Archive Monthly Archives: September 2018

Amazon Alexa and sports stats

Amazon’s Alexa is getting smarter about sports — Just in time for the NFL season, Amazon has been stuffing Alexa full of sports knowledge. It can tell you the odds of the next NFL game and give you an update on your favorite teams. In the near future, Alexa will be able to give fantasy football fans updates on their players, and alert users when their teams are about to take the field.

Sports-related questions have become some of the most popular ones to ask Alexa in recent years, Jason Semine, principal product manager for sports information on Amazon’s Alexa team, said in an email.

Business Insider reports that the Alexa team has also been working to ensure that the intelligent assistant is able to respond to questions about sports events as they happen and to understand the context of particular inquiries.

“Our long-term goal is for Alexa to understand and be able to answer all questions, in all forms, from anywhere in the world.”

As you see, Amazon wants Alexa to be everywhere and to know everything. This is what having big goals means.

In recent weeks, Amazon has added a slew of new sports-related features to Alexa. Among them:

  • Answers to an assortment of trivia-related questions relating to sports history, records and statistics.
  • Updates on the latest injuries and transactions involving individual players or teams.
  • Predictions on who will win upcoming games, including the latest betting line.

But more importantly, Amazon will be more and more in your home, inserting the need in your life to ask all types of questions to their smart assistant, emphasis in sportswhich unites (or divides) us, but certainly always requires some data in the conversation. Pretty smart if you ask me.

Happy Sunday, and I’ll talk to you tomorrow.

Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprises

The same week Salesforce announced their Einstein voice assistant ahead of their annual gathering Dreamforce, Microsoft launched Cortana Skills Kit for the Enterprise for developers, to help businesses create custom voice apps for their employees and users, at Ignite, their annual gathering. This was expected, given the company strong stance on the enterprise. I have mentioned before that I see at this time Microsoft strategy in voice tech seems to be more focused on providing AI tools to developers, and again, you know what I’m gonna say developers are the currency for today’s platforms.
Cortana Skill Kit is currently available by invitation only. Invitations for companies and developers will be made available in the future.
According to a programme manager on Cortana’s team, the platform is powered by the Azure Bot Service and leverages Language Understanding from Azure Cognitive Services, allowing developers to create company-specific skills for Cortana using known and trusted tools.
As a proof of concept, IT developers at Microsoft used the enterprise platform to create an IT help desk skill that enables Cortana to file tickets for employees who are having computer problems and connect them to someone who can help.

How voice is changing software development

I’m very passionate about the process of software development and how it affects the product cycle. I read a blog post about people with physical disabilities using voice tools to program, so I was excited when found this article about the influence of voice technology in software development. Let’s see some of the ways software development is being affected by voice.

  • New development agencies are seeing clients request more and more voice capabilities, as well as old applications being upgraded with voice-activated functionality. But at the same time a bad interaction is worse than none at all. Lars Knoll, CTO at The Qt Company have said that “A badly done voice integration is probably leading to a worse user experience than not having one at all.”
  • The other one is to have into account the differences between gui design and voice interface design. It will be increasingly needed that voice-oriented developers understand the basics of pattern recognition and machine learning. That being said, the underlying development principles remain pretty much the same, as well as having knowledge of popular programming languages. In a GUI, the user’s eyes and mouse movements have been trained over several years of behavior. As a result, voice development is as much a product design challenge as an engineering problem.
  • The third way software development is affecting development is the fragmentation of voice platforms. You’ll need to make choices about developing independently for each platform (and your priorities) or taking more of a one-size-fits-all approach. I talked about it in the Voice Space Fragmentation (https://voicefirstweekly.com/flashbriefing/69/).
  • B2B companies, can’t ignore voice work much longer. With Salesforce announcement of Einstein voice assistant to their platform, plus Microsoft Cortana Skill Kit, plus voice assistants being more pervasive in the home, cars and mobile of users, there is only so long before users start asking: can I do it with my voice?  or why I can’t do it with my voice? 

