Why Amazon is the king of innovation: Advantage, Alexa

We continue our week long series on Amazon innovation with a discussion of the Amazon Echo, Tap, and Dot devices, and how the Alexa service may be taking the fire out of Siri and OK Google.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Image: ZDNet

When they write the business school case studies about innovation in the future, one story they're sure to spotlight is the Amazon Echo, better known these days as Alexa.

The Echo gave birth to what has become the Alexa ecosystem (which has spawned three devices at the time of this writing) and to a ton of supporting services that interface with everything from home control to smartphones.

But when Alexa was first introduced, the tech pundocracy collectively scratched its head in bafflement. Was this another Amazon strategic blunder, like the Fire phone had been just a few months earlier?

Why would anyone want to talk to a Pringles-can sized speaker, especially when our phones already had Siri and Google voice recognition? Does the market really need another Bluetooth speaker, and an expensive one at that?

We had no idea what was about to hit us.

Everyone who has brought Alexa into their homes has gotten hooked. My family certainly has. Alexa does a few simple things, like turn the lights on (we have 23 Hue bulbs connected to our Alexa twins), do basic math, give the weather forecast, read Kindle books, play our Audible library, and, of course, play music.

As I stated in my very first review of Alexa, what it does is far from critical, but it ups the convenience level so much that it's now hard to think about living without.

Once again, Amazon has done something that Apple could not bring itself to do: open up the ecosystem. While Siri still doesn't interact with most of the apps developed outside Apple, Alexa can talk to nearly everything. Yes, a year or so after Alexa was introduced, Siri began interacting with HomeKit, so Siri can now turn on lights. But the openness of the Alexa platform has allowed it to blossom in ways that Amazon itself may not have predicted.

Google, too, has jumped into the game of a screenless voice-activated home control system with its recent announcement of Google Home. Home is backed by Google's formidable search system. The Google Now infrastructure has been upgraded to Google Assistant. Google's artificial intelligence research, best showcased by its self-driving car project, is formidable, indeed.

But the fact is, Amazon was there first.

Whether or not Google manages to usurp Amazon's surprising initial dominance in home automation and ephemeral virtual assistance, Amazon has had the benefit of first mover advantage. And while the Google ecosystem is vast, it's not quite as diverse in the ways that touch us every day as Amazon is.

One thing is likely, though. We're probably won't see (at least anytime soon), a point where the Amazon, Google, and Apple ecosystems work together. This battle, this fight for entrenchment in consumers' lives, is too important, at too fundamental a level, for any of these giants to risk cooperating with the other.

That said, of the three, Amazon is the most willing to put its technology on other platforms, so the initial openness of the Alexa platform may give it a substantial long term advantage over the other players.

As we look at innovation, let's keep one other aspect of Alexa in mind: just about everyone who uses Alexa is fond of the experience. I can't see giving up Alexa (I almost think of it as "un-homing" her) for a device that responds to "Hey Google." Alexa is part of the family. It's not clear Google can create a similar experience, despite its technological prowess, for the Google Home device.

Here's another innovation lesson, and it involves bravery. Amazon had just completed what it thought was an innovative smartphone, with all sorts of interesting 3D features. It turned out to be an epic fail. Yet, after having been stung by its own complete misinterpretation of one consumer market, Amazon still unleashed Alexa on the world.

The innovation lesson here is simple: don't give up. Just because one idea doesn't work doesn't mean you don't have others that might be transformative. You have to keep turning the crank to see what comes out.

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