Amazon just had another record Prime Day, with sales up 60%.  And the #1 product sold was Amazon’s Echo Dot speaker. At $34.99 it surpassed last year’s unit sales by seven-fold.  And the traditional Echo speaker, marked down 50% to $90, broke all previous sales records.

Amazon just took a commanding lead in the voice assistant platform market

These Echo sales most likely sealed Amazon’s long-term leadership in the war to be the #1 voice assistant.  Amazon already has 70% market share in voice activated speakers, nearly 3 times #2 provider Google.  And all other vendors in total barely have 5% share.

While it may seem like digital speakers are no big deal, speaker sales are analogous to iPhone sales when evaluating the emergence of smartphones and apps.  The iPhone seemed like a small segment until it became clear smartphones were the new personal technology platform. Apple’s early lead allowed iOS to dominate the growth cycle, making the company intensely profitable.

Echo and Echo Dot aren’t just speakers, but interfaces to voice activated virtual assistants.  For Echo the platform is Amazon’s Alexa.  Alexa is to voice activated devices and applications what iOS was to Smartphones.  By talking to Alexa customers are able to do many things, such as shopping, altering their thermostats, opening and closing doors, raising and lowering blinds, recording people in their homes — the list is endless.  And as that list grows customers are buying more Alexa devices to gain greater productivity and enhanced lifestyle.  Echos are entering more homes, and multiplying across rooms in these homes.

Do you remember when early iPhone ads touted “there’s an app for that?” That tagline told customers if they changed from a standard mobile phone to a smartphone there were a lot of advantages, measured by the number of available apps.  Just like iOS apps gave an advantage to owning an iPhone, Alexa skills give an advantage to owning Echo products. In the last year the number of skills available for Alexa has exploded, growing from 135 to 15,000.   Quite obviously developers are building on Alexa much faster than any other voice assistant.

By radically cutting the price of both Echo Dot and Echo, and promoting sales, Amazon is creating an installed base of units which encourages developers to write even more skills/apps.

The more Alexa devices are installed, the more likely developers will write additional skills for Alexa. As more devices lead to more skills, skills leads to more Alexa/Echo capability, which encourages more people to buy Alexa activated devices, which further encourages even more skills development.  It’s a virtuous circle of goodness, all leading to more Amazon growth.

For marketers it is important to realize that success really doesn’t correlate with how “good” Alexa works.  Google’s Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana perform better at voice recognition and providing appropriate responses than Alexa and Siri.  But there are relatively few (almost no) devices in the marketplace built with Assistant or Cortana as the interface.  Developers need their skills/apps to be on platforms customers use.  If customers are buying speakers, thermostats and televisions that are embedded with Alexa, then developers will write for Alexa.  Even if it has shortcomings. It’s not the product quality that determines the winner, but rather the ability to create a base of users.

It is genius for Amazon to promote Echo and Echo Dot, selling both cheaper than any other voice activated speaker.  Even if Amazon is making almost no profit on device sales.  By using their retail clout to build an Alexa base they make the decision to create skills for Alexa easy for developers.

amazon echo

 

It is genius for Amazon to promote Echo and Echo Dot, selling both cheaper than any other voice activated speaker.  Even if Amazon is making almost no profit on device sales.  By using their retail clout to build an Alexa base they make the decision to create skills for Alexa easy for developers.

This is a horrible problem for Google, #2 in this market, because Google does not have the retail clout to place millions of their speakers (and other devices) in the market.  Google is not a device company, nor a powerful retailer of Android devices.  The Android device makers need to profit from their devices, so they cannot afford to sell devices unprofitably in order to build an installed base for Google.  And because Android’s platform is not applied consistently across device manufacturers, Google Assistant skills cannot be assured of operating on every Android phone.  All of which makes the decision to build Google Assistant skills problematic for developers.

Can Apple Stop the Alexa juggernaut?

The game is not over.  Apple would like customers to use Siri on their iPhones to accomplish what Amazon and Alexa do with Echo.  Apple has an enormous iPhone base, and all have Siri embedded.  Perhaps Apple can encourage developers to create Siri-integrated apps which will beat back the Amazon onslaught?

Today, Apple customers still cannot use Siri to control their Apple TV (Though as of August, 2017, it’s been improved.), or make payments with ApplePay, for example. Nor can iPhone users tell Siri to execute commands for remote systems which are controlled by apps, like unlocking doors, turning on appliances, shooting remote security video or placing an on-line order. Apple has a lot of devices, and apps, but so far Siri is not integrated in a way that allows voice activation like can be done with Alexa.

apple tv and siri image

Additionally, as big as the iPhone installed base has become, when comparing markets the actual raw number of speakers could catch up with iPhones.  Echo Dot is $35.  The cheapest iPhone is the SE, at $399 (on the Apple site although available from Best Buy at $160.)  And an iPhone 7 starts at $650.  The huge untapped Apple markets, such as China and India, will find it a lot easier to purchase low cost speakers than iPhones, especially if their focus is to use some of those 15,000 skills.  And because of the low pricing ($35 to $90) it is easy to buy multiple devices for multiple locations in one’s home or office.

Will we look back and call Echo a Disruptive Innovation?

Innovators Dilemma chart

Innovator’s Dilemma

Recall the wisdom of Clayton Christensen‘s “Innovator’s Dilemma.” The incumbent keeps improving their product, hoping to maintain a capability lead over the competition.  But eventually the incumbent far overshoots customer needs, developing a product that is overly enhanced.  The disruptive innovator enters the market with a considerably “less good” product, but it meets customer needs at a much lower price.  People buy the cheaper product to meet their limited goal, and bypass the more capable but more expensive early market leader.

Doesn’t this sound remarkably similar to the development of iPhones (now on version 8 and expected to sell at over $1,000) compared with a $35 speaker that is far less capable, but still does 15,000 interesting things?

The biggest loser in this new market is Microsoft

This week Microsoft announced another 1,500 layoffs in what has become an annual bloodletting ritual for the PC software giant.  But even worse was the announcement that Microsoft would no longer support any version of Windows Phone OS version 8.1 or older – which is 80% of the Windows Phone market.  Given that Microsoft has less than 2% market share, and that less than .4% of the installed smartphone base operates on Windows Phone, killing support for these phones will lead to sales declines.  This action, along with gutting the internal developer team last year, clearly  indicates Microsoft has given up on the phone business for good.  This means that now Microsoft has no device platform for Cortana, Microsoft’s voice assistant, to use.

Microsoft ignored smartphones, allowing Apple’s iOS to become the early standard.  Apple rapidly grew its installed base. Microsoft could not convince developers to write for Windows Phone because there weren’t enough devices in the market.  Without a phone base, with tablet and hybrid sales flat to declining, and with PC sales in the gutter Cortana enters the market DOA (Dead On Arrival.)  Even if it were the best voice assistant on the planet developers will not create skills for Cortana because there are no devices out there using Cortana as the interface.

So Microsoft completely missed yet another market. This time the market for voice activated devices in the smart phone, smart car or any other smart device in the IoT marketplace.  It missed mobile, and now it has missed voice assist.  As PC sales decline, Microsoft’s only hope is to somehow emerge a big winner in cloud storage and services (IaaS or Infrastructure as a Service) with Azure.  But, Azure was a late-comer to the cloud market and is far behind Amazon’s AWS (Amazon Web Services.)  Amazon has +40% market share, which is 40% more than the share of Microsoft, Google and IBM combined.

Build the base and developers will come…