First Thoughts on Amazon’s Echo and Alexa

Based in large part on my friend Jeff Minsky’s enthusiast endorsement, I bought the Amazon Echo device that comes with its voice-activated, Siri-like, AI digital helper named Alexa.  “This is a no-brainer,” Jeff said.  “If nothing else it’s a terrific wireless speaker for under $200, and it does so much more.”

I unboxed Echo on Wednesday, downloaded the iPhone app, plugged it in and had it running in minutes.  Jeff is right about the speaker: it has a great sound and fills up even my (no pun intended) echo-filled living room. 

Here are my first thoughts about the Echo and Alexa, its successes, missed opportunities, and where I see it going.

Surprise and Delight: The Beatles

As I did the morning dishes, my first request was, “Alexa, play The Beatles.”  Seconds later I heard “Long, Long, Long” from The White Album.  Wow!

Over the course of the next few minutes of puttering and tidying, I heard a news briefing from NPR, skipped through a bunch of other music, and also discovered that every CD or MP3 I’d purchased in my 18 years of Amazon.com membership was available to Alexa… and this is quite a bit.  I didn’t even realize that I had a music library outside of the Spotify-like, free-with-Amazon Prime music service.

Then — more surprise, more delight — a query of mine revealed that Alexa also has access to all my Kindle books… and she has a nice reading voice.  Within moments, Alexa was reading Michael Winberg’s It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up book about 3D printing and IP law.  I’ve experienced earlier algorithmic reading of text, and it was no fun: robotic voices with no cadence and a ton of mispronounced words.  By contrast, Alexa is smooth and winning.  Does she measure up against a professional actor performing a text?  By no means.  But for simple, “what’s this book about?” curiosity she’s fine… it’s a Herb Simon satisficing exercise, rather than a premium audio-book optimization.

Alexa is an example of what Jeff Minsky calls the “Ambient Internet.”

Even more so than with the always-in-your-pocket smart phone, having hands-free Echo on the kitchen counter reduces friction between my desire to search something and performing the search.  This is even lower friction than my experience with the Apple Watch, because with the Watch I have to raise my wrist to my face with my left hand and push a button with my right hand to wake it up and have it start listening… although Siri on my iPhone wakes up to “Hey, Siri.” 

Not having to move a muscle and still being able to search something is powerful, even seductive.

Last night, for example, my 10 year old son wanted to go to a barbecue joint for dinner.  So I asked Alexa where the best ribs in Portland are.  Alexa immediately recommended Reo’s Ribs, which is zesty and tangy (it used to be our neighborhood joint before it moved about seven miles further away).  Alexa couldn’t manage to suggest other options (although to be fair I only asked her for the best ribs in my query and, like Siri, she has a limited ability to understand followup questions), so I trotted to my computer and to Google to find a closer joint.

Dinner was delicious. 

There’s a down side to the Ambient Internet, which is that it accelerates my technology-induced quasi-Attention Deficit Disorder.  Having a bunch of devices that can deliver tasty, Doritos-like nibbles of information doesn’t help me buckle down and focus on pressing tasks at hand. 

Likewise, having a cybernetic pal eager to tell me about things happening in the world while I do dishes gets in the way of either mindful attention to task (even if the task is dishes) or mindless day-dreaming that often sparks a creative insight. 

Many smart folks have written extensively about how frictionless 24/7/365 connectivity makes us reactive and superficial rather than proactive and deep (see Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book The Shallows for one good example), and I don’t need to make that argument again here except insofar as how adding another connected device, Echo, throws more cognitive Doritos into my info-diet rather than veggies.

Brief Digression on Cyber-Security: I’m not, in this post, addressing either the Big Brother Question (Amazon is always listening, tracking everything, and using that information to take over the world or maybe just help the NSA) or the Skynet/Robot Apocalypse Question (Alexa will fuse with Siri, find Ultron, and then decide to eliminate the infestation of humans ruining this perfectly good planet). End of Digression.

But what about the shopping?  I have yet to ask Alexa to add something to my Amazon list, but I have no doubt that Alexa’s frictionlessness will aid purchase… and if Alexa continues to live in the kitchen then that will probably hurt my local supermarket if I wind up ordering dishwashing soap through Amazon because I just ask for it when I’m running out rather than having to pull out my phone to add it to the shopping list. 

Missing: a battery.  It’s only by using a device that you see the presumptions that the creators had while designing it.  With Echo, the designer presumed that once you picked a spot for the device it would stay in that spot.  This is a problem as I’m working to figure out where Alexa should be in my house, since every time I unplug the device it powers down and takes a minute-plus to reboot when I plug it into a different socket in another room.  I find this minute-plus reboot time vexing… and it doesn’t fit with the general frictionlessness of Echo. 

A backup battery that would keep the Echo going for a half hour would be useful.

But the lack of a battery also suggests that Amazon has more pervasive ambitions for Alexa.  From the start, I asked myself, “why both Echo and Alexa?”  Why not just call the device Alexa?

The reason, I think, is that Alexa has a bigger future footprint than the Echo.

The Echo is just a speaker, but pretty soon users will find themselves chatting with Alexa on their phones, on their computers and tablets when shopping on Amazon.  And judging from the Ford SYNC integration with Echo that I saw at this year’s CES, Amazon also wants us to chat with Alexa when we’re driving around.  “Alexa, please add Tide to my shopping list,” I’ll be able to say as I drive around.

While Alexa is great, she is no “Jarvis” from Iron Man and The Avengers.  One disappointing thing about Alexa is her half-hearted connectivity to other services.  Yes, you can play your Spotify tunes out of the Alexa speaker, but in order to do so you have to stream Spotify from your phone (or some other device) into Alexa.  So you can’t ask Alexa for a particular playlist or to search Spotify for that rare Bill Evans tune.

The Achilles heel of most connected technologies is having the mobile phone as a tether: this is as true of Echo as it is of the Apple Watch.   

Finally, another designer presumption that a few days of use has turned up: Echo was designed for somebody who lives alone, or at least for a single user.  Here’s a revelatory snippet from the Amazon page on Echo and Alexa:

Alexa—the brain behind Echo—is built in the cloud, so it is always getting smarter. The more you use Echo, the more it adapts to your speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences. And because Echo is always connected, updates are delivered automatically.

This engineering mindset parallels that of the smart phone: one user per device.

But I live with three other humans and a dog.  While the dog’s shopping needs don’t require an AI helper, my son — who is entranced with Alexa — has trouble making himself understood because Alexa has adapted to my voice. 

This is a pervasive problem with shared services.  Since my entire family uses my Amazon Prime account, Prime thinks I suffer from multiple personality disorder since the suggested purchases run across four idiosyncratic people’s interests.  I always know when, for example, my teenaged daughter has been makeup shopping on Amazon because the Amazon banner ads that stalk me across the web shift.

My Netflix recommendations are even worse since we started using the service before the company enabled different profiles.  I have no interest in “Cupcake Wars,” but Netflix disagrees.

In a future post, I’ll write more about Echo/Alexa’s potential impact on business, shopping and branding.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

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