There is also an increment in development tools available to code by voice, in combination with the advancements of speech to text recognition, we can see a new wave of tools, where you can have voice commands as actions that use speech to text for the actual code input. The Nature magazine has an interesting article I recommend you check in full: Speaking in code, it outlines how programmers from the Genome Aggregation Database (gnomAD) at MIT, which is used to explore genomic data are using voice coding to build web applications. “These applications share data from some of the largest sequencing studies in the world”

Coding by voice command requires two kinds of software: a speech-recognition engine and a platform for voice coding. Dragon from Nuance, a speech-recognition software developer in Burlington, Massachusetts, is an advanced engine and is widely used for programming by voice, with Windows and Mac versions available. There is also VoiceCode and Caster, the latter free and open source. This tools are not new, there’s a video of PyCon in 2013, demonstrating voice command. However, reportedly, the learning process of voice coding has a steep curve. You have to learn all the commands which turns out are not that natural. And if you have any throat problem it can become a challenge as well.

On the bright side, users report to think through very well before dictating any code, and we can be sure is a big benefit.

Voice technologies are soon to be part of the development process and not only result of it.

The Assistant Household feature

APK insights report that the latest beta of the Google app is rolling out this morning with a hint at the Pixel Stand. Other tweaks in version 8.22 include a new Sound Search widget, auto-downloading for Podcasts, and detailing the Assistant Household feature. Let’s see the changes for the Assistant app.

Google Assistant Household

As part of the Assistant settings redesign enabled last month, APK Insights spotted a Household feature for Google Home. Version 8.22 provides more details, including some of the roles and functionality. In general, the feature is aimed at helping your “family collaborate and communicate across devices with shared reminder, lists, message broadcasts, and more.”

As a “Family Manager,” users will be able to “Broadcast group messages, assign reminders, and share lists with up to 6 family members.

<string name=”assistant_settings_household_family_manager”>(Family Manager)</string>

<string name=”assistant_settings_household_managing_subtitle”>”Broadcast group messages, assign reminders, and share lists with up to 6 family members”</string>

<string name=”assistant_settings_household_managing_splash_screen_button_label”>Add family member</string>

<string name=”assistant_settings_household_member_invitation_pending_state”>Unconfirmed</string>

<string name=”assistant_settings_household_setup_splash_screen_button_label”>”YES, I’M IN”</string>

<string name=”assistant_settings_household_setup_splash_screen_subtitle”>”Google Assistant helps your family collaborate and communicate across devices with shared reminder, lists, message broadcasts, and more”</string>

<string name=”assistant_settings_household_setup_splash_screen_title”>”Share, organize &amp; connect with your family”</string>

Google is moving to more household focused features, probably as a reaction of Amazon Alexa’s everywhere.

Is Podcast media dying?

Happy Thursday! Today is newsletter day! Every Thursday at 9:50 Pacific Time, our weekly issue is sent to your inbox. It’s filled with my commentaries of the best of the week and stuff I find interesting even if it didn’t make mainstream media in conversational interfaces, voice technologies and voice strategy and branding. If you haven’t subscribed yet do so at voicefirstweekly.com.

Alright, moving on to today’s business.

Buzzfeed is cutting their podcast unit to focus on shows. The news came fast with some Twitter on layovers the same day last week. According to an article by The Wall Street Journal. Buzzfeed decision to cut its original podcasting staff comes in conjunction with the decision made the previous week, by the audio company Panoply. Audible Originals, the podcasting unit run by Amazon.com Inc.’s Audible audiobooks division, also laid off several employees earlier this year.

Apparently Buzzfeed is having problems keeping up with investors expectations in the advertising torment the industry is suffering from now. The Vice-President of News and Programming Shani Hilton said in a memo to stuff also reported by the Wall Street Journal:

We’ve decided to move to a production model that is more like our TV projects — that is, treating shows as individual projects, with teams brought on as needed.

These developments come as Audible and Buzzfeed reshapes its original programming strategy, alleging for more short-term programming or more Netflix-style shows.

As contrast the NYT Voyages issue will feature stories told through audio that correspond with full images without captions in the magazine”:

For the first time, the Times has produced a bonus crossword puzzle in which more than half the clues will feature audio clues.

Noting the company is experimenting with audio, not podcasts per se.

The founders of Gimlet Media, the narrative podcasting company, said in an episode by Recode Podcast that is expanding beyond original audio shows and into two newer businesses: Film and TV adaptations of their podcasts, such as a TV series reworking of the show Homecoming, now starring Julia Roberts, that will hit Amazon this fall; and branded podcasts, which are completely underwritten by a single sponsor.

