Amazon is way ahead of Apple and Google in AI devices

Amazon’s new smart glasses—out before any rival from Apple.
Amazon’s new smart glasses—out before any rival from Apple.
Image: Quartz/Mike Murphy
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It was almost impossible just to keep up with Amazon’s latest product rollout.

At its spherical headquarters in downtown Seattle yesterday (Sept. 25), the company unveiled a barrage of new devices and services. Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice-president in charge of hardware, announced product after product at a pace that could leave you thinking that no single device deserved more attention than anything other. The rapid-fire approach was the opposite of the one long adopted by Apple, which recently spent nearly two hours to discuss mere updates to its iPhone, Apple Watch, and iPad lines.  Many other hardware manufacturers  have copied Apple’s way of obsessing over every new product in the hopes of generating as much media coverage as possible.

Amazon just ships products. It announced around a dozen new devices—almost all of which Limp said would be shipping in time for the US holiday season—and a host of new services that will launch soon.

Amazon’s roundabout path

Amazon products don’t always succeed—and some fail spectacularly. You only have to look as far as the disaster that was the Fire Phone or the misstep that was Dash Buttons to see that the company is willing to take risks that don’t always pay off. Yet for every failure, there’s an Amazon Kindle or Echo.

In the space of about a decade, Amazon has transformed itself from an e-commerce company with an excellent side business in cloud services to a gadget behemoth. It has sold millions of Alexa-enabled Echo devices, Fire streaming devices and tablets, and Kindle e-readers. Amazon—even without the design prowess of Apple or the AI strength of Google—has managed to put out products that consumers really enjoy.

Apple unveiled the first digital assistant built into a mobile device with the launch of Siri in 2011. Google has made AI a core part of its search business for years. And yet Amazon, which stumbled into the voice-assistant industry in the wake of the failed Fire phone, has managed to maintain a strong position in the smart-speaker market it helped create. It was a business, Bloomberg reported, that founder Jeff Bezos didn’t necessarily want to enter. Recent surveys suggest that Amazon has something like a 70% market share in the US smart-home market. Apple launched its smart speaker, the HomePod, to compete with Amazon’s offerings, in early 2018, four years after Amazon brought the first Echo to the US. Google introduced its first Home smart speaker in late 2016.

Google processes more searches (and likely more voice searches) than any other company in the world. Apple has convinced people to buy more than 1 billion expensive smartphones. It stands to reason that one of these companies should’ve been the ones to lead the AI hardware charge.

But it’s Amazon, not Google or Apple, that is doing so.

Amazon’s wide product reach

Amazon’s slew of new Echo devices will make accessing Alexa and the various services it offers easier than ever.  The new Echo Flex adds the ability to add smart microphones all over your house, allowing you to beckon Alexa to interact with your smart home wherever you are. The new Echo Studio is meant to take on higher-end smart speakers like Sonos’s One line and the Apple HomePod. The new Echo Buds bring Alexa with you on the go, allowing you to talk to the assistant whatever you’re doing, without having to lift a finger.

These were just some of the iterative, but intelligent, updates Amazon announced. Limp also unveiled a series of rather amazing-sounding devices. Echo Frames use a proprietary technology to send sound to your ears while allowing you to still hear the world around you. The smart glasses don’t have a display or a camera, but instead rely on Alexa to send you contextual notifications as you move thorough the day. Wearers can also call on Alexa at any time, while wirelessly tethered to a smartphone, to ask the same questions you’d ask any Echo speaker. It’s supposed to make the AI assistant experience feel more intimate.

Limp also introduced the slightly more fanciful Echo Loop, a smart ring that has a built-in speaker and microphone, allowing you to ask Alexa questions by clicking a button on the ring and holding it up to your ear to hear the answer. Although using the device rather looks like someone talking into an invisible smartphone, it allows the wearer to ask Alexa questions discreetly, which could go a long way towards making talking to a voice assistant in public far more acceptable. That’s something that Apple’s newest AirPods fail to do.

Amazon also announced myriad software enhancements for Alexa, such as a more naturalistic, human-sounding voice, the ability to answer Ring doorbells for you, and the ability to proactively tell you about issues you should address in your smart home (like a low battery somewhere that needs to be charged).

Apple again starts from behind

All of this  indicates that Amazon is in no way slowing down on its charge to dominate an industry that it’s helped create, bringing voice assistants into more parts of our lives. While there are reports that Apple is working on augmented-reality glasses that could tie into Siri, nothing’s been confirmed. After its big September iPhone event, if such a thing were to materialize, it would likely start shipping well after Amazon’s glasses . Similarly, Google is hosting a press event in October, but it doesn’t seem clear that consumers have the same level of interest in Google’s offerings.

Apple has a history of showing up late to new product segments, creating brilliantly designed products, and either dominating the market or owning its top end. It’s entirely possible that it ends up doing this with the smart home and connected wearables—it’s an area CEO Tim Cook has expressed great interest in beyond the Apple Watch. Today, it’s being upstaged by a onetime internet bookseller.

It’s possible that all of Amazon’s more unique AI devices could flop, as no one is interested in speaking to voice assistants in the ways it’s conceived. But for all the talk of Apple coming out with smart glasses, it was beaten to the punch by Amazon—in much the same way it was with smart speakers.