Where are all the must-have Alexa skills?

Is it me or is Amazon's Alexa loaded with nothing but gimmicky skills? I like audio news streams as much as the next guy but where are all the amazing skills this platform should be offering by now? I wrote earlier about a use-case publishers and content consumers could get excited about but the capabilities I outlined then are still nowhere to be found.

My various Alexa devices are great at streaming music. The Echo Show I got for Christmas sits on my nightstand and randomly shows photos from my collection. It's a rather pricey, over-engineered picture viewer and alarm clock though. A few months ago I bought an in-car Alexa device but soon realized it doesn't add much value beyond what I already get from my phone's podcast app paired via Bluetooth.

Speaking of phones, the Alexa platform seems to be where the app stores were in the early days of both the iPhone and Android devices. Come to think of it, it's still pretty hard to find new, useful apps amidst all the clutter. If you're like most people, you have dozens of apps on your phone but you probably only use a few of them on any given day. At this point in the life of Alexa I thought we'd see at least one or two can't-live-without-it skills but I can't think of a single one.

I'm still extremely bullish on voice UIs and I believe the future is bright for publishers who are willing to transform their content for delivery on them. That process becomes a lot easier as the text-to-speech services continue improving, btw, and I recommend we continue experimenting with skills and capabilities.

I'm guilty of adding to the clutter as I'm working on a skill for an audio version of my website. Amazon makes it sounds simple enough but I ran into a snag about 10 minutes into the process. I've run out of time today but I'm going to see if I can troubleshoot and take my skill live soon. I encourage you to do the same; even if your new Alexa skill isn't a game-changer, it's important to immerse yourself in the process and stay on top of this important platform.


Managing book highlights and excerpts

In the pre-ebook era we didn't have a lot of options for managing book highlights and excerpts. They generally lived on your shelf and if you didn't have that book with you, well, you were out of luck

The 2007 launch of the Kindle platform dramatically expanded the capabilities for highlights and excerpts...sort of. You didn't have to carry all those books around anymore but your thoughts were pretty much trapped in the Amazon ecosystem.

Not much has changed on this front over the past 10+ years but there are other tools that can unlock your book thoughts and notes. I'm talking about Evernote and how I use it to manage my book notes.

When I start reading a book I immediately create a new note in Evernote with the book's title. I'm reading more print books than ebooks these days, but the same approach I'm about to describe can be used for either. When I find a page or section I want to highlight or create a note about, I simply use the camera option in Evernote on my phone, take a picture of that page and stick it in the book's Evernote entry.

The result is a set of excerpts and notes that travel with me on all my devices. Better yet, I can share those notes with friends or colleagues. In fact, I'm using this solution right now to collaborate and share thoughts on a book I'm reading with one of my co-workers.

Evernote has optical character recognition (OCR) built-in and I often take pictures of hand-written meeting notes to save digitally. Oddly enough, Evernote is almost always able to translate my awful handwriting but it often has a hard time recognizing printed words on a book page photo. It works better on the Mac than my Android phone but it's still hit and miss. The downside is that your book page photos often aren't searchable within Evernote and I'm hoping they fix this soon.

Despite that issue, Evernote is a terrific tool for managing and sharing your book highlights, excerpts and notes.


Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant: Where are VPAs leading the publishing industry?

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 11.19.34 AMMy daily hour+ commute to and from work enables me to take in a variety of podcasts, a bit of SiriusXM Radio and, more recently, some quality time with Google Assistant. The latter simply means I press and hold the home button on my Galaxy phone and say, "good morning." Google takes it from there, providing the local weather and news summaries from a variety of sources.

OK, that's not exactly ground-breaking, but what fascinates me is where virtual personal assistants (VPAs) like Google Assistant are leading the publishing industry.

Rather that the mostly one-way interactions I have with Google Assistant today, what if the dialogue looked more like this in the future?:

Me: Good morning.

Google Assistant: Good morning, Joe. The local temperature is...

