Amazon’s Echo smart speakers and Alexa virtual assistant are infringing on your smartphone’s territory—and it’s no accident. Amazon is expanding the capabilities of its Alexa-enabled products in a bid to slowly win a bigger place in our smartphone-centric world.
This week, at its Re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, Amazon announced a few important additions. Starting Wednesday, third-party Alexa apps can alert users with notifications. And next year, apps also will gain the ability to identify multiple users in a household by voice in order to customize experiences for each individual.
The former ability—notifications—is a big one for the Echo ecosystem. Until now, using an Amazon Echo product has been a passive experience. The device sits quietly until you wake it with a command. For the first time, Echo products can draw your attention when there’s breaking news, a notification from a family member, or a weather alert (The Washington Post, family location app Life360, and AccuWeather are among the first to test out this feature).
It works like this: When you get a notification, your Echo product will emit a chime and then a yellow light will ring the top of your Echo, Echo Dot, or Echo Show. You can then ask, “Alexa, what did I miss?” or “Alexa, what are my notifications?” and she will speak them back to you. In this way, you can stay up to date on what’s happening in your world without isolating yourself in front of a smartphone screen.
As for voice identification, Amazon first announced this feature back in October, and third-party apps can begin employing it early next year. This will allow apps to figure out who is speaking when they summon Alexa and then pull up the content that’s relevant to them. This is particularly useful when it comes to playing music or pulling up to-do lists or calendar events, which could vary from household member to household member.
These updates may sound small, but they’re not insignificant. They’re part of a slow, deliberate push to make Amazon Alexa technology the logical evolution out of our dependence on smartphones. Like how the smartphone made accessing information on desktop computers more convenient, voice-enabled home assistants like Alexa could do the same for the information we currently rely on our smartphones for.
“We’re trying to get people away from all the personal electronics and create more of a family, communal experience,” Miriam Daniel, Amazon’s head of product management for Alexa, said in an interview with Fast Company. “So you’re not just looking down into your individual phones, and you’re actually collaborating with your family members.”
This push began when Amazon enabled third-party skills (questions apps can answer or tasks they can accomplish) in late 2015. The platform now boasts more than 10,000 skills. While it’s no App Store, it has integrations with many popular apps, services, and games, including Uber, Jeopardy!, and Starbucks. Then, largely this year, Amazon made a big expansion to its Echo product line: It added options with different sizes and two models that include screens. It also is allowing other hardware manufacturers to integrate Alexa into their products. In the latter case, for example, you can even get Alexa in your car with the Garmin Speak.
Even without an Alexa product, Android and iOS phone owners can also talk to Alexa within the Amazon shopping app, where you can make shopping-related requests (naturally) but also control smart home products or ask about the weather. Amazon is also reportedly working to integrate its virtual assistant into upcoming Android handsets as well. (Amazon did attempt to build its own smartphone in the past, but it never did as well as its other hardware products, such as its Kindle e-readers and Echo hardware.)
It’s worth talking more specifically about the two Echo models with screens—the Spot and the Show. These products start to blur the line between using a smartphone and using a smart speaker. On these models, you can stream a feed from your home security camera, look at photos or videos, and read short news summaries instead of having them spoken by Alexa. And the Amazon Echo Look, while screen-less, still includes a camera.
Communication seems like one of the last major smartphone functions the Echo hasn’t begun to tackle, but even there, you can use Echo speakers (or the Amazon app) to act as an intercom system. Still, it’s unlikely the Echo will take on all the capabilities of a smartphone, such as photo editing and sharing. If you’ve got to stare at its small screen for more than a minute or two, that defeats the point of the “communal experience” Daniel mentioned. However, it can offload a lot of quick, tedious, or productivity-related phone functions.
Amazon certainly could have gone other directions with Alexa and its Echo products. Like Apple’s upcoming HomePod, the company could have focused more on high-end audio and music performance with its Echo speakers. It could also have focused the devices more as members of the smart home space—hubs for controlling the other connected tech and appliances in your home. And like Apple did with Siri at the start, Amazon could have kept Alexa closed to third-party app integration and controlled the environment itself.
Instead, Amazon has built out the Alexa empire into a companion to your smartphone experience and, soon, a largely screen-less replacement for many of the functions we’ve come to rely upon them for. There’s growing backlash against our smartphone obsession, which one MIT psychologist likened to the obesity epidemic. But Amazon’s solution, with the updates rolling out today, satisfies our need for connectivity and instant access to information without the anti-social negatives of smartphone use. Amazon has been sneakily building up to this point, but now it’s clear: Alexa is far more than just an assistant.