Amazon's move into wearables, and what it means

Stuart Elmes


Amazon has always been greedy, and as it moved from selling books to dominating eCommerce, it has consistently focused on ambitious growth strategies. From Whole Foods to television to its ever-increasing variety of own-brand products, the company has attempted to have a finger in every pie, and it has consistently succeeded in conquering new markets. But its forays into the mobile marketplace have consistently ended in failure. The Fire phone flamed out spectacularly, the battery-powered Alexa speaker has been discontinued, and the Alexa plug-in for cars still has limited availability. But Amazon is ready to take another plunge into the mobile market, as they prepare to launch Alexa enabled wireless earbuds this fall.

Why Bother?

For Amazon, this move is an attempt to counteract the built-in advantages Apple and Google hold in having a captive market for their digital assistants. Apple controls the operating systems and phone hardware of millions of iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch users. Google has access to a giant market of users whose phones operate with the Android system. This offers these companies a massive user base for Siri and Google Assistant voice technology. As many analysts are concluding that voice-shopping and eCommerce are poised for massive growth in the next few years, Amazon is looking for a way to keep Alexa users loyal as voice-based shopping and computing go mobile.

The success of Amazon’s Echo smart speakers has surprised many industry insiders, and has shown that voice search and shopping have great allure with the public. But as the majority of transactions in eCommerce shift from desktop to mobile devices, Amazon is at risk of being left behind if their voice technology can’t be used on the go. Wireless Alexa enabled earbuds could be the solution for taking the popular AI enabled assistant out of the house and into the wider world.

How Will It Work?

Sources close to Amazon’s Lab126 hardware division report that the earbud project is an extremely high priority initiative at the company. The headphones themselves will fit inside the ear without clips, and Amazon is looking to offer higher audio quality than Apple’s AirPods. According to Bloomberg, the earbuds will allow consumers to order goods through voice commands, play music, and access weather and other information without pulling out their phones. Saying “Alexa” will summon the popular digital assistant, and “physical gesture controls such as tapping” will allow users to change songs and control volume, as well as answering and disconnecting calls.   

Amazon has a history of undercutting its competitors when it comes to pricing hardware, and we’d expect this trend to continue when their earbuds drop. With Apple’s AirPods selling for $159 to $199 US, we would expect consumers to jump at the chance to buy a similar product at a significantly lower price. If the earbuds are successful, they’ll allow Amazon to nimbly hop into the mobile voice market, and continue to steer customers into their eCommerce channels and collect their precious data. As AirPods have been a hit with consumers, and their sales have helped Apple offset slowing sales of the iPhone, Amazon’s foray into the market seems to be well-timed. But there are some potential roadblocks in Amazon’s way.

What Could Go Wrong?

Google's Pixel Earbuds are a cautionary tale for Amazon’s design team. Launched to great fanfare in late 2017, the product never took off due to a mixture of horrible reviews, clumsy interfaces (the voice-activated technology couldn’t work with a lot of apps), and a flimsy charging case which was difficult to use. Their marketing focused on the instant translation feature, but early adopters soon found that it only worked with 2 sets of Google Pixel phones and earbuds, and that even then the Assistant was just using the Google Translate app, and playing the results out loud. Voice technology has come a long way in the interval, and Amazon is betting that the public is now ready to embrace it.

Another obstacle for Amazon to overcome is the company’s lack of a phone or operating system to pair their earbuds with. They won’t have built-in cellular connectivity, which necessitates working with Apple and Google to run their Alexa and earbud apps on iOS and Android. Bloomberg describes this as a “strategic headache” for the Seattle based behemoth, and it will require them to cede some of the built-in eCommerce advantages that Alexa has offered them. Amazon is used to controlling its data and sales platforms, but compromise will be necessary for them to carve out a piece of the mobile voice technology pie.

The Digital Shopping Revolution Marches On

Amazon’s commitment to launching voice-enabled earbuds is yet another illustration of where the big 3 tech companies are guiding us. The fact that they’re deeply committed to compromising with competitors to sell headphones at a loss tells us they are betting that the future of eCommerce will involve voice shopping. Although the technology hasn’t caught on with consumers as quickly as some anticipated, the fact that Apple, Amazon and Google are still deeply invested in pursuing innovation and ironing out the kinks is evidence that broader adoption is just around the corner. For retailers and brands, it’s time to get a head start on a new way of shopping that will soon be too convenient to resist! If you’re looking to work with an experienced voice marketing partner, don’t hesitate to contact Adimo today.