Amazon is Working on AirPods Competitors with Alexa, a Move That Could Elevate Alexa’s Mobile Strategy
Bloomberg is reporting that Amazon’s Lab126 hardware division is developing wireless earbuds to compete with Apple AirPods. AirPods have been a breakout product success for Apple. Counterpoint Research estimates that 12.5 million wireless earbuds were sold in Q4 2018 and that Apple commanded 60% market share. That share was about 10 times more than second place Jabra.
Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman suggests that the new wireless earbuds will operate similar to AirPods and users will have access to Alexa by simply saying the wake word in addition to tap controls:
“The headphones will let people use their voice to order goods, access music, weather and other information on the go. The Amazon digital assistant will be summoned by saying ‘Alexa.’ There will be physical gesture controls, such as tapping to pick up and end calls and switch between songs, the people said. Amazon declined to comment.”
An Always-Available Onramp to Alexa While On-the-go
The first generation AirPods enabled Siri access by tapping the earbud. An updated second generation AirPods that began shipping in March enable users to access Siri hands-free by simply saying, “Hey Siri.” This is what most interests Amazon. Alexa has become widely available in U.S. households and is popular in more than a dozen countries throughout the world. It is also available through iOS and Android apps but has a fairly low usage compared to the native assistants such as Siri and Google Assistant because you must be in the app to access Alexa. If consumers start using Amazon earbuds, then Alexa availability would always be active and could help the company significantly increase usage while consumers are on-the-go.
Many industry observers have suggested Amazon needs a smartphone to fill in a critical gap in its Alexa mobile strategy. The reasoning goes that smartphones will become increasingly important voice assistant access points as consumers take their voice interaction habits formed in the home on smart speakers with them while on-the-go. Since there is a lot more friction accessing a voice assistant embedded in an app compared to the always-available assistants integrated into the mobile OS (i.e. Siri for iOS and Google Assistant for Android), Alexa could be forever a second class option on smartphones. The earbuds introduce another calculus. If users have their Alexa-enabled earbuds in most of the day as many AirPods users do now, then Alexa would always be available. It is an end-run around many of the built-in mobile OS advantages without needing to launch a dedicated smartphone.
This in-ear approach doesn’t address Alexa’s disadvantage when attempting to control smartphone features or connect to mobile apps. However, that is only a small portion of what voice interaction is used for today on mobile. Alexa earbuds would provide direct access to the Alexa ecosystem instantly for mobile users and do so in a way that substantially reduces friction.
Voice Assistant Providers All Need and In-Ear Strategy
There is a clear trend emerging. Voice assistants will battle for availability in rooms, in the car, and in our ears. The battle for ambient, always-listening voice assistants in our homes and offices is well underway and Amazon has taken a clear leadership position. Introducing access into the car is also moving quickly with Amazon, Apple, and Google all gaining some traction and Samsung interested in a role for Bixby. The personalized assistant in the ear is the other clear battleground with Apple, Google, and Samsung all providing voice-enabled earbuds. Amazon’s AirPods strategy could fill a key gap in the company’s Alexa product line. I am guessing they will be called EchoBuds, but AlexaBuds would also work well.
Bloomberg says that the new earbuds won’t have cellular access, but will rely on the smartphone connection for communication links. Amazon has apparently been speaking with manufacturing partners but refused to comment for the story.