Amazon Invests in a Home Builder For the First Time

Plant Prefab, which designs and builds prefabricated homes using what it calls “sustainable” methods, said today it has raised a $6.7 million Series A funding round from investors including the Amazon Alexa Fund and Obvious Ventures, the fund co-founded by Evan Williams of Twitter/Blogger.

It’s the first time we’re aware of that Amazon has directly invested in a home builder. It has previously announced partnerships with Lennar Homes in the US and with Embassy Edge in India offering smart home designs built on Alexa.

“Plant Prefab is a leader in home design and an emerging, innovative player in home manufacturing. We’re thrilled to support them as they make sustainable, connected homes more accessible to customers and developers,” said Paul Bernard, director of the Alexa Fund.

Plant Prefab says it has “installed 26 units in California and Utah as well as a multifamily project in Berkeley” in recent months.

Our take:

Given the importance of the home to Amazon, it is not shocking to see Amazon get more directly involved in home building. Amazon sees opportunity in being involved in home design and construction (particularly in the context of new home building methods for urban areas). Would Amazon ever design or build homes itself?

Amazon Hiring for 67 Alexa Automotive Engineering and Design Roles

Yesterday’s Echo product announcements were primarily focused on the home, but Alexa Auto made it into the lineup as well. While Amazon didn’t spend a large portion of its press event talking about its automotive plans, it is currently hiring for dozens of engineering design roles as part of its Alexa Automotive efforts.

Amazon is working with a variety of car manufacturers on Alexa integrations and announced the Auto SDK back in August.

Currently, shows 67 Alexa Automotive jobs currently open. The vast majority are engineering and design roles. Senior architect, software development, language specialist, VUI design, and QA roles are largely based out of the Santa Clara office, while other research scientist and marketing roles are generally based in Seattle.

Automotive acoustics engineer and product management roles are based in Sunnyvale, and partner manager and design technologist roles are based out of Munich and Tokyo. Several engineering roles are also based in Toronto and Gdansk.

The Big Picture on Today’s Echo Product Announcements: Amazon’s Subscription Services Strategy

In the future, we may experience Amazon primarily as a home (and business) operations automation company. A good portion of what we think of as “e-commerce” today may come to largely feel like automated supply replenishment happening in the background.

Amazon and Home Automation Infrastructure

In a certain sense, Amazon’s hardware strategy for the home is “boring.” Today, the company announced a clock, a microwave, a microphone, and speakers.

None of these products is going to set the world on fire by itself. But rather, they’re each a piece of the overall puzzle of building a system of unified home infrastructure that connects the hardware we see and touch every day with intelligent services that hold the data we need for daily life.

Today’s announcements are a clear indication that Amazon’s strategy is to build the nervous system that powers the home, and to build at-least-demonstration-quality hardware (or much better in some instances) in a variety of categories to accelerate the pace of innovation in and growth of the systems it wants to power.

A Subscription Services Future

Over 100 million people around the world subscribe to Amazon Prime today.  Millions more likely subscribe to Amazon Music Unlimited. And more are trying FreeTime Unlimited, Prime Channels, Audible, Kindle Unlimited, Pantry/Fresh, and other less-well-known subscription services that Amazon offers every day.

In fact, Amazon has created a subscription service around millions of consumable products it sells. Almonds? Subscribe & Save. Diapers? Subscribe & Save. OTC medicine? Subscribe & Save.

Amazon’s Dash Replenishment Service already re-orders supplies for your home (or business) when it detects supplies are low. (Why order potato chips when your smart potato chip container can automatically keep supply levels above desired thresholds for you.)

As more Alexa-connected devices are deployed in the home (and car), Amazon can provide more varied and sophisticated home services. For example, home security and automated appliance maintenance, just to name a couple related to products announced today.

And with those services comes increasing (and likely higher-margin) recurring subscription revenue. In some sense, selling toilet paper was just step one. (Though we believe Amazon could have improved e-commerce margins in the future as well as private label grows, but will probably just keep prices low.)

Amazon’s product announcements today:

  1. Echo Dot (3rd generation)
  2. Echo Show (2nd generation)
  3. Echo Plus (2nd generation)
  4. Echo Input
  5. Echo Link
  6. Echo Link Amp
  7. Echo Sub
  8. Echo Wall Clock
  9. Echo Auto
  10. Amazon Smart Plug
  11. AmazonBasics Microwave
  12. Ring Stick Up Cam
  13. FireTV Recast
  14. Alexa Connect Kit
  15. Alexa Guard, Local Voice Control, and More Alexa Features
  16. Alexa Presentation Language
  17. Alexa Smart Screen Device SDK

Amazon Releases Alexa Skills Kit SDK for Python

Per popular developer request, Amazon has been working on building an officially-supported Python SDK for ASK. The Alexa tools development team released a beta version back in June. Now, the team has announced that the ASK SDK for Python is generally available:

As we shared when we launched the beta version of the SDK, our goal is to reduce the amount of code you need to write to process Alexa requests and responses and to handle other common skill tasks. You can use the following key features:

  • Request Handling. Request handling in the SDK makes it easy for you to invoke the right code when Alexa sends you a request. You can write a single handler for multiple Alexa intents, or invoke different handlers based on nearly any request attribute. The ASK SDK for Python also introduces flexible handler registration, allowing you to use either decorators or traditional class-based implementations of handler features.
  • Response Building. You can deliver responses to your customers that include text-to-speech, audio and video streams, and cards and other visual elements. Customers will receive one or more of these elements depending on what device they are using. Using the SDK, you can build responses that include all of these elements.
  • Attribute Management. You can store and retrieve information at different scopes using attributes in the SDK. Attributes allow you to keep track of what happened so far, and to use this information to determine what happens next. You can define attributes that persist for a single request, for a single customer session, or for the lifetime of your skill.
  • Alexa API Calls. You can call nearly any Alexa API from within your skill logic using service clients in the SDK. The service clients automatically inject relevant endpoint and authentication-token information on your behalf.