Me: Let's skip the news. What are the new and noteworthy books in my favorite categories?

Google Assistant: There's a new biography about Leonardo da Vinci you'll want to know about. It's by Walter Isaacson, the author of the Steve Jobs book you liked so much. Would you like to hear the description?

Me: Yes.

Google Assistant: To write this biography Isaacson immersed himself in da Vinci’s 7,200 pages of notebooks, which these days are spread across the map...

Me: Didn't da Vinci spend a number of years in Florence?

Google Assistant: Yes, he was born nearby and spent 1466 through 1476 as an apprentice in the workshop of Andrea di Cion. You visited that part of Florence during the Italy vacation you and your wife Kelly took in September 2017.

Me: Please send the ebook sample to my Google Play account.

Google Assistant: OK, it's now in your library. Would you like me to read the sample to you?

Me: Yes.

That's more of a two-way conversation, encouraging more personalized discovery and consumption. But why does this have to be a solitary experience? Wouldn't it be cool if VPAs could become an extension of your social network, enabling you to experience and interact with content with others?

For example, let's say I get a couple of minutes in to today's Marketplace podcast from NPR and I realize the topic is something my good friend Paul and I often talk about. Rather than listening to it alone, I'd like to see if Paul is available to join me. I ask Google Assistant to ping my friend with this audio greeting: "Hey Paul, it's Joe...I'm about to listen to a Marketplace episode I think we'd both enjoy. Care to join me?"

He's got a few minutes, so he opts in and Google opens a three-way audio channel where the podcasts plays and Paul and I can pause it at any moment to share comments, all done via voice control. Each time one of us wants to say something to the other, the podcast pauses and the two of us are able to voice chat, comparing thoughts. When we're ready for it to start back up, we just tell Google to proceed.

This would be a nice, new way to experience a podcast with others, but how about doing the same for longer-form content, like a lecture or even a class recording? No matter where you and your friends are physically, you could use VPAs to interact with the content as a group.

If you haven't already done so, I encourage you to explore the world of Google Assistant, Alexa, et al. We're only scratching the surface of VPA potential today and these technologies can help us take the next steps in breaking free of the limitations with today's mostly container-based content model.


Amazon's Whole Foods acquisition is about so much more than groceries

Shopping-29647_1280Yes, the grocery business is huge. And while it's one of several industries Amazon hasn't yet dominated, there's something way more significant about their acquisition of Whole Foods.

This deal is about location, location, location. No, it's not just about having Amazon groceries in physical locations. This is about creating a more efficient gateway between consumers and Prime, ultimately driving more sales of all Prime-eligible products, not just groceries.

The efficiencies result from Amazon delivering products to Whole Foods, not your doorstep. If you like free two-day delivery today, how do you feel about free same-day pick-up of all those same products tomorrow? Amazon is already heading towards that model today, but it becomes much more economical for them to do so when the local Whole Foods replaces your home as the delivery location. Rather than having to manage all those individual packages going to all those different destinations, yours and all your neighbors' products make one simple trip from Amazon's local DC to your nearby Whole Foods.

Your 8AM order of two books, a bag of birdseed, running shoes from Zappos and a cordless drill is ready for pickup at Whole Foods by 3PM that same day, a convenient stop on your commute home. Oh, and because Amazon knows you're stopping by Whole Foods around 5:30 that evening, they'll gladly tell you about all the great dinner options you could whip up by adding on to your 8AM order.

An added bonus is you no longer have to worry about that Amazon box being stolen off your front porch. You can still get two-day free delivery to your home, but you'll often prefer the shorter delivery window, and package safeguarding, available via the Whole Foods option.

I, on the other hand, will have to wait a bit for this added benefit. Even though my hometown is about to open a new Ikea and a community eyesore, better known as Topgolf, Whole Foods still hasn't made it to Fishers, Indiana.


Which digital book format has the most growth potential?

