Meet My New Best Friend: Amazon’s Alexa

Posted 22 February By PlugAdminOtherNo Comments

You’ve probably received Amazon’s Echo as a Christmas gift or heard your friend rave about it but you’re still not sure what it is? We’re here today to provide you with a full guide on this device, the reason for its success, and its future (and enormous) potential.

What is it

Amazon’s Echo/Tap/Dot are hands-free smart speakers that are controlled by voice; they retail at $179.99, $129.99, and $49.99 respectively along with a free shipping option, and come in two colors: black and white. All three are integrated with a cloud-based voice assistant, Alexa. What makes Alexa stand out is her “always on” feature, meaning that instead of pressing a button, the user just needs to say the activation word and on come the seven internal microphones. She can answer questions, provide information on local businesses, read audio books and news, play radio, set a timer, add items to your shopping list, report traffic and weather, and report sports scores and schedules. She can even make purchases on Amazon! The voice control Amazon shopping feature, however, is solely available to prime members and on prime items; it also excludes clothing, shoes, watches, and jewelry for security reasons. But if you were to order an item, it would go something like this:

Step 1: Say the activation word, “Alexa,” so she starts listening

Step 2: State the item you want her to buy

Step 3: Wait for her to search for the item and dictate the price back to you

Step 4: Confirm with a four-digit security code

In addition, Alexa has skills, or “third-party integration applications,” that she can natively work with. The most frequently used ones are Spotify, Uber, and Domino’s Pizza and some of the most interesting ones include IFTTT, Yonomi, and Muzzley. Amazon actively welcomes more integration partners and opens its API to any company or individual that wants to pull up a chair! By simply adding a few lines of code, you can have your very own add-on and Alexa will be able to understand your command. There are currently 8,000 skills and more are added each week. Watch a video of what she’s like in action by clicking here!

Limitations

By now, Alexa must be starting to seem like a device out of a sci-fi movie. The truth is that it kind of is! Dave Limp, senior vice president at Amazon, admitted that the inspiration behind Echo was indeed LCARS from Star Trek. The name Alexa, however, derived shortening Library of Alexandria, one of the largest and most significant libraries in the ancient world.

While seemingly perfect, Alexa is far from Google or Alexandria. In addition to poor design and aesthetic appeal, Alexa has functional limitations: 1) she still can’t answer a decent number of queries, 2) the sound quality is worse than similarly priced speakers, 3) the device is not wireless and must remain inconveniently plugged in at all times, 4) she can’t do two commands at the same time, you can’t simply say “play music and turn on the light,” instead, you would have to say “Alexa play music. Alexa turn on the light.” Similarly, the shopping list items have to be listed and added individually.

The biggest constraint, however, comes when you have several devices at your disposal. There is no option to synchronize multiple Echoes in order to perform the same function (i.e. play music at the same time). If placed at a short distance, several devices will most likely execute your command, unless each Echo has been assigned to one of four different pre-set activation words: “Alexa, Amazon, Echo, and Computer.” Even then, it is inconvenient to memorize which one is labeled which.

Reasons Behind Its Success

In an interview with Fortune magazine, Amazon’s senior vice president, Dave Limp, attributed Echo’s grand success to perfect timing — Alexa has two of most talked about tech trends, cloud-based operating system and artificial intelligence.

Echo’s sales have almost doubled from 2015 to 2016, “Amazon said on Tuesday that the diminutive Echo Dot has been the highest selling device on Amazon.com since November 1, with the standard Echo in the top four. All of this comes despite the device only being available in the US, the UK, and Germany.” The public loves Alexa as well, 67% of reviews on amazon are 5-star followed by 18% of 4-star. This is a huge gap for an IoT device. Some of the reviews read:

“Amazon did a fantastic job of creating this tubular info-training command center! The set up (after downloading the app to our iPhones) was quick, easy and very intuitive. The more you look over the app, the more you will realize a world of ‘skills’ that the unit is able to perform once they are turned on and you master the right sequence of keywords to initialize them. We’ve added things to shopping lists, while asking about the weather and our calendar of events and then asked Alexa to change the temp of our Nest thermostats in various parts of the house, simply by saying her name and then our commands, sometimes sitting in the living room or simply pass through – she is always there listening and ready. Even though we are fairly tech savvy and have phone, tablets and watches that can control devices, it’s HUGE to just ask for something and a pleasant voice setting it in motion.”

