Can Amazon's assistant stay on top?

Amazon Alexa Image copyright Amazon
Image caption The new Amazon Alexa device, as leaked by Evan Blass

Amazon surprised everyone when, in late 2014, it unveiled a standalone digital assistant that was not only good, but blew away the competition in both quality and aesthetics.

The Echo - a cylindrical speaker with microphone - now accounts for just over 70% of all digital assistant use in the US, leaving its nearest competitor, Google Home, well behind.

It's an important new market, even if the idea of talking to an object in your home still comes uneasily to many of us.

In a new report, Emarketer estimated 36 million Americans will use a voice-activated assistant at last once a month - an increase of 129% on this time last year.

Amazon, as I mentioned, already has the lion's share. It's now hoping to echo (sorry) that success with its latest effort which we could see as early as Tuesday, according to reports.

AFTV.com, a site with a solid track record of leaks, said it found a low-quality image of the device on Amazon's own servers.

The authenticity of the image was later backed up by king-of-the-leaks, Evan Blass

The new device is expected to house a 7-inch touchscreen and can be used for video calling, as well as displaying weather information and other data.

It will help plug that gap that many voice assistant users will be familiar with, like not knowing how long a timer has left without asking. Or just knowing the time - it's a step backwards to not just look at a clock. Of course, a screen opens up a range of new possible interactions.

'Barely crossed the starting line'

Dominating this area isn't just about selling assistants. The opportunity for Amazon here is in an arena few thought they become a major player - home automation. Emarketer's data suggests that once you opt for one brand of assistant in your home, you're very unlikely to jump ship. So when the "internet of things" boom finally hits (any day now, as we've been saying the past three years) Amazon's early lead could really start to pay off.

Or, it could blow it. Consider Amazon's lead like doing well in the first event of a heptathlon.

"Amazon has a head start in the voice race but the industry has barely crossed the starting line," said CCS Insight analyst Geoff Blaber. I caught him as he was on his way to Microsoft's developer's conference, where its own digital assistant, Cortana, will be centre stage.

He added: "Those that can maximize customer data, search, artificial intelligence and natural language processing, make it all available to developers to innovate with, and simultaneously walk the privacy tightrope, will be the ultimate winners."

As it seeks to rapidly expand its lead, Amazon has made itself incredibly developer-friendly compared to its rivals. I recently had a spin in an Alexa-enabled Ford, and General Electric today announced an Alexa-powered lamp. Amazon wants Alexa in as many nooks and crannies of our lives as possible.

But Amazon's market share will surely only get smaller from here. That's Emarketer's view, certainly, as it expects Google Home to eat into Amazon's dominance over the next year. And we're yet to see a standalone Siri from Apple, or a standalone Cortana.

And, if screen-supported interfaces become standard, that could expose the (many) shortcomings of Amazon's FireOS. That's a problem - if you've ever used a Kindle Fire device you'll know using FireOS is only marginally less painful than actually being on fire. Google and Apple will surely do better.

"Amazon will inevitably face market share pressure with Echo as competition intensifies," added Mr Blaber. "But it has a far grander vision with Alexa."

A grand vision, for sure. Though as I look at the leaked images of the new device, I can't help think: haven't we been here before?

Never should have doubted you, Lord Sugar.

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