IoT Through the Prism of CES 2017

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After wandering among thousands of exhibitor booths, sampling the brain fruit of so many ambitious tech entrepreneurs, undeniable patterns emerge.

Amazon’s Voice Drowns out the Rest

The first is this: Amazon’s Echo device was only the thin end of the wedge.  Their underlying Alexa Voice Service platform is the real threat to every company that hopes to continue breathing in the age of IOT.  At last year’s CES, there were a tiny handful of devices that licensed AVS, and these were the subject of tremendous chatter and attention (for example, Triby, a simple speaker/screen combo that mounts on your fridge and focuses on family communication.)

Today, that limited seed has grown into a mighty oak.  A running joke at CES 2017 is the sheer tonnage of devices that are now Alexa-enabled, regardless of whether they really should be.  This certainly makes Amazon the brand that “won” at CES without really being there: Attendees consistently remarked that every second or third booth featured a humdrum household object that was yet another interface for Amazon to enter your life, from car dashboards (Ford Sync) to smart thermostats, garage doors, security systems, cameras, home hubs and… you get the picture.

Taking a step back, it’s clear that Amazon is amassing what looks like an unassailable position in the increasingly important natural-language interface category.  This week’s announcement that the Wynn hotel is installing an Amazon Echo in each of its 4,748 rooms only reinforces Mr. Bezos’ shrewd strategy of making his AVS platform open and developer-friendly and offering cash incentives to hardware companies willing to sign on to his vision.

Competitors Edge In

It’s hard to see how Apple, Google, or anybody else can realistically catch up.  And for Google, their entire business model may well depend on pushing Alexa off her perch.  If their new, competing Google Home hub doesn’t catch on this year, their mission-critical Google Assistant will be locked out of an entire sphere of commerce.

Google makes money by showing you lists of links, with companies paying to move to the top of such lists.  By contrast, the voice interface paradigm gives you a single response.  That single response slot may well still go to the highest bidder, and every other advertiser is out of luck.  This will be just one of the serious disruptions ahead, and it looks like it’s Amazon’s game to define.

Cute Isn’t Everything

The second unambiguous trend visible among the thousands of CES entries:  an absolute anthropomorphic explosion.  This year, it isn’t enough to have a new electronic assistant on the market — it has to have a face, and it has to be cute.  Apparently, a switch flipped in the marketplace at some point, with manufacturers realizing that making devices “friendly” and relatable increased their acceptance into the flow of home life.

At a minimum, this meant dozens of devices on the show floor with round faces and prominent “eyes” that tracked you as you moved, giving the impression of paying attention.  There were also plenty of standing robots, with faces like Eva from the movie Wall*E, including a popular Chinese-made robot that moonwalked to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”.

Anthropomorphism as a new class of product feature makes some sense, as the user comfortably forgets they’re interacting with a piece of technology.  But cute and fluffy can only take you so far if the underlying functionality isn’t compelling, and most of the devices at CES failed to distinguish themselves in terms of new, must-have abilities.

All in all, CES 2017 left us with the impression that the IOT is becoming more human. Anthropomorphic packaging is undeniably seductive, and manufacturers now see it as a key product differentiator. But more importantly, it looks like our control of the IOT will be performed by our most natural tool, plain old human speech.  Going back to our most basic form of interaction is allowing us to reach ever further into the future.

Image sources, Amazon, Google,

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