to your home address. You’ll need to enter a fake address in the Alexa app (once you’ve downloaded the APK or changed your iOS device to the US). If you try to set your real address in your home country, you’ll get an annoying error.
Everything else in Alexa works perfectly. You can install skills, and you can even enable Alexa calling if you need to. However to ask simple things like what is the weather, you’ll need to tell Alexa your city every time. Want to ask her whats good to eat nearby? Nope. Won’t work because you can’t set your real address.
Things have improved. Originally you couldn’t set your timezone to anything other than a US timezone. But luckily Amazon removed that restriction when they launched the Echo in the UK and Germany. So now at least timers and alarms will work no matter what country you live in.
Amazon had its first-to-market advantage. Various open source projects integrated nicely with Alexa. Then Google unveiled its own smart speaker competitor, the air freshener design-inspired Google Home.
The huge benefit of Google’s knowledge graph makes the smart speaker very attractive. Initially launched in the US, international users could import the Google Home and set their local address. Straight off-the-bat Google Home could do more localised stuff than Alexa, like weather and traffic reports.
This was a brand new Google product. Nobody could tell if Google was going to keep developing it, or abandon it like so many other products it has in the past.
Amazon decided to show they were committed to Alexa, by launching Alexa in the UK and Germany. Great news for international users, except the address restrictions were still in place. You now can’t be in Canada or Australia and set your address for example.
Alexa Calling and the Echo Show
To show a point of difference, Amazon launched a screen version of its Echo line called the Echo Show. Combined with a new feature allowing users to make Alexa-to-Alexa calls, all by voice.
Google quickly one-upped Amazon, announcing Google Home users in the US would be able to make phone calls to any US phone number, via Google Voice. The Google Home can now make calls to any phone in the US, whilst Alexa can only make calls to other Alexa devices.
Google Home’s International Expansion
Google saw Amazon’s launch to the UK and Germany, and went further. From mid 2017 Google Home is now on sale in the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, France and soon Japan. Many more markets where you can’t buy an Amazon Echo.
Rather than creating another new product, Apple have gone the way of the smart watch and decided to also enter the smart speaker category.
Launching in December 2017 the Apple HomePod will be a direct competitor to the Google Home and Amazon Echo. Oh and guess what? It will be available in the US, UK and Australia, with more countries (I’m tipping Germany, France and Canada first) in 2018.
This will put the Siri enabled smart speaker in the same markets as Alexa, and also another market (Australia) where Alexa is not available.
Using Alexa with an International Address
In August 2017, it seemed like Amazon relaxed their international address restrictions. Some were calling this a glimpse that Amazon will be selling the Echo in Canada and other markets very soon.
I immediately changed my address in the Alexa app, and sure enough I can now just ask Alexa what the weather is. This makes Alexa so much more user friendly for my family and guests.
I can even ask Alexa for information about my commute to work, what restaurant options are close by. They all work fine. There’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to use these features. They’re great.
However by the end of August 2017, Amazon put the address restrictions back in place. If you missed the window to set your address, or you move house now, you can’t change your address again.
For what reason would Amazon want to do this? According to some users who’ve asked, Amazon don’t want users outside of their officially supported areas to have “a poor experience”. I get that. However I can clearly get accurate weather and local business results fine, without it officially being supported. So why not just relax these restrictions?
Cortana and Alexa Pair Up
In September 2017 Amazon and Microsoft announced that their smart assistants Alexa and Cortana would have access to each other. Soon, an Amazon Echo user will be able to say “Alexa open Cortana” to access anything Cortana may know about for you. This also gives you the option to access Alexa from a Windows 10 PC.
This is great for Microsoft, allowing Cortana to leverage some of the smart home capabilities that Alexa can. So you could be in your office and can ask Cortana to ask Alexa to turn off a light upstairs.
This seems like an attempt by Amazon to beef up its Smart Assistant capability, to compete against Google’s knowledge graph.
Using Alexa in the Smart Home
One annoying thing about Alexa is the lack of ability to customise actions, and the strict sentence structure needed to call customisations.
Google Home and Amazon Echo devices both integrate with the user-friendly service IFTTT. With IFTTT you can create applets to do something, like play music or turn everything off. However, how you call those applets in Alexa can be very unfriendly to other users of the home like guests.
