At the CES show this week a raft of appliance and home electronics makers said they have added Amazon’s voice-controlled virtual assistant, Alexa, to products ranging from TVs to robot vacuums. For non-techies, CES is the annual Las Vegas geek fest where these companies converge to show off their latest and greatest gizmos and features to more than 100,000 attendees.
Given the rush from third parties to support Alexa, it looks like Amazon’s virtual personal assistant has an early lead in the race to become the dominant hub of the connected home. That is one in which people communicate with their smart devices and their smart devices communicate with each other.
Alexa is similar to Apple iPhone’s Siri, except its focus has been Amazon (AMZN) Echo, a wireless home speaker. People can ask Alexa, via Echo, to tune in their favorite radio station, get the weather, and order paper towels—depending on the apps they have downloaded.
But—and this is key—some of these new Alexa-related products are independent of the Echo. A new LG smart refrigerator, as Engadget put it, is now “basically a really big Alexa,” that you can speak to order food. No Echo required.
That also means that if you buy the right gear, you can tell your TV to change the channel instead of using a remote. Or you can yell directions at your robot vacuum.
Amazon seems to have taken the lead in the connected home, considering the strong sales of Echo and all the third party vendors adopting its personal assistant partner, Alexa. Whether that lead will be too difficult for rivals like Lenovo’s new Personal Assistant, announced this week and due out May, or the similar Google Home, to overcome remains to be seen.
The new Lenovo device both competes with and partners with Amazon. Although it competes against Echo, it also comes with Alexa.
Of course there are varying opinions about Alexa’s usefulness, frustrating shortcomings, or even its threat to privacy. You have to wonder how much Amazon (or Google (GOOGL), Lenovo, or Apple (AAPL)) learn about your personal habits based on your interactions with their virtual personal assistants. The tradeoff for convenience is usually privacy after all.
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Ben Thompson, blogger for tech news site Stratechery, is a big fan of Alexa, which he calls Amazon’s operating system. For one thing, it’s very useful in the home, the one place where people aren’t necessarily glued to their phones.
Voice control is natural in when you are not in front of a computer, have your hands full, or are simply doing other things and don’t want to deal with a keyboard.
In his view, Alexa has been “remarkably efficient” since its public debut in June 2015. But Amazon went further by making it easy for outside software and hardware makers to connect their applications or products to Alexa. That’s why more Echo competitors, albeit none from Microsoft, (MSFT),Google (GOOGL), or Apple, are increasingly featuring Alexa.
That’s because other tech providers want their share of the growing number of Alexa users. For Amazon, the upside is that Alexa will help it sell more Amazon cloud-based services and also make it easier to purchase actual physical goods from Amazon.com.
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An unscientific survey of friends and family bear that out. Most use Alexa for simple stuff—setting alarms to wake up in the morning, choosing songs to play through Spotify, or making shopping lists. None of these people live in a particularly connected home, however. And whether they’ll see the need to put Alexa in charge of their refrigerators and TVs is anyone’s guess.
A popular, albeit anonymous blogger who writes about business technology going by the name Cloud Opinion, doesn’t think that Alexa will control our lives. In response to the Stratechery post, he says it’s a major problem that Alexa has trouble understanding people who speak English with accents. He also notes that for many tasks a plain old keyboard is faster and more accurate than talking to a speaker.
So, while he agrees that Echo will spawn “interesting toys for home, kids etc… It won’t be the next operating system that we all interact with in the future. Neither is it going to be a multi-billion dollar market.”
One friend, a tech geek who works for a major bank and therefore did not want to be quoted by name, owns multiple Echos, In short, he loves Alexa, but even he acknowledges there are many times when Alexa just doesn’t “get” what he’s asking. He then ends up raising his voice or rewording his query. Sometimes many, many times. This is not the optimal experience, he concedes. “And sometimes it scares the kids.”