A quick and dirty guide to ambient computing (& who's winning so far)

Apple, Amazon and Google all have their eyes on the same prize - your entire life
Ambient computing: A quick guide

If you're an Apple investor who still has doubts about the ability of the Apple Watch Series 2, AirPods and now the new HomePod smart speaker to outsell the iPhone, the new message is this: don't panic. Because ambient computing is on its way and 10 devices are better than one.

Similar ideas have been referred to as virtual assistants, always on tech and persistent computing (which is also something very different) over the past few years. But we like this 'ambient computing' phrase from investment bank UBS - and it nicely describes a lot of the new developments we're seeing from Apple, Amazon and Google for 2017 so let's stick to it.

What is ambient computing?

A quick and dirty guide to ambient computing (& who's winning so far)

"The ambient paradigm consists of many devices providing different input/output methods that can be flexibly utilised depending on the situation (sitting, walking, running, driving)," UBS analysts told investors in early October 2016 to try to allay their fears about the direction of Apple.

"Collectively these devices offer the capability of earlier products and more delivered as a seamless user experience. Devices become extensions of one another rather than discreet, computing platforms. It is an expression of what Tim Cook has described as, 'iOS everywhere'."

In other words, we're talking about a joined up personal and smart home tech system of different devices that know you and your habits, become more and more invisible and - crucially - are always on and all around you. A network of wearables and connected gadgets that doesn't always rely on your phone. If we stick with the Apple example, this would mean your Apple Watch, AirPods, HomePod and other accessories all talking to each other, as well as an iPhone or iPad.

Examples of how we'd use such a system include sending and receiving messages and calls, getting directions, searching the web, monitoring your health and fitness, controlling gadgets and appliances at home. Generally just getting shit done in a smart, efficient way.

A quick and dirty guide to ambient computing (& who's winning so far)

The end goal is to change how we interact with computers. Instead of seeking out information, it's presented to us. Instead of opening apps and scrolling through homescreens, these assistants know what we want.

So ambient computing isn't just the virtual, often voice controlled assistant, it's also relies on the cloud and smart home standards and security. And it's true that smart home automation is another big area - the idea that our homes, cars and gadget talk to each other and respond to what we need without us even being aware.

Yet this particular kind of interaction might be the key, the "glue" that holds the whole thing together and brings us into the equation. When we're ready to talk to all our gadgets, that is.

Why now?

ambient computing

Ambient computing, or the ambient paradigm, is having a moment. We've seen two categories really pushing this idea of a voice controlled army of gadgets in the past six months: hearables and smart home hubs.

The latest new device in hearables are the AirPods, Apple's dorky looking wireless earbuds that let you access Siri with one tap. There's also the Here One from Doppler Labs - which allows you to access Google Voice, Siri, Alexa or Cortana amongst a bunch of other futuristic features - Bragi's just announced Dash Pro (support for Alexa coming down the line) and the Sony Xperia Ear smart earbud which gives you the choice of Xperia Agent or Google Voice.

With hearables, the entry of Apple, Samsung, Sony and the like comes a year or two after Motorola, Bragi and Doppler Labs began experimenting with what a smart earbud could do. It's also not coincidental that Apple removed the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 - we might not be ready but the tech industry is definitely ready for us to go wireless. And if we're going wireless, they might as well put a computer in our ear, or at least the mic to access one.

ambient computing

In smart home, Apple is the latest tech giant to show its smart home cards with the announcement of its HomePod smart speaker, which it's billing as an Amazon Echo crossed with a Sonos speaker. The idea is that you mainly interact with the device via Siri voice controls and it will be able to do everything an Echo or Google Home can do plus some extra music features when it lands in December.

Meanwhile, Amazon is building on the success of the ever improving Echo, second gen Echo Dot and - at this year's CES - Alexa in everything with the Echo Show, which adds a screen to the mix. Google is stacking its smart, voice controlled speaker Home with similar features while Microsoft is hoping its not too late with Cortana-powered speakers, which offer Skype calls and Microsoft Office integration, like the Harman Kardon Invoke.

And let's not forget virtual assistants like Siri on the Apple Watch, Google Assistant on Android Wear and Alexa on the CoWatch. Smartwatches overall aren't selling as much as smartphones, which can also access assistants but the Apple Watch at least is selling in substantial numbers.

The ground work for this smart home bonanza was done mainly by Amazon in proving that enough people are comfortable buying and using an always on, always listening device in their homes. The Echo also encouraged more purchases of other smart home kit, a very good sign. Now the conversation is less about individual gadgets and more about which smart home platform to choose and build up over time.

Apple vs Google vs Amazon

ambient computing

Because, who else? As we've mentioned, companies like Sony and Microsoft have their own ambient assistance software in the form of Agent and Cortana but we're yet to see a breakout device on bodies or in homes. For now, the main players are Apple, Google and Amazon. Or Siri, Assistant and Alexa. And what's interesting is that each one is currently ahead in a different area.

Apple is winning on wearable tech. It has just leapfrogged over Fitbit in sales and with the sensor, hardware and UI improvements of the Series 2 and watchOS 3, the Apple Watch should find its way onto many more wrists than the original. As for AirPods, the early signs are that they're doing pretty well though I'm sure plenty of people are waiting for version 2.

Now until effectively this week there was a bigger problem with Siri in that many people gave up on it. But the promise of HomePod coming in December, its Apple Home app (which hooks up to the Watch, iPhone, iPad and Apple TV) and "works with" program should be enough to push iPhone users to give the ambient Apple Home a go.

ambient computing

Google was, and still is, the one to beat in terms of its voice recognition, natural language processing, artificial intelligence and knowledge graph technologies. It's Google, it has its software on Android phones, Android Wear watches, baked into Google search on desktop, it's handles more languages than anyone else, the list goes on.

Sure, Google has Nest devices - and works with Nest - but so far, Google has struggled to find that one killer product to get people hooked on what is now Google Assistant. Google Home has a shot.

Onto Amazon. It already has a voice product in people's homes - the Echo - and plenty of interest in what it's doing next. It has the Dash buttons too and also its Fire TV stick, an Apple TV and Chromecast competitor, too, as well as Alexa devices from many more companies now including GE, LG, Triby, August and Lenovo.

What it doesn't have is the wearable tech or mobile element. The indie CoWatch smartwatch runs Alexa and is now on sale (though Cronologics was acquired by Google last year) plus Blocks has hinted at running Alexa on its modular smartwatch too. This could be the next piece of the puzzle for Amazon.

In the next twelve months, even the next six months, it will be incredibly interesting to see how Apple, Amazon and Google pursue the gaps in their ambient computing systems. Releasing more devices to extend existing products. Wooing new users with their assistant's superpowers. And convincing partners, investors and ultimately us that we can entrust our entire digital and physical lives to one company.

Are you Team Siri, Team Alexa or Team Google Assistant? Let us know in the comments.

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