Ha! Amazon saw your media speculation about eight new Alexa devices launching before Christmas, and raised you. At a surprise press-launch yesterday, the company took the wrappers off 14 devices, some of which had been rumoured / leaked (a microwave, smart plug and sub / amp receiver system) and some of which hadn’t (a wall clock!). Plus there were refreshes for the Echo Dot, Echo Show and Echo Plus speakers.
Amazon’s press release is the place to start for the details, so we’ll focus on the trends. As we suggested earlier in the week, the overriding aim is ubiquity for Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant within the home: from speakers and home-entertainment systems to plug sockets, clocks and microwaves. And the car: the Echo Auto connects to drivers’ existing in-car systems, and to Alexa via the voice-assistant’s smartphone app. Music included.
It’s also worth noting the focus on improved sound quality in the new versions of the Echo Plus and Echo Dot speakers (in the latter case, helpfully coming the day we wrote in this bulletin about why cheap smart-speakers like the Echo Dot weren’t really about audio quality) as well as a new gadget, the Echo Input, which brings Alexa to older, non-smart speakers via a 3.5m jack or Bluetooth. The Dot in particular will only ramp up its sales as we head towards Christmas.
Yesterday’s event wasn’t just about hardware, however. Alexa itself is continually improving, but yesterday a raft of new features were announced. Tidal support is good for that streaming service, but we’re more interested in something called ‘Amazon Music New Release Notifications’. “Customers will soon be able to ask Alexa to follow their favourite artist, and receive notifications on their Echo device or within the Amazon Music mobile app when an artist releases a new album or track,” explained Amazon. There will also be the ability for artists to record voice-message introductions to be played when that new material is served up via Alexa – something that’s definitely going to be worth doing.
Tidal support, which is coming later this year, is actually part of a wider feature called the ‘Alexa Skills Kit Music Skill API’ (or ASK Music Skill API for short). It’s a way for any music-streaming service to make itself accessible via Alexa, to sit alongside existing partners like Spotify, Pandora and Deezer. “With the Music Skill API, you can enable your customers to play music by simply saying, for example, ‘Alexa, play songs by [artist] from [your music service] is how Amazon explained it. But note what comes next.
“You do not need to build your own voice user interface; instead, you simply provide your music catalogue metadata to Amazon on a regular basis, and we automatically update the Alexa voice model and grammars used by customers. This enables you to deliver a reliable and accurate voice experience without requiring automatic speech recognition expertise on your team.” The prospect of Amazon as a central hub for other music-streaming services’ catalogue metadata is certainly something to chew on.
All of this is a lot to unpack, and we haven’t even mentioned news like Amazon’s launch of a new programming language called APL to create skills for Alexa devices with screens. Well, we have now. The big picture is the ecosystem that the company is building around devices and Alexa, with music very much at the centre of things. Google has a press event scheduled for 9 October, incidentally. While new smartphones will get the headlines there, keep your eye on what the company has to say about its own Google Home / Google Assistant ecosystem. This is a rivalry that will have an important impact on the music industry in the coming years.