Alexa's world

Amazon's voice assistant has thoroughly wormed herself into our lives, and much of the culture beyond, says Farhad Manjoo

  • Published 12.03.18

My wife and I were just settling into bed one night when Alexa, the other woman in my life, decided to make herself heard. Without being summoned, the Amazon Echo Dot at my bedside - one of the half-dozen devices that Alexa inhabits in our house - lit up its spectral blue ring, as if it had heard its triggering wake word, "Alexa". But instead of offering to help, the voice assistant began to wail.

"Huh," I said to my wife when it was over. She said something less kind. But here's what's really strange: By the next morning, we had forgotten all about it.

It is a measure of how thoroughly Amazon's voice assistant has wormed herself into our lives, and into much of the culture beyond, that I never considered unplugging her after the scream. Instead I chalked the incident up to a harmless bug - one of the many mysteries of living with an artificial intelligence life form that can be summoned at a breath. (An Amazon representative offered to investigate, but said the company had never heard of such a thing happening before and didn't think Alexa was even capable of making such a sound.)

When Amazon unveiled Alexa three and a half years ago, it was roundly jeered. Now, against all expectations, even though she's sometimes unpredictable and unpolished, Alexa is here to stay. And that may be underplaying it; people in tech have recently begun to talk about Alexa as being more than just part of a hit gadget.

Something bigger is afoot. Alexa has the best shot of becoming the third great consumer computing platform of this decade - next to iOS and Android, a computing service so ubiquitous that it sets a foundation for much of the rest of what happens in tech.

It is not a sure path. Amazon could screw this up, and rivals like Google have many cards to play to curb Alexa's rise. Amazon's strategy - a mix between Google's plan for Android and Apple's for the iPhone - is also unusual. And there are lingering social concerns about voice assistants and, as I discovered, their sometimes creepy possibilities. How many people, really, are willing to let an always-on device in their house?

Despite this, Alexa's ubiquity is a plausible enough future that it is worth seriously pondering. In an effort to do so, I recently dived headlong into Alexa's world. I tried just about every Alexa gadget I could get my hands on - including many not made by Amazon, such as an Alexa-enabled pickup truck - to see what life with her will be like once she's everywhere.

What I found was a mess - many non-Amazon Alexa devices aren't ready for prime time - but an inviting one. Late-night shrieks notwithstanding, one day very soon, Alexa or something like it will be everywhere - and computing will be better for it.

"We had a spectacular holiday," Dave Limp, Amazon's senior vice- president of devices and services, said when I called to chat about the assistant's future. Amazon is famously cagey about sales numbers, but Limp braved a slight disclosure: "We've said we've sold tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices, but I can assure you that last year we also sold tens of millions of just Echo devices. At that scale, it's safe to now call this a category."

Limp's distinction is confusing but important. At Amazon, Alexa lives in two places. She is part of a device category, the Echo smart speaker - which now comes in a variety of permutations, from the $49 Echo Dot to the screen-bearing Echo Show, which sells for $229. But like Google's Android operating system, Alexa is also a piece of software that Amazon makes available for free for other device makers to put into their products. At least 50 devices are now powered by Alexa, and more keep coming. They include dozens of Echo-like smart speakers, home thermostats, light fixtures, dashboard cameras, smartphones, headphones, a smoke alarm and a very strange robot.

Alexa is spreading so quickly that even Amazon can't keep track of it. Limp said that as he wander-ed the floor at the CES electronics trade show in Las Vegas this year, even he was surprised by the number of different Alexa devices. "To me, that says the strategy is working," he said.

There are some costs to this strategy, which prizes speed over polish. The universe of Alexa-enabled products is shaggy. Many third-party devices get low reviews on Amazon. Many don't include some of Alexa's key functions - I tested devices that don't let you set reminders, one of the main reasons to use Alexa. Technical limitations also prevent non-Amazon devices from taking advantage of some of Alexa's best new features, like the ability to call phones or other Alexas. Limp said Amazon was aiming to fix these limitations, but conceded that its strategy necessarily led to some low-end devices.

There are advantages to Alexa's model for ubiquity. Imagine if you could gain access to your smartphone on just about any screen you encountered. Move from your phone to your TV to your laptop to your car, and wherever you went, you'd find all your apps, contacts and data just there, accessible through the same interface.

That model isn't really possible for phones. But because Alexa runs in the cloud, it allows for a wondrously device-agnostic experience. Alexa on my Echo is the same as Alexa on my TV is the same as Alexa on my Sonos speaker.

And it's the same even on devices not in your home. Ford - the first of several carmakers to offer Alexa integration - lent me an F-150 pickup outfitted with Alexa. The experience was joyously boring: I called up Alexa while barrelling down the highway, and although she was slower to respond than at home, she worked just the same.

It was the best showcase of the possibilities of always-on voice computing. In the future, wherever you go, you can expect to talk to a computer that knows you, one that can get stuff done for you without any hassle.