If there is a reason for why Amazon has been thrashing its competitors in the home assistant market, it is because Google and Apple thought there was no need for such a device like the Amazon Echo. What is the point of a home fixture with an intelligent assistant like Amazon Alexa when smartphones exist?
The fact that an estimated 8 million people own an Echo as of 2017 shows that yes, such a device very much serves a purpose. And now instead of facing competition from Google and Apple in the home assistant market, Amazon seeks to strike back by integrating Alexa with phones. As CNET reports, Huawei Mate 9 owners “will get it first in an over-the-air update”, and it is available for iPhone users as well. Other Android users will eventually be able to install Alexa over their phones through the Google Play Store.
But while Amazon so far has been looked like an unstoppable juggernaut everywhere it goes, working with smartphones is one area that will be a major challenge. While Amazon can seamlessly integrate Alexa with its own technology in the Echo, integrating it with a phone made by a different company presents challenges. Unfortunately, the Alexa app is not the same as having an Echo in your pocket, though it offers plenty of useful features.
Missing key features
A key reason why the Echo works so well is because it is always listening, ready to jump and answer a spoken question from across the room. As Engadget points out, Amazon succeeded in getting the Echo understand human voice commands by working with third parties and only focusing on American English. Amazon thus solved a problem which other virtual assistants still struggle with.
However, Alexa pretty much loses this vocal and ease of use advantage on the smartphone. While Android and iPhone users can use Assistant and Siri pretty much instantly, Alexa users have to tap on the Huawei Alexa app first. You have to tap again every time the phone goes to sleep, meaning that you may have to tap every 30 seconds or so to keep the conversation going. And while Huawei’s microphones are adequate, they do not compare with the Echo.
Still, you eventually open up Alexa on your phone and it is pretty much Alexa. It can answer questions, play news broadcasts, give you weird jokes, and so on. But because Alexa is an app and not an integral part of the phone software like Siri is, its potential to interact with the rest of the phone is limited.
For example, Alexa cannot tell you your location because it is not hooked to your phone’s GPS, and thus cannot hail a cab or give you directions from where you are. Alexa also cannot perform other critical things such as setting an appointment or an alarm.
Siri and Google Assistant can perform these vital functions on their phones.
The importance of skills and shopping
Everything listed above may give the impression that the Alexa on a phone is just a pale imitator of Assistant and Siri. But Amazon has two important traits which show what Amazon wants Alexa to be.
The first important trait is Amazon Skills, of which there are now over 10,000 according to PC Magazine. Alexa may not be able to perform certain critical functions on a phone, but it has a wider variety ranging from reading the news to playing games or 20 Questions to coming up with creative insults. An Apple user could thus use Siri to hail a ride, and then use Alexa to pass the time while in the cab.
The second is shopping. You do need a separate app from Huawei Alexa or a backlit keyboard laptop, in order to shop on Amazon, but you can order from Amazon Prime using the Alexa voice app. Amazon’s primary goal with Alexa is to essentially turn it into the shopping app of choice for everyone. By putting Alexa in users’ pockets as well as their homes, Amazon will spread Alexa’s appeal among those who do not own an Echo.
Room for improvement
Amazon Alexa on the phone has plenty of interesting features, and the fact that Amazon is moving in on its competitors’ turf at all is a major victory. But Alexa on a phone does not possess the utility as it does with the Echo, and it is hard to see why people who already use Siri or Assistant will switch.
But there are plenty of people who are familiar using Amazon Echo, and they may well stick with Alexa out of familiarity and fondness for its wide variety of skills. A more likely scenario is that instead of competition, Alexa will complement Siri and Assistant, letting users perform a wider variety of functions. This represents a step forward in popularizing virtual assistants, but Alexa has work to do in integrating themselves within phones and becoming the assistant of choice.
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