Bradley Metrock and the Alexa Conference: Alexa As a Game Changer for Search and Publishing

February 2, 2017

Bradley Metrock, Score Publishing, organized The Alexa Conference held in January 2017. More than 60 attendees shared technical and business insights about Amazon’s voice-search enabled device. The conference recognized the opportunity Amazon’s innovative product represents. Keyword search traditionally has been dependent on a keyboard. Alexa changes the nature of information access. An Alexa owner can talk to a device which is about the size of a can of vegetables. Alexa is poised to nudge the world of information access and applications in new directions.

Bradley Metrock, Score Publishing, organized The Alexa Conference in January 2017. An expanded event is in the works.

After hearing a positive review of the conference, its speakers, and the programming event, I spoke with Mr. Metrock. The full text of the interview appears below:

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.

Delighted to do it.

What path did you follow to arrive at The Alexa Conference?

A somewhat surprising one. My background is in business, but I’ve always been keenly interested in publishing.  It’s fascinating how the world of publishing has been ripped open by technology, allowing us as a society to shed gatekeepers and hear more stories from more people than we ever would have otherwise. In 2013, when I was in the process of selling a business, I discovered Apple’s iBooks Author software.  I couldn’t understand why more people weren’t talking about it.  It was such a gift: the ability to create next-generation, interactive and multimedia digital books that could be sold on Apple hardware (iPads at first, then later iPhones) all for no cost.  The software was completely free. I formed Score Publishing, published books using iBooks Author, and organized the annual iBooks Author Conference which all sorts of people attend from all over the world.  It’s been fun.

Where does Alexa fit into your interest in publishing books?

I approached Alexa at first from the standpoint of digital content creators: What do they need to get out of this tool?  And out of the Internet of Things, in general?

Do you have an answer to this question about using Alexa as an authoring tool?

No, not yet. My long-term ambition with Alexa is to produce authoring tools for it that allow content creators to leverage their content effectively in an audio-only environment.  Not just audio books, but the creation of voice-enabled applications around published works, from books to white papers and so forth.

What is needed to make it easy for an author or developer to leverage Amazon’s remarkable device and ecosystem?

That’s a good question. The first step toward doing that is learning Alexa myself and incorporating it into what Score Publishing already does.  To that end, we decided to put on the first-ever Alexa Conference. We experienced directly the incredible value in bringing communities of people together on the iBooks Author side of things.  We saw the same exact things with the just-completed Alexa Conference and can’t wait to do it again next January. In fact, we’re already planning it.

What were some of the takeaways for you from The Alexa Conference?

I think Amazon has opened an entirely new world with Alexa that perhaps even they didn’t fully appreciate at first.  Alexa puts voice search in the home. But far from just new ways to buy products or services, Alexa allows every computing interface that exists today to be re-imagined with greater efficiency, while also creating greater accessibility to content than ever before.  My eyes were opened in a big way.

Can you give me an example?

I can try, but it’s hard for me to even begin to explain, being relatively new to the technology and the ideas that Alexa (and IoT in general) bring to the table, but a good place to start is the summary from the first Alexa Conference.  This report gives a taste of the topics and ideas covered.

One of the most interesting events at The Alexa Conference was the programming of an Alexa skill. You called it the Alexathon, right?

Yes, and it was fascinating to watch the participants at work and then experience what they created in less than 24 hours. Developers are red-hot for this technology and are eager to explore its full potential.  They understand these are the early days, just like it was a decade ago with iOS apps for the iPad and iPhone. They see, in my opinion, a combination of opportunity and necessity in being part of it all.

What was the winning Alexa skill?

The winner was Xander Morrison, the Digital Community Coordinator at Sony Music’s Provident Label Group. It took Morrison just 24 hours to create his Nashville Tour Guide as an Alexa skill.

How does Alexa intersect with publishing?

I think the publishing industry doesn’t really understand the implications of the internet of things on its business. Companies like HarperCollins, whom I invited to be part of The Alexa Conference, sent Jolene Barto to the conference. She described how her company built an Alexa skill for one of the company’s most important markets. Her remarks sparked a lively question-and-answer session. HarperColllins seems to be one of the more proactive publishers in the Alexa space at this time.

Is it game over for Google and the other companies offering Alexa-type products and services?

No. I think it is the dawn of the voice enabled application era. Right now, it looks as if Alexa has a clear lead. But the Internet of Things is a very dynamic technology trend. The winner will probably be the company which creates tools.

What do you mean tools?