Microphone-38120_1280The answer might surprise you…

Amazon’s Kindle format dominates the ebook market today and it’s easy to assume that will remain the case going forward. Despite that fact, I see a number of trends indicating the digital book space could be ripe for disruption.

Notice I use the term “digital book”, not “ebook.” That’s because the digital format with the most upside isn’t MOBI or EPUB. It’s audio.

Amazon also dominates the audio book space, of course, thanks to their ownership of both Audible and Brilliance Audio. Amazon’s audio book subsidiaries are built around yesterday’s business model though, and I believe technology and consumer habits have evolved to the point where a new business model will emerge.

Have you ever priced an audio book? Let’s use George Orwell’s 1984 as an example. Audible currently offers the audio version for $20.97 while Amazon sells the paperback for $11.42 and the Kindle edition for $9.99. There are exceptions, of course, but the audio format is typically the most expensive option.

What might happen if audio editions were priced at or below the print or Kindle editions? The recent trends in ebook sales might be a good indicator here. As ebook prices have increased over time (thank you, agency model), print has experienced a resurgence and ebook sales have flattened and even declined for some genres.

Next, consider the growing interest in podcasts, as described here. Two factors drive this trend shown above: convenience and laziness. Low-production YouTube videos have replaced how-to books on a variety of topics. It’s also a lot easier to watch or listen than read. I’m sure that last statement made quite a few of you bristle, but it’s true. Reading isn’t going away, but overall consumption could be dramatically increased if it weren’t for the painfully high price of your typical audio book.

Why are prices so high? The obvious culprit tends to be the professional talent (and additional time) required to create the audio format. But is it really critical to limit recordings to either the author or voice professionals? If you want to continue charging those high prices the answer is probably “yes.”

If you’re open to exploring other pricing models though, you’ll be inspired by the approach used by The Week. I recommend you subscribe or at least listen to a few of the podcasts created by The Week. You’ll quickly discover their editors and other staff members are the voice talent. The voices are clean and crisp, not robotic, and the finished product is terrific. Yes, these are free streams, but they give you a sense of what’s possible with a much lower investment.

Technology is opening new doors here as well. Remember the monotone, computer-generated audio of the 90’s? Text-to-speech has improved quite a bit over the years and will only get better over time. If you’re still not convinced, scan this related article and be sure to listen to some of the audio samples; it’s virtually impossible to distinguish the human-generated segments from the computer-generated ones.

Despite all this, why would publishers have any interest in seeing lower prices for audio formats? Because it represents an enormous opportunity to break the stranglehold Amazon currently has on all digital formats.

Imagine a world where publishers could establish a strong, direct-to-consumer (D2C) channel featuring audio. The D2C audio edition of 1984 could be computer-generated and sell for $9.99, the same price as the Kindle edition; but in this case, the publisher keeps 100% of the selling price, not whatever percentage they’re receiving from Amazon for the Kindle edition.

Are you worried that consumers will buy one audio copy and share it with all their friends? If so, please don’t fall back into that digital rights management (DRM) trap that only reinforces Amazon’s dominance. Rather, create a simple mobile app where all the purchased audio files live. Most publishers don’t realize it, but the fact that a reader’s Kindle files are buried in their app is more of a file-sharing deterrent than DRM itself. If you don’t believe me, ask a few of your friends if they even know how to retrieve their ebook files from their Kindle app, for example.

The opportunity here is huge, and not just for selling audio books directly. It’s a chance for publishers to forge a more meaningful, ongoing relationship with their customers. I’ve grown to love history books over the years, mostly ones about WWII and the civil war. I subscribe to a few publisher newsletters but I still sometimes overlook interesting new publications. Wouldn’t it be cool if audio samples of those new books could be sent directly to the app on my phone? I just set a few preferences and I’ll never miss another new title.

Today most publishers sell transactionally, one book at a time, to nameless/faceless consumers. The model I’m describing isn’t ideal for all publishers, but for ones with genre depth it represents a new approach where they could better serve their customers as well as take more control over their own destiny.