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Two days into the annual technology fest that is CES and one of the biggest stories of this year’s show is the battle between Google and Amazon for the smart home. So far, Amazon is winning.
If there ever was an example of how first-mover advantage can change a market, it’s Amazon’s Alexa. The digital assistant has been popping up everywhere this week at the Consumer Electronics Show, the annual tech fest that tries to set the agenda for gadget makers everywhere. Alexa isn’t just confined to the living room or the Echo smart speaker that Amazon started selling in 2014 (two years before Google launched its Home speaker).
Industry watchers are struggling to keep up with all the different devices that Amazon has partnered with on Alexa, but it’s clear the company has been busy making friends with manufacturers over the past year.
“From the meetings I’ve had with different vendors, Amazon has done an incredibly successful job of repositioning Alexa as a platform,” says Mark Vena, a senior analyst at Moor Insight Strategy from the sidelines of CES. “The number of devices that Alexa is showing up on is staggering.”
Amazon’s goal here: help Alexa break free of the Echo speaker so that it can become a platform all on its own. A new kind of operating system that we won’t see on a screen, but talk to. Tech experts refer to this next phase as “ambient computing” and Google seems to be the only other major company besides Amazon that looks set for early domination.
Google Assistant is on 1,500 devices, Google says, including TVs made by NVIDIA and Sony, speakers by Bang and Olufsen and kitchen appliances made by Whirlpool, which is putting both Alexa and Google Assistant onto its devices so that customers can choose which they prefer.
Its digital assistant is also supposedly much smarter than Alexa. A recent study by research firm 360i found that Google Home was six times more likely to provide an answer to a question than Alexa was.
It’s also unclear many device integrations Amazon has by comparison. (An Amazon spokesperson could not answer this at the time of writing.) Yet despite Google’s superior product, attendees at CES say that anecdotally at least, Alexa is everywhere.
“Nearly every buzz-worthy gadget has a ‘Just ask Amazon Alexa’ sticker on it,” according to MacWorld’s Michael Simon. “Anyone who wants to get their device in homes needs to support Alexa first, and then Google and, if there’s time, Apple.”
Apple is of course the 800lb gorilla in the room, according to Moor Insights’ Mark Vena. The company has been late to market with its Home Pod, which has yet to roll out, and curiously silent on what it can do as an ambient computing device. “They were positioning the product as a great speaker. Terrific audio device.”
Amazon’s challenge will be maintaining its lead over Google, which benefits from having deeper access to people’s phones and important data like their calendars and email. And however late to the game Apple is with the smart home, it has that advantage in its back pocket too.
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