BMW’s Alexa integration gets it right

BMW will in a few days start rolling out to many of its drivers support for Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant. The fact that BWM is doing this doesn’t come as a surprise, given that it has long talked about its plans to bring Alexa — and potentially other personal assistants like Cortana and the Google Assistant — to its cars. Ahead of its official launch in Germany, Austria, the U.S. and U.K. (with other countries following at a later date), I went to Munich to take a look at what using Alexa in a BMW is all about.

As Dieter May, BMW’s senior VP for digital products told me earlier this year, the company has long held that in-car digital assistants have to be more than just an “Echo Dot in a cup holder,” meaning that they have to be deeply integrated into the experience and the rest of the technology in the car. And that’s exactly what BMW has done here — and it has done it really well.

What maybe surprised me the most was that we’re not just talking about the voice interface here. BMW is working directly with the Alexa team at Amazon to also integrate visual responses from Alexa. Using the tablet-like display you find above the center console of most new BMWs, the service doesn’t just read out the answer but also shows additional facts or graphs when warranted. That means Alexa in a BMW is a lot more like using an Echo Show than a Dot (though you’re obviously not going to be able to watch any videos on it).

In the demo I saw, in a 2015 BMW X5 that was specifically rigged to run Alexa ahead of the launch, the display would activate when you ask for weather information, for example, or for queries that returned information from a Wikipedia post.

What’s cool here is that the BMW team styled these responses using the same design language that also governs the company’s other in-car products. So if you see the weather forecast from Alexa, that’ll look exactly like the weather forecast from BMW’s own Connected Drive system. The only difference is the “Alexa” name at the top-left of the screen.

All of this sounds easy, but I’m sure it took a good bit of negotiation with Amazon to build a system like this, especially because there’s an important second part to this integration that’s quite unique. The queries, which you start by pushing the usual “talk” button in the car (in newer models, the Alexa wake word feature will also work), are first sent to BMW’s servers before they go to Amazon. BMW wants to keep control over the data and ensure its users’ privacy, so it added this proxy in the middle. That means there’s a bit of an extra lag in getting responses from Amazon, but the team is working hard on reducing this, and for many of the queries we tried during my demo, it was already negligible.

As the team told me, the first thing it had to build was a way to switch that can route your queries to the right service. The car, after all, already has a built-in speech recognition service that lets you set directions in the navigation system, for example. Now, it has to recognize that the speaker said “Alexa” at the beginning of the query, then route it to the Alexa service. The team also stressed that we’re talking about a very deep integration here. “We’re not just streaming everything through your smartphone or using some plug-and-play solution,” a BMW spokesperson noted.

“You get what you’d expect from BMW, a deep integration, and to do that, we use the technology we already have in the car, especially the built-in SIM card.”

One of the advantages of Alexa’s open ecosystem is its skills. Not every skill makes sense in the context of the car, and some could be outright distracting, so the team is curating a list of skills that you’ll be able to use in the car.

It’s no secret that BMW is also working with Microsoft (and many of its cloud services run on Azure). BMW argues that Alexa and Cortana have different strengths, though, with Cortana being about productivity and a connection to Office 365, for example. It’s easy to imagine a future where you could call up both Alexa and Cortana from your car — and that’s surely why BMW built its own system for routing voice commands and why it wants to have control over this process.

BMW tells me that it’ll look at how users will use the new service and tune it accordingly. Because a lot of the functionality runs in the cloud, updates are obviously easy and the team can rapidly release new features — just like any other software company.

Digging deeper into smart speakers reveals two clear paths

In a truly fascinating exploration into two smart speakers – the Sonos One and the Amazon Echo – BoltVC’s Ben Einstein has found some interesting differences in the way a traditional speaker company and an infrastructure juggernaut look at their flagship devices.

The post is well worth a full read but the gist is this: Sonos, a very traditional speaker company, has produced a good speaker and modified its current hardware to support smart home features like Alexa and Google Assistant. The Sonos One, notes Einstein, is a speaker first and smart hardware second.

“Digging a bit deeper, we see traditional design and manufacturing processes for pretty much everything. As an example, the speaker grill is a flat sheet of steel that’s stamped, rolled into a rounded square, welded, seams ground smooth, and then powder coated black. While the part does look nice, there’s no innovation going on here,” he writes.

The Amazon Echo, on the other hand, looks like what would happen if an engineer was given an unlimited budget and told to build something that people could talk to. The design decisions are odd and intriguing and it is ultimately less a speaker than a home conversation machine. Plus it is very expensive to make.

Pulling off the sleek speaker grille, there’s a shocking secret here: this is an extruded plastic tube with a secondary rotational drilling operation. In my many years of tearing apart consumer electronics products, I’ve never seen a high-volume plastic part with this kind of process. After some quick math on the production timelines, my guess is there’s a multi-headed drill and a rotational axis to create all those holes. CNC drilling each hole individually would take an extremely long time. If anyone has more insight into how a part like this is made, I’d love to see it! Bottom line: this is another surprisingly expensive part.

Sonos, which has been making a form of smart speaker for 15 years, is a CE company with cachet. Amazon, on the other hand, sees its devices as a way into living rooms and a delivery system for sales and is fine with licensing its tech before making its own. Therefore to compare the two is a bit disingenuous. Einstein’s thesis that Sonos’ trajectory is troubled by the fact that it depends on linear and closed manufacturing techniques while Amazon spares no expense to make its products is true. But Sonos makes speakers that work together amazingly well. They’ve done this for a decade and a half. If you compare their products – and I have – with competing smart speakers an non-audiophile “dumb” speakers you will find their UI, UX, and sound quality surpass most comers.

Amazon makes things to communicate with Amazon. This is a big difference.

Where Einstein is correct, however, is in his belief that Sonos is at a definite disadvantage. Sonos chases smart technology while Amazon and Google (and Apple, if their HomePod is any indication) lead. That said, there is some value to having a fully-connected set of speakers with add-on smart features vs. having to build an entire ecosystem of speaker products that can take on every aspect of the home theatre.

On the flip side Amazon, Apple, and Google are chasing audio quality while Sonos leads. While we can say that in the future we’ll all be fine with tinny round speakers bleating out Spotify in various corners of our room, there is something to be said for a good set of woofers. Whether this nostalgic love of good sound survives this generation’s tendency to watch and listen to low resolution media is anyone’s bet, but that’s Amazon’s bet to lose.

Ultimately Sonos is strong and fascinating company. An upstart that survived the great CE destruction wrought by Kickstarter and Amazon, it produces some of the best mid-range speakers I’ve used. Amazon makes a nice – almost alien – product, but given that it can be easily copied and stuffed into a hockey puck that probably costs less than the entire bill of materials for the Amazon Echo it’s clear that Amazon’s goal isn’t to make speakers.

Whether the coming Sonos IPO will be successful depends partially on Amazon and Google playing ball with the speaker maker. The rest depends on the quality of product and the dedication of Sonos users. This good will isn’t as valuable as a signed contract with major infrastructure players but Sonos’ good will is far more than Amazon and Google have with their popular but potentially intrusive product lines. Sonos lives in the home while Google and Amazon want to invade it. That is where Sonos wins.

Sonos One’s Alexa support comes to Canada

 Sonos One users in Canada can now join their peers south of the border in yelling requests at their connected speakers – a free update issued today enables Amazon Alexa on the Sonos One. The One launched with Alexa support in the U.S., but while the speaker has been available to Canadian buyers since late last year, Alexa voice commands are new with the update. That means Canadians will… Read More