ASK SDKs are also available for Node.js and Java.

Upcoming Alexa Dev Days to be Held in Montreal, Tokyo, Mexico City, and 3 Stops in Europe

Amazon’s Alexa developer education/evangelism teams have been traveling the world this year holding “Alexa Dev Days” to explain the fundamental concepts of how Alexa development works, and to help developers get their feet wet making Alexa skills.

In Q4 2018, Alexa Dev Days will be held in 6 cities around the world:

  • October 4, 2018: Montreal, Canada
  • October 12-13, 2018: Tokyo, Japan
  • November 7-8, 2018: Mexico City, Mexico
  • November 20, 2018: Paris, France
  • December 5, 2018: Milan, Italy
  • December 11, 2018: Madrid, Spain

Alexa Dev Days are a good opportunity for developers to meet other developers in their area interested in building voice apps. The Alexa Skills Kit is a toolkit for starting with Alexa development. Educational resources from Amazon are also online here.

Amazon says that there are over 20,000 Alexa-enabled devices on the market today.

Estimate: Echo Devices Represented 30% of Global Smart Speaker Shipments in Q2 2018

New estimates published yesterday peg Amazon Echo smart speaker shipments at 30% of the overall global market in Q2 2018. Strategy Analytics proffers that the Echo Dot represented 18% of overall shipments, with the Echo representing 12%.

Meanwhile, estimates peg Google devices as taking 27% of the market, with Google Home Mini representing 20% (larger than the Echo Dot) and Google Home taking 7%. They pegged Alibaba’s Tmall Genie at another 7%, with the rest of the market taking 36%.

Our take:

This is a race for the future of controlling home automation systems. We view the deployment of smart speakers into homes and cars as highly strategic for both Amazon and Google. Smart speaker shipment volume is as much about distribution channels as it is services. Amazon and Google are both investing extremely heavily in the AI and ML to power more sophisticated services that these devices are a primary interface to.

Amazon Smart Plug and Echo Sub Leaked on

A day after reports that Amazon is working on several new Alexa-enabled devices, new additions to the Amazon smart home lineup of products have been apparently inadvertently posted and removed from Amazon’s UK store.

The first, Amazon Smart Plug, “works with Alexa to add voice control to any electrical socket,” per Pocket-lint. However, somewhat oddly, the price is listed at £95.00, which is several times higher than that of other smart plugs on the market today. We’d be surprised if it launched at that price.

The second, Amazon Echo Sub, is designed to be paired with another Echo device to achieve “down-firing, 100W deep bass sound through a 6″ woofer,” or two Echo devices “for rich left/right stereo sound,”  per Pocket-lint. It is listed for sale at £75.00, which seems more reasonable.

Our take:

  • Both are holes in the existing lineup of devices Amazon offers. In the smart home category, one could see Amazon getting into additional home controls like switches. In the audio category, Amazon could certainly improve the fidelity of the sound its devices produce for people who are sensitive to sound quality. Both products will pose challenges to competitors in these spaces.

Amazon is Reportedly Building a Microwave, Amp, and More

CNBC’s Eugene Kim just posted a report that Amazon is reportedly working on new Alexa-enabled devices for the home and car, including a microwave. Per Kim:

Amazon is doubling down on its Alexa-powered devices, with plans to release at least 8 new voice-controlled hardware devices before the end of the year, CNBC has learned.

The devices include, among others, a microwave oven, an amplifier, a receiver, a subwoofer, and an in-car gadget, people familiar with the matter said.

Our take:

  • We believe home appliances will be a major area of emphasis for Amazon as it increasingly builds out its home automation ecosystem. Amazon already makes a variety of Alexa-enabled hardware devices for the home, and is expanding into home automation and security through its Ring and Blink acquisitions. Currently, GE sells an Alexa-enabled microwave on Amazon, but Amazon should be able to achieve more seamless integration by building it directly.
  • We also believe that car appliances will be a major area of emphasis for Amazon. Logistically, there is so much opportunity in the car for voice-powered services to thrive.
  • Improving its lineup of smart audio hardware offerings also makes sense for Amazon. Currently, that need is filled by firms like Sonos, which sells the Alexa-enabled Sonos One. Amazon has not exactly targeted audiophiles with its current lineup of Echo devices.
  • Amazon is also working with home building partners to create “Amazon Experience Centers” – model homes with Alexa integrations (currently in US with Lennar and India with Embassy Edge). There could be an opportunity to sell homes stacked with Amazon goods that would create higher barriers to switching for homebuyers and give Amazon large B2B sales channels.