Amazon, Google, and Facebook Go Head-to-Head

After some time away from these pages to devote to related interests, the Ambility team has been recently stirred by vibrant activity in voice-controlled screen offerings by some rather large players. Amazon’s Echo Show is not new but recently it was joined by offerings from both Google and Facebook, creating a suddenly crowded field of voice-controlled digital assistants equipped with displays.

In spite of the appearance of three of the world’s largest, most prominent tech companies into the space, the Ambility team can’t help but think that these devices may have a limited shelf, or counter-top, life. Will consumers sacrifice valuable home real estate for a device no more sophisticated, and much less flexible in its usage, than their tablets?

These are not un-sophisticated companies. They obviously have considered the value their devices will provide and feel confident the market will reward them. So what is that value? Home Hub and Echo Show work to respond to your voice commands with content, providing data-rich visuals of weather forecasts and restaurant recommendations, for example, based on your voice searches. Facebook’s Portal, by contrast, seems to have been built primarily for video chat, although the larger model, Portal+, also operates as a pretty great TV. It offers by far the largest screen display of these new devices.

Once search results are provided, Google’s Home Hub allows you to drill down further into content with some simple voice commands to avoid having to use your fingers. Scrolling through recipes or restaurant listings is simple using your voice, really freeing you up to multi-task. And if it’s directions to your restaurant of choice you want, Home Hub can send those to your phone so you can be on your way without ever having to scroll and peck with your finger. Interestingly, and uniquely, Google’s Home Hub does not include a camera of any kind, so it is not a station for video calls. But it does integrate well with home mini and Nest devices.

Echo Show carries over the smart home possibilities available through Alexa, with some clever display additions that improve on the first Echo Show. Home controls, in particular, now include helpful content to confirm completed requests and refine your commands with on-screen dimmers and area controls, for example. It’s large screen and integration with Amazon Prime also makes it a friendlier viewing device than the much smaller Home Hub.

Facebook’s Portal works hard to make hands-free video conferencing richer than most non-commercial offerings and by and large succeeds with some innovative camera work that current tablets will struggle to duplicate. Subject tracking software follows you around the room and zooms in and out so whomever you’re talking to can see what you’re doing as you continue to converse. Facebook’s stated aim is to make video chat like you are speaking to your friends in person. As for content beyond device controls and calls, however, the device relies on Alexa to provide access to weather, Spotify, and most anything else.

All in all the new product offerings from three of the largest internet companies in the world are most interesting because of their differences. That their unique features focus on such different use cases shows the multiple ways screen-based, voice controlled digital assistants can help us, and their future in our homes seems assured.

The Ambility team can’t help but consider that one product producer has not come out with a fixed-location digital screen assistant. Apple may very well introduce a table or counter-top version of the iPad (iClock? iRecipe?) but our question is “why would they?” Logitech and Targus make cases that turn the iPad into a great standing device already. And it’s easy to move from one room to another.

These new screen-based digital assistants demonstrate that screens and voices can interact, and that more voice-controlled display solutions and applications will emerge, and probably quickly. Whether these devices provide an advantage over more mobile tablets is less clear. And if you could easily adjust the position of your tablet for hands-free use wherever you are, they may be at a distinct disadvantage. But we would say that, wouldn’t we?Shameless Self Promotion – the Ambility Lamp Docking Station

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Thinking of Developing That App??

If you run an interactive team, marketing agency, or VC firm you’ve considered developing or backing development of a mobile app. It would be silly if you hadn’t. Since 2008, the year the App Store opened, over 100 billion apps have been downloaded and more than 4 million apps are currently available in the App and Google Play stores. So you could be forgiven for assuming that developing a mobile app is a cost of entry for running a business these days.

But if this is a decision you’re facing right now you have very good reason to doubt the value of incurring the expense. Not because you don’t need a useful mobile presence, you do no matter what your business offering, but because requiring customers to install an app introduces potentially unnecessary customer experience hurdles. I know unless I think I will use a service every day I won’t go through the trouble of downloading an app, no matter how many times I get asked (looking at you, Yelp). If anything, my focus on my smartphone has been to get rid of apps I downloaded rather than adding new ones to reduce clutter.

The Data

According to comScore’s latest mobile app report, most US smartphone owners download zero apps in a typical month, and year over year downloads have declined 20%. Add to that the very real impact of Google’s recent decision to penalize websites that push mobile web traffic to download an app, and the Android release last year that provided enhanced mobile web experiences and taking a big pause before investing in development of a new iOS or Android app is more than warranted.

All that being said, there’s no denying that online mobile experiences are dominated by apps. Last year TechCrunch reported that 85% of time consumers spent on smartphones was spent in apps. But of that time, only 5 apps saw heavy use. Which apps took up that time varied from user to user, but for most that dominance in mobile device usage is driven by the most popular social network, email and news apps.

As the comScore graph below shows, although most of us have a wealth of apps accessible on our phones by and large we use fewer than five on any given day. After that no apps, on average, take more than 3% of our online smartphone or tablet time. So unless you’re lucky enough to be one of those top five performing app providers, odds are your app isn’t getting much airplay.

comScore 2015 Mobile Apps Report
source: comScore 2015 Mobile Apps Report

If your app is not or is not expected to become one of the top apps for your audience then the choice to invest or not in developing an iOS and/or Android app should give you pause. Of course that doesn’t at all mean that you don’t engage with your audiences in the mobile space, just that you can consider foregoing something that conventional wisdom still assumes is required.

Return of the Mobile Web

The mobile web has come a long way since the first days of smartphones, when, before the Apple App Store was introduced, Steve Jobs was eager for owners of his new iPhone to get online. Back then mobile browsing platforms didn’t provide the experiential opportunities that last year’s the latest releases of Android and iOS offer. Now developers have the ability to deliver experiences as immersive and flexible as your favorite apps through the mobile web, and have just one platform to maintain rather than two for iOS and Android.

Last year Benedict Evans summarized the business driver for choosing native over web to just one question: “do people want to put your icon on their home screen? If the answer is Yes, go native. If No, go web.” Recently one major brand, Patagonia, decided to shut down the iPhone app they launched in 2010, stating that “now our website is beautiful and easy to use on all mobile web browsers” and inviting users to delete the app from their devices.

Patagonia

There’s no question that new business solutions will continue to be introduced that warrant a dedicated app to facilitate transactions, provide offline use, and to take advantage of native experience opportunities. But those experiential advantages alone, such as they still are, no longer justify the expense.

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