Tough impressions of the Amazon Echo from regular people

I really like my Amazon Echo, and I think that voice assistants are a big part of the next wave of computing, but that does not seem to be as universal a feeling as one might gather just by reading tech blogs. I like my Echo because it can answer some simple questions and give me some basic information whenever I want it. As the Echo (and Google Home like it) is still pretty new, niche tech at the moment, I’m always interested to hear what non tech-nerds think about this.

Last week it was announced that Amazon was buying Whole Foods, and I was wondering to myself how many retail locations Whole Foods, and now Amazon, has. I asked Alexa, and before it could even get an answer out, my wife commented:

Why do you even bother? It doesn’t know anything.

Now we have own an Echo since November 2016, so we have some experience with this device, but the fact that her default expectation when asking Alexa a question is that she will not know the answer is not a great look for the Echo. Again, this is something we’ve had for months, and we both use everyday.

When I pushed my wife for clarification she said that Alexa is good for really basic things like “turn on the lights” and “set a 45 minute timer”, but she’s not “smart” by any means. She’d rather ask Siri the question or type the question into Google because both will at least have a chance of getting the right answer.

Next up was my dad. He’s a techy guy, and tends to be an early adopter of new tech and has talked to me about getting some smart lights and switches for the house so he can better set up timers for when he and my mom are out of town. His birthday is coming up and I was considering the idea of getting him an Echo or Home as a gift. We visited him for Father’s Day this weekend and I innocently asked him what he thought about the Echo.

He told me there was no way in hell he was going to put one of those in his house. “A speaker that’s recoding me all the time??? I don’t think so!”

I asked if Amazon’s promise that they were only recording you when you say the trigger word and he said that doesn’t really fill him with confidence. He doesn’t trust Amazon, and he doesn’t trust Google to keep his privacy. He brought up the case when law enforcement was trying to get audio logs from someone’s Echo, and the recent instance of tons of NSA hacking tools leaking online. Even if Amazon isn’t using the Echo to spy on me, how can I know that someone can’t use one of these hacking tools to start recording everyone’s Echo.”

I couldn’t argue with him too much, as the Echo probably is one of the least secure computers in my house, but I was still surprised by his response to even the idea of an Echo in his house.

Out of curiosity I asked him if he was more interested in Apple’s upcoming HomePod that also has a microphone in it. He said he was, in large part because it was made by Apple, and Apple at least cares a little about his privacy.

I don’t know how illustrative of the wider impression of these voice assistant cylinders in the world, but it was interesting to hear 2 people who are very much into tech say the Echo:

  1. Is too stupid to be trusted to do much more than set timers and give the weather
  2. Is an insecure device that could be used to spy on anyone with the flip of a switch.

Can voice assistants displace smartphones as the most important piece of tech in your life?

I recently learned that it's dangerous to suggest that Google Assistant isn't quite as mind-blowingly amazing as some suggest. I stand by my results in that test, as well as in my day to day usage of the products. It's clear we're still in very early days of these products and they're all simply different levels of bad.

So putting the entire "which voice assistant is best" debate aside, what are we thinking the long term goals for these voice assistants? I listened to a very good discussion of Alexa as an operating system on the latest episode of the Exponent podcast where the hosts talked about how Amazon is running away with this market. It was a good, smart discussion, but I was struck by how strongly the hosts seemed to suggest this was "the next big thing" as if it's going to take over the smartphone as the most important tech in people's lives.

I don't know how much I buy that at this point, and a big part of this is with the public's general disinterest in voice assistants to this point. Siri has been around since the iPhone 4s in 2011 and it's not something I almost ever see people use when I'm out in the world. I occasionally see people dictation text messages, but that's it. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've seen people ask Siri to do something for them or ask it a question on one hand.

It's even worse for Google Home/Assistant, as I can't think of a single time I have seen someone use it in public…ever. I work in a building full of developers, where the Android to iOS ratio is probably 4:1, and I have never seen any of them use Google's assistant. We talk tech all the time, and it still never comes up as a conversation.

Which brings us to Alexa, Amazon's assistant, which seems to be doing very well for itself. I own an Echo Dot and use Alexa every day. She's useful and does some things really, really well, but again I don't hear people talking about how much they enjoy their Echos and how "you must get one!" I hear this a lot in tech circles, but I don't see it in my day-to-day.

This general non-existence of voice assistants in my day-to-day life is making me question how much this is one of those things the tech community is trying to make happen by willing it into existence (3D TVs), rather than creating something that people actually want. I tend to think that it is indeed something people want, but the tech is so underwhelming right now that people just don't care yet. It's still a punch line to most people.

All of which makes me less optimistic about these as something that can displace the smart phone as the center of your digital life. People of all stripes were gushing over the iPhone when it was revealed in 2007. It didn't matter if you were a nerd who lives for tech, or someone who is more mainstream and only uses the tech that actually makes their life better, everyone wanted an iPhone. The reason people didn't all jump on at once was because it was hella expensive ($599 on contract!) and was exclusive of Cingular in the US and few other carriers worldwide. Sure it didn't have a few things like MMS and Exchange support, but as a product it was stunning. Its sales numbers skyrocketed by expanding who could buy one over the next few years.

Meanwhile the Amazon Echo is available from the biggest retailer in the world for $49 and is advertised every single time you load This space may have a bright future, and I sincerely hope it does because they're great. I love my Echo and find it incredibly useful, but I don't think it's more than an accessory. Much like my Apple Watch, I have no illusions of this taking over my life, it's just another piece of the puzzle. My iPhone and MacBook Pro are the centers of my digital life in early 2017, with the Apple Watch and Amazon Echo playing important, but (if you'll allow the pun) assistant roles.

If voice recognition can get better much faster than it has, or if these assistants can parse out much more complex requests than they can now, then I may change my tune, but I think the advantages smartphones bring to the table (visuals, direct manipulation, speed, and more) make them far more compelling for most tasks for the foreseeable future.