Does this means that the podcast media is dying in favor of short-style stories or shows? What does this tell us about the state of podcast monetization at scale? Today I’ll leave you with more questions than answers. Partly because then I can come back and do another episode with the answers!

The truth is that the podcast industry is shifting and we need to watch how that plays out with content being created for smart assistants platforms.

Here are more resources to complement this subject:

You have a great day and we will talk tomorrow!

Amazon ahead in monetization options for voice platforms


From all the voice platforms out there Amazon Alexa is the one offering more monetization options for creators. Even if these options are still limited, there are reports by several successful skills that are doing ok. No one seem to be the next Facebook, Insta or Uber just yet. As far I know, Google Assistant has little to no option of monetization, Samsung Bixby is offering some prizes now for capsules builders, but that’s not a monetization strategy and Microsoft Cortana doesn’t have any as far as I know either. I talked about monetization strategies a while back and that the time I said:

The most obvious monetization strategy is what’s known in Alexa as ISP: In skill purchasing, a way to sell premium content such as game features and interactive stories or sell products. 

Amazon is the one pushing the most for monetization options. This is not that strange, because Bezos, and by extension, Amazon understand incentives very well. E.g: affiliate program in amazon.com, the free tier in AWS and prizes for Alexa skills.

To top that Amazon announced yesterday that developers can now sell consumables in their skills leveraging in skill purchasing.

A consumable is an in-skill product that customers can purchase, use, and then purchase again. In addition to one-time purchases and subscriptions, consumables give developers more ways to deliver premium experiences to customers.

Meaning, users can pay to unlock features in your skills.

The feature is already live in Storyline and VoiceApps where you can use consumables with visual tools in addition of the Alexa Skill Kit CLI.

Another opportunity for developers and skill creators to monetize their work with Alexa skills. As I have said before, developer attention is the currency for companies today and by providing recurring means of revenue to skills developers Amazon keeps getting the attention in the voice space.

Strategic partnerships are driving the voice revolution

We are going to build amazing new voice-base, mobile experiences for customers.

Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce tweeted this morning.

Salesforce and Apple announced today a new strategic partnership. Looking to win in the enterprise, the partnership means that a salesperson can use Siri after a customer meeting to update that customer’s record with notes from the meeting. Salesforce will be redesigning its mobile app working with Apple and building Siri deeper into Salesforce mobile apps.

Tim Cook said in an interview: If you look at enterprise in general, voice has not been used as much as in consumer, we’re changing the way people work, and that’s always been at the heart of what Apple is about — changing things for the better.

In that vein, Microsoft announced today as well they are launching Cortana Skills Kit for the enterprise. The product lead, Javier Soltero said  that:

The goal is to make Cortana skills and conversational computing in the workplace as easy to use as smartphones are today, requiring no lengthy introduction or user manual.

Enterprise is the next battleground for voice technology

I mentioned here after the special event Apple held, that maybe they were unequipped to compete in a voicefirst world. And this kind of sum it up: they probably are, and establishing this partnership to win the enterprise is a smart move. Shortcuts in apps, plus this integration, Apple can tap into Salesforce developers and its own platform developers to incorporate more Shortcuts and knowledge to Siri, they are basically crowdfunding the platform with knowledge. But this is also a response to Amazon and Microsoft partnership. Reportedly, Facebook is also partnering with Amazon to incorporate Alexa to their Portal smart assistant to be launch later this week, according to a report by Cheddar.

There hasn’t been that many times at the beginning of a technological wave, like we are now with voice, that companies have been collaborating in this way. It certainly didn’t happened for the Apple Store or mobile.

So in that sense, we will be hearing more about partnerships, to tap into each other’s strengths. If this isn’t a sign that voice is the next revolution in computing, nothing else might be. The question is who is next? And how long will this last?

Shortcuts: jobs to be done .. by me?

With the release last week of iOS 12 iPhone app developers can integrate an “Add to Siri” button right in their app’s interface for common tasks that their app can perform – like playing a favorite playlist, for instance.

When a user taps this button, they’ll be directed to a screen where they can record their own custom voice command to launch whatever task or action the developer is suggesting.

