Last month Amazon said it would eventually allow its voice-controlled virtual assistant Alexa to work on mobile devices, provided those devices are tablets made by Amazon. "Eventually" means now.
Starting this week, Amazon is rolling out a free over-the-air software update that will install Alexa on Amazon's $49 Fire tablet, the Fire HD eight-inch tablet, and the Fire HD 10-inch tablet.
Unlike Amazon's Echo speakers, which you can shout at from across the room (or even another room) to call up Alexa, you have to long press on the Fire tablet's virtual home button to launch Alexa. From there, you can ask Alexa anything you would ask it on the Echo speaker, and Amazon says that any of the 3,000+ "skills" that work with the Echo speakers will also work on the tablets.
Alexa will show text-based information cards on Amazon's Fire tablets
There's also a new Alexa feature coming to Amazon tablets, in the form of information cards. Not every skill or app will have these cards, but when you use your voice to ask Alexa for weather data or game scores, or when you ask it to set a timer or to play music, a card will pop up on the tablet's display. This is something that might be especially useful for shopping — surprise! — because now, when you ask Alexa to re-order garbage bags or anything else you might normally get on Amazon, you have the ability to tap on the information card and continue to Amazon.com if you don't like the pre-set order option.
By bringing Alexa to its Fire OS software on mobile devices, Amazon joins the ranks of Apple, Google, and Microsoft, all of whom offer virtual assistants on mobile devices (as well as laptops). When asked whether Alexa is something that would come to other mobile operating systems, like Google Android or Apple's iOS, Amazon executives said they had nothing to share at this time.
One of the more interesting changes to come with the new software, though, has to do with the pairing of an Alexa-enabled tablet with an Echo speaker. Earlier this week Amazon began quietly rolling out something called Voice Cast in the Alexa mobile app. For people who have both an Echo speaker and a Fire tablet, this means you can actually use voice control to summon Alexa (through the Echo) and simultaneously see a visual representation of the request (on the tablet).
So an inexpensive Amazon tablet now acts as a kind of dashboard for the Echo, showing text-based information based on your audio query. The two devices don't have to be connected to each other; both just have to be connected to a local Wi-Fi network, and all of the processing happens in the cloud, Amazon says.
The new software starts rolling out today and should come to all Fire tablets within the next couple of weeks.
Photos by Vjeran Pavic