One of the major themes we've been following for a few years has been Amazon's various attempts to make Alexa useful outside of your home. Amazon has a very good price for customers in their homes: Echo speakers are great for music, timers and the like in the kitchen and smart home controls.
Amazon clearly has ambitions to make Alexa the leading platform for ambient computing. But to do that, it needs more omnipresence than it can achieve now. That is one of the reasons that Amazon was so excited to announce a partnership with GM to make Alexa available for those cars. It is also a reason why I was surprised to see the company not announcing updates for the Echo Auto.
But the most obvious way to do that is to be the standard assistant on phones. Amazon will probably never be there, for example because Apple does not allow it. On Android you can switch our standard assistant from Google to Alexa, but the number of customers who realize that this is possible is small and the number that is likely to do so is even smaller.
I would like to say that the phone problem is the biggest problem with Alexa, but it is not. It's simply the simplest explanation for why third-party technology is bad: without deep system-level access, third-party accessories and ecosystems always end up on phones. Alexa on phones is often in better shape than what the credit gets – but it is still not nearly as good nor integrated as the Google Assistant or even Siri.
Just blaming closed ecosystems is too simplistic. There is actually a chicken and egg problem here. Let us call the chicken the lack of platform-level access on telephones. The egg is that Alexa is often comically bad outdoors. Our Echo Auto review explains it: Alexa regularly sends you to heady and circular discussion paths when you are just trying to get something done.
It is actually possible to make Alexa somewhat useful in the car or even when you walk in the street, but you have to work on it a bit. You have to put more of your online life in the hands of Alexa, and right now the Alexa ecosystem can't handle as much as Apple or Google. Alexa is very good at smart home gadgets, lists and a few other domains, but it feels very detached from the rest of the things in your digital life: your e-mail, calendar, messages and everything else.
So while you can connect a lot of that, how many people really, fully live that "Alexa Life?" Whatever the number, it is probably not enough to start a virtuous cycle of Alexa use outdoors.
You may be familiar with the original & # 39; Siri problem & # 39 ;, where you would try it a few times and Siri would fail completely, so you would give up. It took Siri years to correct that problem – and in some ways it still suffers. Siri isn't great, but I think it's better than his reputation for many simple things that people ask for.
I think the same kind of problem applies to Alexa outside the home, only solving it will be doubly difficult due to the platform access problem.
All this is a very long introduction to talking about the hardware products that I personally found most intriguing at the Amazon event. Although the Echo speakers – especially the Echo Studio – are probably the most popular in the coming year, I think the Echo Buds, the Echo Frames and the Echo Loop ring may be more important for the future of Amazon.
Don't get me wrong: the & # 39; Day1 & # 39; label on the Frames and the Loop are a sign that these are very many beta products. They are by invitation only and they probably won't be that great to use. I tried the Loop a few times and was not very impressed.
You also have to be a certain kind of person to wear light-looking accessories such as the frame or the loop. If you are, you are probably the type of person who also makes more effort to live that Alexa life. If so, you are the ideal person for Amazon to learn from. The Frames and the Loop are market research disguised as consumer products.
But the Echo Buds are something else: they are really mass market and really compete with other wireless earbuds. They are priced aggressively (according to some, perhaps predator), have many features and are of higher quality than many first-generation Amazon products. We need a full assessment to really assess them, but it's hard not to see them as an attempt to get your Alexa to use them more.
Could be. There are plenty of other Bluetooth headphones in the world that already support Alexa and they are not really seen as a threat to Siri or Google. Even if the Echo Buds turn out to be wildly popular, I suspect that they will only add a modest bump to the general use of Alexa. However, Amazon will see what people want to ask Alexa on the go and use that to build more features in the future – just like the Echo speakers in your home.
The real competition outside of Alexa is not the Google Assistant or Siri. It is your thumbs and the screen that you tap. If Amazon can get you to talk to your headphones and not take your phone out of your pocket once or twice a day, that is a marginal gain for Alexa.
On the other hand, if Amazon's hardware efforts have taught us something over the years, it is that the company knows how to build a business with thin margins.
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