Amazon’s Fire Phone may have been a surprisingly auspicious failure, I keep thinking as I watch the expansion of Alexa, the company’s cloud-based virtual assistant.
Artificial intelligence is the future, specifically, voice-controlled AI that allows you to interact with a multitude of apps and services without using a screen; that’s the point that Amazon underscored yesterday when it unveiled its newest hardware. But the event wasn’t really about hardware. It was all about extending Alexa, making "her" available in even more places.
Alexa is simultaneously amazing and terrifying
Of course, Amazon is not alone in this thinking. Other tech companies are making big advancements in consumer-facing artificial intelligence. The most familiar is Apple’s Siri. Microsoft has Cortana. There’s also Google Now, the super-smart intelligence layer on Android phones. However, all of these started out anchored to the smartphone. They require adoption of certain mobile operating systems, and in most cases still require people to be near something with a display.
Amazon’s Alexa does not. While we’ve all been busy looking down at our smartphones, Amazon has slowly been filling in the pieces of the smart home puzzle, the smart life puzzle. The original Echo is now a kind of spine for Alexa in the home; the Fire TV and Echo Dot are part of the peripheral nervous system; and the new portable Tap speaker is the first attempt at giving Alexa legs to roam. It’s simultaneously amazing, and terrifying (if you consider the security implications).
But all of this might not have happened if Amazon had been even marginally successful in the smartphone market. The company might have continued to push the phone, tried to convince developers to create for that platform, and eventually it might have pushed Alexa out on that, limiting the AI to a small sliver of the market.
People would have said, "Alexa is really cool, but it’s only available on the Fire Phone." Just like they said, when Microsoft first introduced Cortana on mobile, "Cortana is really cool, but it’s only available on Windows Phone." Maybe Alexa would have required interacting with screens. Maybe Alexa would be infuriating me while I’m in the car driving, because she would be asking five follow up questions when I say something as simple as "Call Mom" or "Directions to home."
Instead, Amazon introduced Alexa with the Echo. A "speaker." It appeared on the site one day, out of nowhere, after having been quietly worked on for years. It only did about a dozen different things at the time. But it was so easy. It required so little. You didn’t have to touch, or swipe, or charge. Soon enough, for people who went ahead and bought the thing, the wake word "Alexa" became synonymous with the speaker. Echo who? It’s Alexa. (Nobody renames their iPhone "Siri.") Amazon hasn’t said how many Echos it has sold to date, but some signs point to it being a sleeper hit: on Black Friday, it was the number one selling item over $100 on Amazon.com.
What if we were all saying, "Alexa is really cool, but it's only available on the Fire Phone"?
Alexa has attracted developers, too. Fifteen months after its initial launch, "she" now has at least 303 different skills. This includes reading books and podcasts. Or calling you an Uber. Or dimming your connected light bulbs. Or ordering you Dominos. Or controlling your thermostat. Or telling you a story about Batman.
Your smartphone can do all of that, too, of course. Or, to some extent, your wearable. But you often end up tapping on a display eventually, or opening up an app. There is still friction there, some of it intentional. Alexa isn’t perfect, she still stumbles with questions and commands, but she’s accessible. Failing at smartphones meant Amazon had to make Alexa work without screens and with any developers, and that means Alexa is good — all on its own.
Even so, with Amazon’s clear intent to make Alexa available in more places, why isn't the AI available on a smartphone, even if it’s not the failed Fire Phone? That part’s not clear, and Amazon has declined to answer when I’ve asked. Right now, the Alexa mobile app lets you do things like control settings, play music, and erase previous voice searches. But you can’t interact with Alexa. My guess is that it goes against Amazon’s current focus on display-free AI.
Maybe Amazon will activate Alexa on mobile at some point (or at least, do it on a phone and not on a Bluetooth speaker that needs to be tethered to a phone). Maybe it won’t. I would not be surprised if it did, just to cover the bases. But even if it did come to mobile, Alexa wasn’t built to be just an extension of the smartphone. It was built to be the thing beyond the smartphone.