Creating a “goodnight” applet on IFTTT you can make a call to your home automation software to turn things off. In Alexa to call this you’ll need to say “Alexa, trigger goodnight”. The word trigger makes things harder for guests and new users to work out how to speak to the home, without first needing an instruction manual.
Google Home improved this with a feature called “shortcuts”. With shortcuts you can set a keyword or phrase for Google Home to perform an action. So you can just say “ok Google, goodnight”. You can also directly set your IFTTT applet, so you could create an IFTTT applet that can ask your home automation controller where a device/person is, and have something like “ok Google, where is Phil?”. In Alexa, you would need to create a skill, code it, and then say something like “Alexa, ask the house where is Phil”.
Who cares? Alexa has more skills than Google Home
So by now you’re probably thinking so what? This has nothing to do with Alexa losing. Well let me explain why I think it has everything to do with it.
We recently saw third-party speaker manufacturers announcing their own Google Assistant baked-in smart speakers. Some of these will be cheaper than the Google Home, and may also compete directly with other Alexa offerings like the Echo Dot or Echo Tap.
Of course Alexa has been baked-in to third-party products and speakers as well, like Ecobee thermostats. However for big multinational companies, choosing to use Alexa over Google Assistant means restricted markets. This is why you won’t see big brands like Sony and Panasonic (who both will have Google Assistant smart speakers) releasing smart speakers with Alexa built-in. There is no room for international expansion, which means restricted markets where they can sell their products.
With hardware we can already see other big companies choosing Google Assistant over Alexa, because Google Assistant is available in more markets than Amazon’s Alexa. But Alexa boasts more smart home skill support than other smart speakers I hear you saying.
For now this might be true. However it might not be for much longer. Let’s first take a look at how Amazon discriminate against international developers.
If I, being an Australian develop an Alexa skill, I might be eligible for some free AWS hosting for my skill. However if I was an American or UK resident and my skill gets a certain number of users, Amazon would send me a free developer skinned Echo Dot for every published skill. If I’m not going to get anything, I may as well develop my Kardashian Trivia quiz skill for Google Home, where I can get more of a global audience when it goes viral.
Local companies will also create skills for what’s available. Australian businesses will soon start looking at smart speakers, and will be planning integrations for Google Home and Siri on the Apple HomePod. Because Google Home and the Apple HomePod is already here, if Alexa does decide to launch in Australia, Amazon will have to play second-fiddle and catch-up.
Big international companies could also take the same view. Why would Starbucks or Hyatt Hotels develop an Alexa skill, when they could develop a Google Home and Siri skill and have it available in more countries?
Non-US Alexa Users
It’s not all good news for those on the other side of the pond either. UK developers and Alexa users are still discriminated against.
Alexa calling is still not available to UK and German owners of an Echo device. I have a workaround to enable it, but the fact you need a workaround should say something.
In fairness I should also point out that Google Home calling is also only available in the US. However Alexa calling is all internet based, there should be no reason Alexa calling isn’t available in these markets.
In late 2016 Amazon announced changes to the way the Alexa voice engine works, enabling developers to create skills that can understand what people are asking for better. I believe this new engine however is only available for the US, and is still not available for the UK or Germany.
Amazon’s international restrictions will ultimately turn off big companies and partners from wanting to integrate with Alexa. With more products and services integrating with other smart speaker assistants, Alexa will decrease in the choice for the smart home voice controller.
With my Echo devices set to my Australian address, I was ready to purchase more Echo Dots for other rooms of my apartment. However with the address restrictions now back in place, I’ll end up having some Alexa devices telling me the weather in Australia, and some for Seattle, USA.
With the new third-party speakers that will make it price-wise similar to buying the cheaper Echo Dot, I’m now holding off expanding Alexa in my smart home, and I’m sure others soon will too.
Amazon is clearly trying to compete against Google Home, with Alexa calling and Cortana integration. If Amazon doesn’t want to lose Alexa, they need to shift Alexa’s primary focus from an Amazon Shopping device to a smart home controller. Then release Alexa and Echo devices to international markets.