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

Voice Controlled Computing – New Opportunities and a Big Challenge


Several times in the past this blog has discussed the work being done by large and small companies with deep pockets to usher in the age of voice-controlled computing. For the most part we have focused on the advantages consumers would realize from being able to leverage computing power with simple voice commands and the additional use cases connected devices would help satisfy as a result. As we continue to experience voice controlled devices weaving into our lives, two areas we haven’t discussed have started to come into focus – one an opportunity for insights and the other a challenge for product developers and barrier to widespread adoption.

Lessons from the Echo

We have written several times about the advantages tablet devices offer over voice controlled computers like the Amazon Echo, that offer no display, as the richness of the response is multiplied by a screen where information, imagery, and videos can be offered in addition to audio responses. The Ambility team still believes this to be a significant advantage, but we have learned a great lesson from the Echo that we didn’t fully anticipate – that a wealth of use cases can be addressed very well through audio-only responses, and that these audio-based interactions offer brand new areas of insight for service and marketing providers to learn about their audiences.

Another lesson we learned from interacting with Echo is that Siri and ‘OK Google’ are not really voice controlled computing platforms. They offer great doorways into web content end experiences, but once you get there you have to rely on tapping and swiping to get what you want.

New Use Cases, New Opportunities for Data

Over the course of a long weekend the Ambility leadership team found themselves turning to the Echo, by summoning ‘Alexa,’ more and more to satisfy simple queries and to help with tasks around the house. Our computers and mobile devices have long helped us settle debates by getting that easy answer, but how many of us turn to those devices to set a timer for the bread we’re baking or to dim the lights before dinner. With the Echo these were tasks easily completed, so by the end of the weekend we had forgotten where the light switches were and never cared to check for a timer in the kitchen.

Beyond those tasks we also turned to the Echo to play music, create a shopping list, and check traffic, but it was the mundane uses of the device to help with dinner and manage the room’s heat and lighting that stood out (Tom’s Guide also identified tuning your guitar and having Alexa act as your exercise coach as good uses of the product). These are tasks that for most people are not completed using connected devices, and therefore have been unobserved by marketers and analysts. As voice controlled devices increase in their application and penetration into modern households, the opportunity (and burden) of harnessing this new data for insights will be vast.

So overall the Ambility team liked the Echo and adopted its use for certain needs around the house quickly – to a degree that we don’t do with Siri or OK Google. Why is that?

The obvious answer is that Alexa was always available. We didn’t need to grab a phone or tablet, hold a button and then ask for what we wanted, we only had to hail ‘Alexa’ and then make a request. The not-so-obvious answer is that the Echo “interface” is built for an audio only interaction and does not default to older, tactile mechanisms of interactive experience.

Voice-Screen Interactions Require New UX Standards

Building “always on” capabilities is straight-forward enough (Siri allows it when your iPad is plugged in), but enabling audio only commands that interact with screen display is a far trickier change. Touch screen technology, historians tend to agree, was first developed in 1965 by E.A. Johnson at the Royal Radar Establishment in Malvern, UK, but it would be over forty years before mass audiences would have the chance to adopt them for anything other than highly specific interactions. Apple’s release of the iPhone in 2007 introduced intuitive standards of interaction that developers could then apply to web and application design.

Siri, OK Google, and Soundhound’s new Hound product continue to enhance the ability for our devices to recognize voice commands and provide base level responses. And now there’s even a program for making your laptop respond with J.A.R.V.I.S.-type displays like those Iron Man relies on, but for now all of these offerings assume some level of touch or mouse based interaction. For example, Siri and OK Google respond to most queries with a standard search results page (SRP) with no way to select a result by voice command. Siri’s voice controlled messaging functionality works well but correcting or editing a message can be frustrating unless you resort to tapping and typing.


Big Challenge, Big Opportunity

The Amazon Echo so far has at least demonstrated that voice controlled interactions have some real usefulness and appeal. Even without a display screen the provision of always on audio computing is valuable. But the Echo hasn’t provided a way of navigating the rich and varied offerings the internet is so good at delivering. And a display screen would be a good start.

Tackling that interactive challenge is far more complicated than programming a voice-controlled timer, but the Echo showed us that intuitive, voice-controlled computing solutions will be a welcome addition to consumers’ connected worlds. And the payoff for the company that establishes those standards, the solutions designers who leverage them, and the analysts looking for more insights into their target audiences will be massive.

Video – Give the People What They Want

media_video_icon_pc_800_clr_4466The Ambility team recognized in eMarketer’s “Q2 2015 State of Video” further demonstration that video as a form of web content is exploding. The report cites a wealth of factors driving the increased consumption of video online (including the proliferation of original video content on platforms like Hulu, YouTube, and Amazon; and consumers opting out of cable packages in favor of digital) and highlights important implications from the trend that are essential for marketers and hardware developers like us to absorb.

Contently boils down the implications from eMarketer’s report to five essential takeaways you can see summarized here, The Ambility team sees three of those as particularly transformative:

  • people are spending more time watching digital video than ever before;
  • people spend more time with digital video than with social media; and
  • tablet use is soaring.

The online trend toward video viewing is now undeniable. Engagement levels with social platforms have been long recognized, but after tying social media in 2014 when it comes to average time spent per day, in 2015 video pulled ahead. Users are spending an average of 1:55 with digital video each day versus 1:44 with social networks. When we look at all listed digital platforms digital video not only trumps social networks but also digital radio, Facebook, and Pandora.

The embrace of digital video and the extensive time spent per day interacting with long and short form pieces will surely have implications for channels and the devices through which users choose toaccess the internet. Desktops are great for video in certain situations – namely, while you’re sitting at a desk – but increasingly users are instead opting to use more mobile devices for video viewing. Tablet usage for video, for example, has increased at an annual rate of 120% since 2011.

