Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Hey Alexa

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, January 10, 2017 --  

Fusing voice commands and a stationary assistant may prove as compelling to the next decade as the touchscreen smartphone was to the last.

If there were any doubt as to the success of Amazon's Echo personal assistant, it was put to rest at last week's Consumer Electronics Show. It seemed that anybody and everybody with a booth offered integration with Amazon's home-controlling voice activated speaker. The coattails-riding accessory machine was reminiscent of the thousands of iPhone case manufacturers at shows in earlier years.

Comparisons of Amazon's Echo to the iPhone are also interesting because of the complete lack of a competing product from Apple, despite the company having a head start by years. Back in 2011, in the waning days of Steve Jobs tenure at the company, Apple acquired and integrated a voice activated digital assistant named Siri into its iPhone line. Three years later, in the summer of 2014, Apple released a technology called HomeKit, intended to make the iPhone a hub for the connected home. Using HomeKit, CEO Tim Cook told us, an iPhone user could control the lights, stereo, thermostat and many other parts of their home with the touch of the screen.

While many manufacturers announced support for HomeKit, the system was far from a revolutionary success. What's different about Amazon's approach is that a stationary appliance called the Echo that is always listening for the "Hey, Alexa" trigger to try and do your bidding. This makes a Start Trek-like conversation with a computer possible at any time without the key obstacle of first having to find and wake up your phone.

Can such a small thing really be such a big deal? It would seem so. Consider that touchscreen devices like the Palm Pilot and iPAQ existed long before the iPhone, but the design of the iPhone was first to eschew older interfaces in favor of exclusive use of the touchscreen. That shift proved a runaway success much like Alexa's digital assistant does with always-on voice control. As Echo owner's have learned, many simple tasks are much easier to summon via voice control than touch.

Maddeningly for Apple, the company never put the two technologies of voice control and home control together. A laser-like focus on its iPhone success, first announced 10 years ago, led the company to continue to design both home automation and voice control with the iPhone as a hub. But given that phones are inherently personal devices, they are ill-suited to home control. Homes are shared places where several family members and even guests may want to ask the digital assistant to do things, too. Rumors suggest that Apple is in the process of building its own always-on voice-activated home controller. But given that it has been 18 months since the release of the Echo, and over six months since the release of a similar Google Home competitor, it may be hard for Apple to catch up with the momentum of others.

When originally released in June of 2015, critics panned the Amazon Echo as a just another way to buy more stuff you don't need on Amazon. And indeed, Echo probably gained a foothold at Amazon as a way to do exactly that. Post-holiday news stories abound about small children ordering products from Amazon after picking up how it works. If even a small numbers of adults use it for the same purpose it will clearly add to Amazon's bottom line.

But the secondary use of home control and to allow simple voice activated access to information like news, weather and basic facts is proving to resonate with consumers. Many people still see the Echo as a fad, and it may prove to be exactly that. Of course, many people said the same thing about the iPhone ten years ago.

Full Disclosure: David owns shares in Apple, a Google Home digital assistant and is a member of Amazon Prime.