By Michael S on July 24, 2016

“We have been using Echo since April 2015. Prior to that time, my husband had been hospitalized for several weeks. He is currently wheelchair bound. We immediately installed the Hue bridge and lights as well as the WEMO outlet. With these, and dear, dear, Alexa, he has a great deal of control of his environment in ways that make him much more independent. Others might enjoy Echo for fun and convenience, but for him it is a lifeline! He has even had her turn the lights on in my bedroom when I didn’t hear him call.”

By 💝 Alex S on June 19, 2015

“Great sound. Great for playing music, or controlling your home. Don’t expect Alexa to answer any questions you have though. “sorry, I don’t know the answer” is a common response. Obviously google home is going to have great access to google but can’t Alexa at least TRY. Amazon needs to fix this lack of search response if I’m going to keep my echo and not switch to google home.”

on February 20, 2017

There is a lot of potential for this device, but simply its not there yet. There is too much to try to remember when giving commands that you stock up on all of these skills and end up not using it because you can’t remember the prompts. I’ve asked it a number of questions and it comes back saying it doesn’t have an answer, but when I use Google assistant on my android, I get the answer – Amazon needs to work on that if it wants to compete with AI like Siri/Google Assistant. I do enjoy the simple conveniences of setting a timer, weather, traffic, etc., but there is a lot of work needed here.”

on February 20, 2017

Future Implications

The market for similar IoT devices is booming, it exhibits heavy investment and research efforts, little competition, and a lot of media buzz. If you want a personalized AI assistant today, your only choices are Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Google Home (not sold on amazon.com) with Google rapidly trying to up their AI game and both Apple and Microsoft are continuously working on Siri and Cortana too.

Amazon is nowhere near done with Alexa. Companies are already partnering up to work with Alexa, LG is integrating her into their refrigerators, GE incorporated her into their LED lamp. In addition, she has huge potential for the car industry where being able to execute a command hands-free is most crucial. But that is not it, “Amazon is actually trying to do something incredibly ambitious: create a third major computing platform that will take its place alongside the PC and the smartphone in our homes,” says Timothy Lee in an article for Vex. Alexa is on her way to dominating the screen-less, personal assistant market.

Jeff Bezos, in his interview with GeekWire, spoke about Alexa’s potential in the healthcare industry, at hospitals and nursing homes. He also highlighted that unlike Siri, Alexa is a cloud-based system, meaning that she is continuously being improved remotely. He also spoke to most common issues the public has with Alexa, privacy: “One of the great issues of our age is going to be privacy. People don’t think about it, but if you have a mobile phone in your pocket, it has microphones on it, and those microphones are under software control. I would posit to you that just about any nation-state in the world worth its salt can put a computer virus on your phone anytime they want, and listen to anything you say on your smartphone.” To guard against that, Amazon Echo has a hard-wired mute button. “That mute button is connected to the microphone with analog electronics. … You’d have to come physically tamper with the device, you couldn’t do it with a computer virus,” he said.

Alexa has an undeniable potential to disrupt the whole technology industry and ultimately have a constant presence in our daily lives. While we’re not there yet, it is a very interesting time to watch it unfold!

Written by: Aliya Serikpayeva


Articles Researched to Support This Post:

“Its Been a Good Year for the Amazon Echo” http://www.businessinsider.com/amazon-echo-sales-figures-stats-chart-2016-12

“Amazon Echo Is A $199 Connected Speaker Packing An Always-On Siri-Style Assistant” https://techcrunch.com/2014/11/06/amazon-echo/

“Amazon Echo sales reach 3M units as consumer awareness grows, research firm says” http://www.geekwire.com/2016/report-amazon-sold-3-million-echo-smart-speakers-awareness-grows/

“Amazon Echo Is A $199 Connected Speaker Packing An Always-On Siri-Style Assistant” https://techcrunch.com/2014/11/06/amazon-echo/

“What Is Alexa? What Is the Amazon Echo, and Should You Get One? http://thewirecutter.com/reviews/what-is-alexa-what-is-the-amazon-echo-and-should-you-get-one/

Amazon Privacy Notice https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=468496&tag=thewire06-20&tag=thewire06-20

Amazon Customer Reviews https://www.amazon.com/Amazon-Echo-Bluetooth-Speaker-with-WiFi-Alexa/product-reviews/B00X4WHP5E/ref=cm_cr_dp_see_all_btm?ie=UTF8&reviewerType=avp_only_reviews&showViewpoints=1&sortBy=recent

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