Business and marketers are catching on to this trend and the volume of videos produced for business purposes is also increasing. This goes well beyond pure marketing content and there is every reason to expect its growth to continue. According to GoAnimate, 60% of visitors prefer watching a video to reading about a company. Key West Video says, video “directs users to what to pay attention to first.” Viewers are three times more likely to click on links if there is video involved.

How corporate video is applied will continue to grow and evolve, but content agencies promote a long list of video types that business customers are already leveraging including:

  • corporate communications;
  • public relations;
  • guided tours;
  • human resources;
  • training;
  • induction videos; and
  • testimonials.

As corporate content of this type is increasingly available in video format users will increasingly seek it as a more efficient way to get their business questions answered, and our multi-tasking culture will seek to consume that content on their ubiquitous mobile devices while they plug through their daily tasks.

Tablet Sales Declining?

panic buttonTalk about the future of tablet computers these days and you can get a lot of skeptical looks – and no wonder. Recent articles with headlines like “Tablet sales plummet” (Seeking Alpha), “Tablet market slumps as buyers find alternatives” (The Star Online), “Tablets are toast” (The Register) all anticipate a slowdown in the adoption of tablets for business or home use. These arguments are indeed grounded in reports by Apple and Samsung that sales of their tablet devices are down year over year by 12.8% and 17.1% respectively. Those are big numbers that understandably have a lot of analysts and retailers reassessing their plans for investing money and shelf space in tablets. So what’s behind this year on year decrease in sales? It turns out a lot of factors are driving those numbers and digging into them reveals that tablets are far from “toast.”

Some of the slowdown in sales growth can be attributed to the fact that tablet users aren’t replacing these mobile devices as actively as they do their smartphones, so after massive rates of adoption since the introduction of the iPad five years ago a slowdown should have been anticipated. Considering that the features added with successive releases of the iPad have been limited in terms of hardware advances and you have an environment where users are not compelled to trade up to the latest model. “We continue to get feedback that tablet users are holding onto devices upwards of four years,” wrote analyst Ryan Reith of International Data Corporation (

More instructive for companies actively developing apps and accessories for tablets are comments from Cathy Boyle, a senior analyst at eMarketer, who points out that “(t)he most limiting factor is the use case for a tablet: It is not as clear-cut or compelling as a communication tool—the core capability and use case for a smartphone.” (eMarketerWorldwide Internet and Mobile Users Q1 2015 Forecast) And Faisal Kawoosa, Lead Analyst at CMR, a leading Indian IT and Telecomms research and consulting firm, notes that “(u)nless the industry make substantial differentiation in the value proposition for potential customers, tablet shipments are not going to grow… With not much value addition coming in the shape of specific solutions to enhance device usability at the moment, tablets are only becoming devices of convenience, essentially larger screen versions of smartphones.” ( October 5, 2015)

We will take up the topic of the place that tablets can occupy distinctly from smartphones and laptops or desktops in a subsequent post, but rather than concluding that the tablet use base globally will decline, as some of the headlines referenced above may lead you to conclude, the Ambility team remains confident in the continued growth of the tablet user base, and we’re not alone. Indeed, eMarketer forecasts that there is still “significant room for increased penetration. The number of tablet users will jump from 13.9% to 19.9% of the global population and from 32.2% to 38.7% of internet users between 2015 and 2019.” (eMarketer Worldwide Internet and Mobile Users Q1 2015 Forecast)

In the world’s most populous countries the forecast is even more buoyant: “Approximately 41.0% of people in China will use (tablets) this year. By 2017, half of the country’s population will do so. China’s burgeoning middle class will be the main force behind growth… Indonesia and India will post the fastest tablet user gains worldwide over the next few years. The number of tablet users in both countries will nearly double in size by 2019.”

Lack of Positive Externalities for the Tablet

The concept of externalities and their impact on products or networks is old and frequently brought up when a technology standards war is underway – such as the ’80s/’90s war between Apple Macs and Microsoft PCs, and now iOS and Android. An externality is the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit. At Ambility, we are working hard to launch what we think is a positive external facilitator of tablet computing – an adjustable docking solution that fits beautifully into the home or office – and were struck by Cathy Boyle’s statement quoted above: “The most limiting factor is the use case for a tablet: It is not as clear-cut or compelling as a communication tool…”

We have long viewed tablets as extremely valuable devices for the home and office but recognize that hands-on or desktop usage only accommodates a subset of the overall use cases they are capable of effectively addressing. Yet the level of development for both apps and accessories for tablet-specific usage is limited compared to that for smartphones. According to Econsultancy 61% of companies report building apps specifically for iPads and 46% for Android tablets versus 86% of companies that are building for iPhones and 84% for Android phones. An Amazon search for “iphone accessories” yields 60,673,582 results while a search for “ipad accessories” returns 8,566,193 listings. Development for tablets is clearly of secondary importance, potentially leaving new solutions opportunities unaddressed.

The introduction of the iPad Pro and market adoption of the Microsoft Surface, however, show that the market is starting to appreciate the business related use cases for tablet computers. According to CXO Today Windows tablets are wooing the enterprise. In the Mobility Index Report published by Good Technology, Windows tablet adoption is reported to have increased 400%, from the last quarter of 2014 to the first quarter of this year. (  This is largely driven by the business apps on offer through the Surface and its Microsoft Suite, and iPad apps are slowly catching up. Add enhanced positioning solutions and hands-free interaction capabilities like voice control and look for tablet sales to regain their momentum in the consumer space as well.