Amazon’s gadget battle with Google could upend its Alexa allies

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TP-Link has been enjoying a very good run on Amazon.com. Two of the company’s Alexa-enabled smart plugs have dominated Amazon’s electric plugs best-seller list for most of this year, helping the Chinese manufacturer sell thousands of plugs.

Unfortunately for TP-Link, it’s about to get fresh competition — from Amazon itself. The e-commerce giant last month held a product launch event in Seattle, where it unveiled a long list of new devices including the Alexa-enabled Amazon Smart Plug. The plug goes on sale for $25 next week, a few bucks more than TP-Link’s plugs.

Along with the plug, Amazon in November will start selling the Alexa-enabled AmazonBasics Microwave, which will compete against a higher priced GE Appliances microwave. Amazon will sell the Echo Sub subwoofer next week, Echo Link later this year and Link Amp next year. They’ll go up against Sonos’ pricier Sub, Connect and Connect Amp.

These new Amazon devices serve as more examples of Amazon simultaneously cooperating with and competing against its partners as it creates more devices for its Alexa voice assistant. So far, this situation hasn’t resulted in Amazon’s buddies fleeing for the exit — in fact, the number of devices that work with Alexa surged to over 20,000 this year.

Watch this: Amazon’s devices chief on his vision for Alexa
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Amazon’s rush to build all these new Alexa devices is likely spurred on by its race against Google and its Google Assistant to gain supremacy in the new and potentially lucrative voice-assistant world. That heated competition could be forcing Amazon to step on a few of its partners’ toes as it tries to run ahead of the competition.

For now, Amazon’s Alexa is well ahead, with its Echo devices taking up 70 percent of the US smart speaker market, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. Google has been gaining fast, pulling in 24 percent. Google is expected to refresh its line of Google Home smart speakers with a product launch event of its own next week.

But as Amazon keeps building more stuff, it’s the smaller device makers that could get hobbled — or even squashed — as they’re forced to compete with Amazon on its home turf. The startup Nucleus became a cautionary tale for this scenario, after it created an Alexa-enabled touchscreen intercom that was elbowed out when Amazon created the competing Echo Show. While Nucleus’ fate is rare, customers could someday get fewer choices on Amazon’s website if the company pushes too far into its partners’ territory.

David Limp, Amazon’s hardware chief, had a different perspective on his company’s new gadgets, seeing several of them instead as blueprints for device makers on where Amazon would like to take Alexa.

“The plug for us is really to get a reference design out there for us of frustration-free setup,” Limp said, referring to Amazon’s new concept of making smart-home setup as easy as plugging in a new device. “We would expect the TP-Links of the world and the Wemos of the world, we hope that they follow along. … And if that means we’re not building a plug in a couple years, that’ll be great.”

On Amazon’s new audio equipment, he said: “I’m a big Sonos customer. And so I’d love to try to see them integrate Alexa. I think they will over time, and ours is just another choice to customers.”

echo-link-and-echo-link-amp-amazon-event-2
The new Echo Link, right, and Echo Link Amp.Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Amazon can also point to a long list of software supports and developer toolkits it provides hardware makers to help them create Alexa devices.

In addition to the microwave, plug and audio equipment, Amazon last month also revealed refreshed versions of its Echo Plus, Echo Show and Echo Dot, as well as a wall clock, DVR and auto gadget to bring Alexa to your car.

Sonos spokesman Dane Estes said his company’s business is “complementary to Amazon’s.” He added that Sonos is working on premium-tier sound systems that are open to a variety of streaming services as voice assistants, unlike Amazon’s focus on lower-priced gadgets that work mostly with Alexa.

TP-Link said in a statement that it offers a variety of smart-home products, including plugs, lighting and cameras. “As consumer demand for smart-home capabilities grows, we will continue to innovate in the category,” the company said.

Foxconn’s Wemo and Etekcity, which both make smart plugs, and Haier-owned GE Appliances didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Still, folks like TP-Link ought to be worried about Amazon moving into their territory, according to one industry watcher.

“Of course they should. They have to be,” said Stephen Baker, an NPD tech analyst.

Baker said Amazon is far from the only tech giant to start competing directly with its partners. Google did it with its Pixel phone and Chromebook, going up against device makers that rely on its Android and Chrome software. Microsoft did the same with its Surface line, going toe-to-toe with manufacturers that use Windows.

These manufacturers, especially the smaller ones, don’t have much choice in leaving the Alexa ecosystem, Baker said.

“If they don’t have a software platform to build on, they’re not going to sell anything,” he said. “So they have to find a way to work in there.”

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