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Alexa, when will you work well outside the home?

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Alexa won CES, but didn’t win my heart

CES 2017 isn’t over yet, but it’s obvious that the person who stole the show this year isn’t even a person — it’s a virtual assistant. Amazon’s Alexa has popped up in everything from copycat speakers to humanoid robots to connected fridges. Put it this way: you can now order a pizza by talking to your table lamp.

Even Amazon seems surprised by how many manufacturers are taking advantage of Alexa “skills” or voice services: Mike George, Amazon’s vice president of Echo and Alexa, said in an interview with The Verge that Amazon originally anticipated that there would be 35 to 40 devices with Alexa at CES. The final count is still unknown, but it’s more than that.

The extension of Alexa inside the home, where there’s stable Wi-Fi and not a lot of noise, makes sense. What’s more interesting is Alexa’s move outside of the home. Amazon’s approach to its AI has been the inverse of Apple’s and Google’s: Siri and Google Now started on mobile, then came to home products. Alexa is just now starting to work in stuff that you take on the go, or in vehicles that you drive. And the early experience is one that borders on disappointing.

First, it’s worth noting that “works with Alexa” or “Alexa-enabled” happens at least two different ways right now, with some companies very obviously using it to market their products without having Alexa technically built in. Any company can make an Alexa skill, which is basically a command or set of commands that triggers an action with a Wi-Fi-connected product. But that still means you must have an Amazon Echo or Echo Dot speaker in your house for it to work.

Other products have Alexa “directly integrated,” or built in. This means that a manufacturer has included the necessary hardware parts, like microphones, a speaker, and the wireless components, and is using Amazon’s underlying voice and sound processing software, including algorithms for things like echo cancellation.

But just because the manufacturer has built something to Amazon’s specifications doesn’t mean the Alexa magic works the same as it would on an in-home product. The new $400 OnVocal wireless headphones have Alexa built in, have three microphones, and support Siri and Google voice search in addition to Alexa. As long as you have your phone with you for a cellular connection, you can use Alexa.

You’d kind of think that walking around while wearing these is just as good as having an Echo strapped to your body. It’s not.

The headphones have six tiny physical buttons on them, one of which is for Alexa. You have to press and release it in order to wake up Alexa, and even the short pauses in between the voice prompt and your question and the answer feel too long. This is not too dissimilar from the experience I had with Amazon’s own portable Echo Tap speaker, for what it’s worth. It requires a physical tap, which strips away some of the magic of voice-only Alexa.

Alexa has made its way into wrist wearables, too, like the $300 Martian mVoice smartwatch. This also requires pressing a physical button on the side of the watch —twice, once before you make your query and then after you’re done — in order to use Alexa. Alexa’s responses come through a teeny tiny speaker on the side of the watch. If you can’t hear it through that, you’re supposed to open the mVoice mobile app to see Alexa’s responses. Again, magic gone.

Maybe the greatest expression of Alexa’s usefulness outside the home is in the car. Cars have had voice control systems for a while, and the rollout of Apple’s CarPlay and Android Auto over the past couple years have brought even more futuristic and intuitive interfaces to cars. Now add Alexa to the mix. Ford, Hyundai, and Volkswagen are a few of the manufacturers that have already put Alexa in the dashboard, and there are likely more coming.

I was pretty excited to try out a beta version of Alexa, via a tethered phone, in a Ford hybrid vehicle. (I am very often irritated by the Siri experience on my iPhone in the car.) It worked really well for media stuff: Alexa found me the Vergecast podcast, an audio book, and an Amazon Prime Music playlist within seconds. And I wasn’t able to test this, but you can ask Alexa from the car to do stuff within your home, like turn on your smart lights or open your garage doors.

But Alexa won’t make a phone call for you from the car, and it won’t recognize your current location for navigation, at least not yet. When you request something like, “Find me the nearest gas station,” or “Directions to the nearest coffee shop,” Alexa currently defaults to the zip code on file in your Amazon profile. Ford says this will change in the very near future once Alexa can pull in GPS data from the car, but it’s not there yet.

Amazon’s Mike George acknowledged in an interview that there are all kinds of complexities that come into play outside of the home. “We’re materially focused on simplifying the entire process, including setup, installation, and use,” he said. When I asked whether Amazon ever outright rejects a manufacturer that wants to use Alexa because of quality issues, George said, “We work with them until we get it right.”

He also hinted at a future where Alexa is much more predictive than it’s been to date. “Amazon has been doing machine learning to understand what our customer wants for a long time,” he said. “You can imagine an instance where instead of having to ask for an Uber or Lyft, Alexa anticipates what you want and knows which one will be there faster.”

It’s that kind of predictive intelligence that all of the big tech companies are frantically trying to get right. Since so many products are adopting Alexa, it’s the sort of thing that could help Amazon’s AI stand out both inside the home and out in the mobile world. For now, though, Alexa is still a lot better in the former.