All we need now is Bob Saget.
It's now been about two years since Amazon.com (AMZN -0.66%) launched the original Echo, its smart speaker powered by its virtual assistant, Alexa. Since then, the e-commerce giant has created a platform with Alexa, allowing third-party developers to integrate with the device, as well as releasing a slew of new Alexa-powered devices that hope to bring Amazon's presence into every room of your house. You can even buy a six pack (buy five, get one free!) of Echo Dots if you want. Alexa has mostly been the only major virtual assistant for the smart home since then, but I'm sure it didn't mind the lack of competition.
Alphabet (GOOG 0.16%) (GOOGL 0.07%) announced Google Home earlier this year at its I/O developer conference, but didn't really give much detail at the time for pricing or availability. With the Pixel event yesterday, Google announced that Google Home will ship on Nov. 4 for $129. Pre-orders started yesterday. That undercuts Amazon's flagship $180 Echo by about $50. And Google won't be the last, either.
Last, but not least
There's already indication that Apple (AAPL 0.22%) is indeed working on a Siri-powered speaker (like I've been asking for) that will accomplish all the requisite tasks that you'd expect. The Mac maker has reportedly been developing the product for about two years, and has now entered prototyping and testing. Some Apple employees are even bringing prototypes home to test them out, and the company may attempt to somehow include facial recognition as a differentiator.
If that's the development stage that Apple is currently at, then there's no way that it would be released in 2016, if at all. Apple could very well abandon the project, but I don't think that's likely at this point. Apple wants to be in your smart home, and it can't do it with just the iPhone or the Apple TV. My guess would be that Apple launches this product at some point next year. That would be a continuation of Apple's belief that it doesn't have to be the first to any given market, just the best. Now that Apple has finally started opening up Siri to third-party developers, it's already laying groundwork for third-party integrations.
The social network?
While there's no official word from Facebook (META 0.14%) to suggest that it's interested in jumping in, CEO Mark Zuckerberg did just build a virtual assistant for his home in his spare time. Meanwhile, Facebook detailed its own virtual assistant, M, last year. M is still in development and testing and is not available to the general public yet.
Facebook looks as if it wants to use M to help third-party developers create chatbots that can deliver service or automate other tasks, not necessarily in the context of a smart home. But considering Zuckdawg's apparent interest in the smart home, it seems conceivable that the social network will eventually make its way in.
What it boils down to
Amazon had a sleeper hit with Echo and Alexa, but it's possible that it will give up that early lead. Virtual assistants are empowered by data, which drives contextual relevance. The type of data that these assistants need most is the type of data that you store on your primary computing platform(s). Last I checked, the Fire Phone was a flop, Kindle Fire sales are on the decline, and Amazon doesn't make PCs.
Consumers don't have Amazon email accounts, sync calendar or contact information with Amazon, or ask it random questions constantly. People go to Amazon to buy things. Not to discount Echo's early success, but the long-term competitiveness and usefulness will be determined by how much user data a virtual assistant can garner, and people generally give far more data to Apple, Google, and Facebook.
I just wish I could hire Bob Saget to turn my lights off and set my alarm system before I go to bed.