Software and system that make it easy for digital content to flow into it and be re-purposed in new and exciting ways.

Is this an opportunity for you and Score Publishing?

Yes. As I mentioned earlier, this is an area I want Score Publishing involved in. We may create some of the tools to help bridge the gap for content creators. Many authors and publishers have no interest in learning how to code. Alexa and the competing products do not make it easy for authors and publishers to get their content into the ecosystem all the same.

Google has a competing product and recently updated it. What’s your view of Google with regard to Alexa?

Google is definitely in the fray with Apple Siri and Microsoft Cortana. Also, there are several other less well known competitors. Amazon’s primary advantage is how early Amazon opened up Alexa to third-party development.  Alexa’s other advantages include the sheer marketing reach of Amazon. I learned at the conference that Amazon has done a great job in promoting promoting its hardware, from the Echo, Tap, and Dot. Now the the Amazon Kindle has Alexa baked into the device. Amazon has, in contrast to Apple and Google, demonstrated its willingness to spend significant dollars to advertise both Alexa and Alexa-enabled hardware.

However, Google has something Amazon doesn’t–search data.  And Apple has the dominant mobile device.  So there are advantages these other companies can bring to bear in competing in this space.  I want to point out that Amazon has its shopping data, and its Alexa team will find ways to to leverage its consumer behavior data as Alexa evolves over time.

What are your ideas for The Alexa Conference 2018?

Yes. We will be having another The Alexa Conference in January 2018. The event will be held in Nashville, Tennessee. We want to expand the program. We hope to feature topic and industry-specific sub-tracks as well. If your readers want to sign up, we have Super Early Bird passes available now. There is a limited supply of these. We expect to announce more information in the next month or so.

How can a person inte4reserted in The Alexa Conference and Score Publishing contact you?

We have a number of de-centralized websites such as the iBooks Author Conference, the iBooks Author Universe (a free online learning resource for iBooks Author digital publishing) and now, the Alexa Conference.  Following us on Twitter at @iBAConference and @AlexaConf is a great idea to stay in the know on either technology, and to reach me, people can email me directly at Bradley@AlexaConference.com.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

Stephen E. Arnold, February 2, 2017

Voice Search: An Amazon and Google Dust Up

January 26, 2017

I read “Amazon and Google Fight Crucial Battle over Voice Recognition.” I like the idea that Amazon and Google are macho brawlers. I think of folks who code as warriors. Hey, just because some programmers wear their Comicon costumes to work in Mountain View and Seattle, some may believe that code masters are wimps. Obviously they are not. The voice focused programmers are tough, tough dudes and dudettes.

I learned from a “real” British newspaper that two Viking-inspired warrior cults are locked in a battle. The fate of the voice search world hangs in the balance. Why is this dust up covered in more depth on Entertainment Tonight or the talking head “real” news television programs.

I learned:

The retail giant has a threatening lead over its rival with the Echo and Alexa, as questions remain over how the search engine can turn voice technology into revenue.

What? If there is a battle, it seems that Amazon has a “threatening lead.” How will Google respond? Online advertising? New products like the Pixel which, in some areas, is not available due to production and logistics issues?

No. Here’s the scoop from the Fleet Street experts:

The risk to Google is that at the moment, almost everyone starting a general search at home begins at Google’s home page on a PC or phone. That leads to a results page topped by text adverts – which help generate about 90% of Google’s revenue, and probably more of its profits. But if people begin searching or ordering goods via an Echo, bypassing Google, that ad revenue will fall. And Google has cause to be uncomfortable. The shift from desktop to mobile saw the average number of searches per person fall as people moved to dedicated apps; Google responded by adding more ads to both desktop and search pages, juicing revenues. A shift that cut out the desktop in favor of voice-oriented search, or no search at all, would imperil its lucrative revenue stream.

Do I detect a bit of glee in this passage? Google is responding in what is presented as a somewhat predictable way:

Google’s natural reaction is to have its own voice-driven home system, in Home. But that poses a difficulty, illustrated by the problems it claims to solve. At the device’s launch, one presenter from the company explained how it could speak the answer to questions such as “how do you get wine stains out of a rug?” Most people would pose that question on a PC or mobile, and the results page would offer a series of paid-for ads. On Home, you just get the answer – without ads.

Hasn’t Google read “The Art of War” which advises:

“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”

My hunch is that this “real” news write up is designed to poke the soft underbelly of Googzilla. That sounds like a great idea. Try this with your Alexa, “Alexa, how do I hassle Google?”

Stephen E Arnold, January 26, 2017