Alexa’s real competition is still your phone screen

One of the big issues we've been tracking for a few years now is Amazon's various attempts to make Alexa useful outside your home. Amazon has a very good value proposition for customers inside their homes: Echo speakers are excellent for music, timers and others in the kitchen and smart controls.

Amazon clearly has the ambition to make Alexa the leading platform for environmental computing. But to do that, you need more ubiquity than you can achieve right now. That is one reason why Amazon was so excited to announce a partnership with GM to make Alexa available on those cars. It is also a reason why I was surprised to see that the company was not announcing any updates to the Echo Auto.

But the most obvious way to do this is to be the default assistant on the phones. Amazon will probably never get there, because Apple won't allow it, on the one hand. On Android, you can change our default Google assistant to Alexa, but the number of customers who realize that it is possible is small and the number that probably does is even smaller.

I would like to say that the telephone problem is Alexa's biggest problem, but it is not. It is simply the easiest explanation as to why any third-party technology is bad: without deep system-level access, third-party accessories and ecosystems end up failing on phones all the time. Alexa on phones is often more capable than it gets credit, but it's still not as good or as integrated as Google Assistant or even Siri.

Blaming closed ecosystems is too simplistic. Actually, here is an egg and chicken problem. Let's call chicken the lack of platform level access on the phones. The egg is that Alexa is often funny outside the home. Our review of Echo Auto exposes it: Alexa sends him regularly on irritating and circular paths of discussion when he is just trying to do something.

Actually, it's possible to make Alexa something useful in the car or even when you're walking down the street, but you have to work a little. You have to put more of your life online in the hands of Alexa, and right now the Alexa ecosystem cannot handle as much as Apple or Google. Alexa is very good at smart home devices, lists and some other domains, but she feels very disconnected from the rest of the things in her digital life: her email, calendar, messages and everything else.

So, while can connect a lot of that, how many people really live that "Alexa Life" fully? Whatever the number, it is probably not enough to start a virtuous cycle of Alexa use away from home.

You may be familiar with the original "Siri Problem", in which you would try it several times and Siri would fail completely, so you would give it up. It took Siri years to overcome that problem, and somehow it still suffers. Siri is not great, but I think it is better than his reputation for many of the simple things that people ask for.

I think the same type of problem applies to Alexa outside the home, just solving it will be doubly difficult due to the platform access problem.

All of which is a very long preamble to talk about hardware products that I personally found most intriguing at the Amazon event. While Echo speakers, especially Echo Studio, are likely to be the most popular things in the coming year, I think Echo Buds, Echo Frames and the Echo Loop ring may be more important for Amazon's future. [19659011] Don't get me wrong: the "Day1" tag on the frames and the loop are a sign that these are beta products. They are only by invitation and will probably not be as great to use. I tried the Loop several times and I was not very impressed.

In addition, you must be a particular type of person to want to use slightly silly-looking accessories like the Frame or the Loop. If so, it is likely to be the type of person who is also more likely to go through the effort it takes to live that Alexa Life. If so, you are the ideal person for Amazon to learn. The Frames and the Loop are market studies disguised as consumer products.

But the Echo Buds are somewhat different: they are really mass market and really competitive with other wireless headphones. They have an aggressive price (some might say predator), have many features and are of higher quality than many first-generation Amazon products. We'll have to do a complete review to really judge them, but it's hard not to see them as an effort to get you to use more Alexa.

Maybe. There are many other Bluetooth headphones in the world that are already compatible with Alexa and do not look exactly like a threat to Siri or Google. Even if the Echo Buds prove to be very popular, I suspect they will only add a small increase to the general use of Alexa. However, Amazon will see what people are willing to ask Alexa while traveling, and will use it to build more features in the future, just as it has done with the Echo speakers in your home.

The real Alexa competition outside the home is not Google Assistant or Siri. It's your thumbs and the screen you touch with them. If Amazon can make you talk to your headphones and not take your phone out of your pocket only once or twice a day, that's a marginal victory for Alexa.

On the other hand, if Amazon's hardware efforts have taught us something over the years, it has been that the company knows how to build a business with reduced margins.

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