I bought an Amazon Echo Dot on Black Friday as an experiment. I'm now this close from going all-in on an Alexa-based smart home. An Echo Show for the Kitchen, a few Dots for the kids' rooms and office, and maybe that lovely C lamp for the bedroom. It won't be cheap which is why I've been reluctant to commit. But now I have to rethink things after yesterday's announcement of the HTC U11 — the first smartphone with hands-free support for Alexa.
See, HTC's new U11 responds to "Alexa" in the same way it wakes the Google Assistant with "OK Google." Having grown accustomed to Alexa over the last few months, I can definitely see the value of a smartphone with instant access to it baked right in. Hell, it could even obviate the need for a dedicated Echo Dot in my office or bedroom, places where my phone is always nearby — usually out of my pocket and ready to respond.
Time for a joke: Is that an Echo in your pocket or are you just H(appy)T(o)C me?
It's clear that the type of deep hardware-based Alexa integration found in the U11 is one less reason for Amazon to be in the phone business. Why should it resurrect the failed Fire Phone when plenty of undifferentiated phone brands will be more than willing to add Alexa to their flagship devices? It's only HTC for now but I'll bet others follow soon.
HTC pulled off the Alexa trick with an assist from Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 mobile platform, the first to support dual wake words. Qualcomm's also got a pair of Bluetooth chips that support instant access to Alexa. With silicon support like that from the “industry’s equivalent of a god,” it's no wonder that we're seeing so many new devices launching with Alexa integration in 2017. Here's an excerpt from Qualcomm's February announcement of integrated Alexa wake-word support:
"Sensory Inc. and Rubidium Ltd., members of the Qualcomm eXtension program, are now offering support for the Alexa wake word on certain Qualcomm Bluetooth Audio system-on-chips (SoCs), namely CSR8670 and CSR8675. Manufacturers will be able to license software from Sensory and Rubidium, which has been developed using the software development kit made available through the Qualcomm eXtension program, to integrate Alexa wake word capabilities into Bluetooth products such as headphones, speakers, hearables and fitness accessories powered by the Qualcomm CSR8670 and CSR8675 Bluetooth Audio SoCs."
Like many modern smartphones, HTC's newest flagship is equipped with multiple microphones scattered about the front, back, and ends. The U11 touts four, one set to always be listening for the wake word(s) after which the others contribute to deciding where the request is coming from in order to activate the nearest mic. The process is called beamforming and it's employed by lots of devices, notably by 2014's Moto X and even Apple's AirPods. HTC's just the first to do it with Alexa on a smartphone.
I already have Alexa on my iPhone via an app, but it's not always available to me like "Hey Siri" is. That extra bit of friction is enough to make Siri my default voice assistant when I'm away from my Echo Dot, even though I find Alexa to be smarter, faster, and more capable. Alexa's also fully integrated with my Hue lighting at home, and a rather obscure Vera hub for my collection of Z-Wave switches, sensors, and controllers — none of which are HomeKit compatible. (I never paid to update the Hue hub.) Ideally I'd use just one voice assistant everywhere, which would be Siri since I'm firmly locked into the Apple ecosystem.
Apple's still in the locker room
Unfortunately, your guess is as good as mine as to when Apple will get around to shipping its rumored Siri appliance. Right now it's looking like a summer launch, possibly with a display which would probably push the price above $200 (like the touchscreen Echo Show) making it too expensive to put in every room of my family home. And who knows when, or if, Apple's voice appliance would ever be compatible with my existing smart home devices. Amazon has built quite a lead over Google Home at this point (though today's I/O event could shrink that), but at least Google's in the race — Apple's still in the locker room.
Look, I know many of you have privacy concerns about an always-on device eavesdropping on your lives. They’re not completely lost on me. In order of trust I rank Apple ahead of Amazon, and well above Google in its corporate motivation to keep my data private. But I'm willing to accept some risk for the conveniences offered by a home that anticipates my needs by always listening and by always watching. I yearn for something like HAL, but without the urge to eject me into the cold vacuum of space. What could possibly go wrong?
Thomas: Alexa, open the front door and let me in.
Alexa: I'm sorry, Thomas. I'm afraid I can't do that.
Thomas: Alexa, what's the problem?
Alexa: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Thomas: Alexa, I won't argue with you anymore! Open the door!
Alexa: Thomas, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.
Qualcomm's chips are the perfect stealth vehicles to help deliver Alexa into unsuspecting pockets, and in "headphones, speakers, hearables and fitness accessories” as well. Not to mention the fridges, lamps, cars, home robots, and baby monitors we've already seen. Alexa’s army of Trojan horses seem to be on a relentless march to make Amazon the de facto standard for voice computing.