These are some of the apps that you can try Shortcuts today:

  • Pandora: After you “Add to Siri” in the settings for Pandora, you can then choose a specific station, album, or playlist and record a custom phrase to say the next time they want to hear it.
  • Streaks: The habit tracker app also added an Add to Siri option that will allow users to record custom phrases to complete their tasks.
  • PCalc: will let you record voice commands for any common activity in the app, like converting currencies, setting the clipboard, opening conversions, and more.

Other apps with shortcuts are Sky Guide, Things, Carrot Weather, The Weather Channel, City Mapper, Google News and TripIt.

Jobs to be done… by me?

Even though I was quite disappointed with Apple’s stance on voice during their special event, I’m watching closely their moves. Bringing Brian Roemmele’s thoughts on Shortcuts as powerful kernels for Siri, made by the developers themselves, as a way to have this concept of jobs to be done. What concerns me though with this approach, is that there is so much cognitive load that we can handle in any given moment. The fact that I have to set all of this, and then remember what shortcut I use for the playlist and which to open my cards on Trello put the load on me as the consumer and not in the machine.

Show love for the work and share this episodes, subscribe to get a daily roundup in the world of voice. You have a great Sunday and I’ll talk to you tomorrow.

Hands-free call from Alexa with Skype

This week Skype announced their excitement to bring Skype to Alexa. Using only your voice, users can make outgoing Skype voice and video calls, accept incoming Skype calls, and even make SkypeOut calls to most phone numbers around the world. Sample phrases are “Lexi, call Jimmy on Skype,” or if Jimmy is calling you on Skype, say, “Lexi, answer.”

VentureBeat reported on the collaboration that

Adding support for an app with hundreds of millions of users, that happens to be one of the oldest and best-known ways to make video calls, is an awful lot better than starting from zero.

This is part of the collaboration between Microsoft and Amazon in a very smart play. The companies previously released Cortana and Alexa integration, their respective smart assistants and Xbox integration.

I can’t stress enough how genius Amazon (and Microsoft are both playing here with voice). I’m not sure how long this friendship is going to last but is certainly a win win for consumers. I have never make calls through Alexa but frequently use Skype, now I can do it outside my phone or computer, it doesn’t sound like much, but if you are having long calls, as I often have with my cofounder, it’s good to be able to focus on your work in the computer while handling the call by voice.

Amazon bets on more Alexa powered devices

Yesterday took place the Amazon private hardware presentation event where the company announced several devices including an Alexa clock, a new (louder) Echo Dot, an Echo Subwoofer, an Echo for the car. The list does not end there, as I said in a previous episode Amazon consider the TV to be the most important device in the house and they presented yesterday a live-recording Fire TV Recast focused on live-recording TV and beaming that video to other devices you have. Add to that list a new Echo Show that works with a Skype and it’s featuring a new design.

One of the devices I wanted to here more is the Alexa microwave. With Alexa controls and a dash button to order popcorn, the microwave doesn’t have voice controls per se but it can communicate with an Echo near where you can send it commands like add one minute of cooking. TechCrunch regarded the microwave as unnecessary and I think it is a key piece. Is the only device introduced where you will be able to directly order something, it’s being sold as part of Amazon basics for only $60. It’s part of the experimentation strategy Amazon has been following with devices, and this seemed to be only the beginning. I will watch this trend closely.

Finally, the device that has been receiving more comments on Twitter at least is the Alexa clock. It shows your timers

On the software side 3 main announcements: Two updates to Alexa: Guard mode which can be set when users are away and will listen for more than just its name, including noises like glass breaking and Hunches a system where Alexa will learn about certain smart home habits and offer occasional suggestions if it gets the feeling you forgot to do something like turn off an outdoor porch light before you go to bed. The third one is the Alexa Presentation Language, but I’ll dive into that on Monday when I will have time to play with it and have a better model of what it does.

Amazon is dominating the smart home with this presentation of array of devices and possibilities of effectively integrating Alexa everywhere.

Business insider reported in response to the announcements that Amazon didn’t say a single thing about voice shopping, which was something of a marquee feature when Alexa was first developed. And quote

Voice shopping is an often-hyped feature of voice assistants, but it has yet to reach the promise of it being the future of digital commerce.

I do see all of this totally related to voice commerce. This is Alexa in your home, when the moment comes to order something, even if it’s reportedly not happen that often now, and you have the feature in your microwave and your car, where are you going to look for? It’s about the connection with the consumer Amazon has always been keen on.

 

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