Alexa

The overnight success years in the making that is the Amazon Echo is the topic of the month in technology circles. I purchased mine recently and joined the hundreds of thousands of others who have done the same. This makes Alexa the second AI-powered bot that's found its way into my life - Amy Ingram (from x.ai) has been helping manage my calendar and schedule my meetings for the better part of the past year. I bought he Echo out of curiosity more than anything else. The other voice controlled apps accessible on my devices - Siri and Google Now - haven’t delivered a clear use case for me. Naturally, my partner Emily initially dismissed it like the many other gadgets I’ve acquired that have been relegated to storage. Alexa is different though and I anticipate she’ll stick around awhile. Two weeks into the experience, I find myself asking her the time, weather forecast and occasionally to play NPR. That wall clock that we’ve been considering for our kitchen no longer feels as much of a priority.

I’ve read a few articles critical of the Echo’s lack of integration points, but I think they’ve done a nice job offering a wide assortment in the early days. Alexa integrates with five of the most popular music services, offers flash news briefings from the 10 news sources you probably care about, will tell you sports scores of your favorite teams, give traffic updates, and connect with a number of smart home hubs. I have ours connected to our Ecobee smart thermostats and can adjust the temperature in any of our five rooms, though I don’t think this is one of her killer features - I find the marginal utility low. Alexa doesn’t yet connect with Sonos or Lutron, two systems we use, but both these services offer attractive iOS and Android apps which do the trick and should make future integration possible.

The success of Echo raises questions about the role of voice control in our lives. Siri and other smartphone-based voice controllers have largely fallen flat. Why? I think it’s because we’re moving away from a voice-based communication culture. Text-based messaging has garnered far more of the communication market share over the past decade at the expense of voice. I don’t expect this trend to reverse itself. Like Uber which spurred the on-demand everything economy, the marginal utility of the service delivered via an app needs to be 10x higher than the status quo to trigger behavioral change. For the vast majority of on-demand apps, this simply isn’t true and I would say the same thing about voice-controlled handset software until now.

Voice control in the home may be different because it’s time not spent looking down at a device, and that’s a win in my book. For many of us, voice is the default form of communication at home so interacting with a bot via voice feels more natural. I like the simple use cases Alexa has delivered so far and see more opportunities for integration across more platforms. For instance, “turn all the lights off” or “play The National’s most recent album” would be nice features I could see using. What features would you like to see added to Alexa?

By Josh Guttman

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