The Alexa ‘phone’ I hope Amazon are secretly building
Amazon famously shipped the Fire phone packed with gimmicks that no-one wanted. But, after spending a week with their Echo speaker, I’m hoping for a less-is-more phone that means I can have Alexa with me everywhere.
I love Amazon’s unique sense of what their customers want. I especially love how it leads them to make hardware, like the E Ink Kindle readers or the Fire Kids Edition tablet that seem out of step with what the rest of the tech industry is doing, but that find a place in the lives of millions of people’s lives (probably, they’re pretty secretive about sales figures).
But they famously got it all wrong with the Fire phone.
What the Fire phone got wrong
This has been well documented but, in summary, Amazon made a rare misstep, worrying about not being in the smartphone business instead of what their customers wanted. As a result they added a bunch of novelty features, that tried to differentiate the phone from Apple’s and Samsung’s, but that didn’t given people anything they really wanted.
Bezos’s guiding principle for Amazon has always been to start with the needs and desires of the customer and work backward. But when it came to the Fire Phone, that customer apparently became Jeff Bezos. He envisioned a list of whiz-bang features, and the Tyto team started experimenting with a slew of promising technologies: near-field communication for contactless payments, hands-free interactions to allow users to navigate the interface through mid-air gestures, and a force-sensitive grip that could respond in different ways to various degrees of physical pressure.
‘Dynamic Perspective’ used four extra front-facing cameras to add ‘perspective’ to the display but, in practice, seemed to use a lot of battery life to do something that got in the way of, rather than enhanced, the experience.
The Firefly button was meant to be like a supercharged Shazam, where the Fire phone’s camera can recognise email addresses and DVD cases etc. A neat-ish trick but, in practice, it’s just not that difficult to quickly search for a DVD title in the Amazon app.
Mayday is the free, live video support that also features on some of their Fire tablets. I’ve used it and it’s pretty amazing, not because of the technology, but because the agents are smart and well trained and empowered. I heard a story from an Amazon insider that Mayday is a great sales ‘hook’ — it’s the reason a lot of people buy a Fire tablet — but that hardly any of them then go on to actually use it.
So, the Fire phone shipped as a product with a series of novelty features, but no compelling reason for anybody to switch from the iOS or Android ecosystems, with their well established ‘anchors’ of photos, music, news etc.
But for me what was worse was Amazon abandoning their design philosophy. The best Amazon devices are stripped-back, unshowy, utilitarian. They come in matt greys and blacks. They’re rugged. They’re priced to be almost disposable. They’re barely online, not competing for your attention, but letting you get on with life, and being there ready for when you need them. (By the way, I hope Amazon buy Pebble, I think it’s a very Amazon approach to a smartwatch.)
But the Fire phone was showy. Instead of quietly improving users’ lives with subtle integration, it tried to seduce them with blingy features.
They may have tried to post-rationalise it as ‘test and learn’ (a very Amazon concept), but you probably shouldn’t be testing a change to your very essence as a company when you’re doing so much right.
As a result Amazon had to take a $170m write-down (and that was likely a fraction of what it really cost them to develop).
My first week with the Echo
What is the Amazon Echo?
The foundation of the Echo is a ridiculously simple concept: it’s an always-on mic and speaker that connects to a cloud. It’s effectively Siri, disembodied from its iPhone. That’s it.
The Echo launched in November 2014 as a fairly limited service, but has since grown in capability. It’s very Amazon. Simple and black with hardly any physical interface. It doesn’t clamour for you to interact with it, it just sits there dormant until you talk to it.
The Echo is officially only available in the US. But, as a small community of Echo users in the UK have discovered, most of its features work in the UK, kind of. And, for a price, you can buy them on eBay (buyer beware).
After months of resisting my tech enthusiast impulse, the Spotify integration finally made me give in and stump up almost double the price for a half-working service. (I’m sure I have ‘taken a hit for the team’ and that Amazon will announce an official UK version imminently!)
It took a bit of fiddling to get working, but I think that’s due more to BT’s dreadful Home Hub router, that makes it difficult to get any device set up, “for your convenience”.
After a week living with it, my feeling are best summed up by Chris Ziegler in The Verge:
And this is where I noticed the magic starting to happen: the Echo — and by extension, my home — is silently evolving, getting smarter. Meanwhile, I’m growing accustomed to talking at a nondescript black cylinder. We’re meeting in the middle. I no longer feel strange about issuing Alexa commands, and it no longer feels like an idle curiosity to do so. We’re growing and learning together. I now use it daily. It’s a transition that happened seamlessly, and I’m to the point now that I’d miss it if it were gone.
And by Dieter Bohn:
I’ve never wanted smart bulbs, but now I’m considering buying a set of Hue light bulbs.
Sure, it’s far from perfect. Here’s David Pierce:
So when a command fails to register, it just… fails. Sometimes she doesn’t hear me; sometimes she doesn’t know quite what I’m saying. I can’t explain why Alexa knows Andrew Jackson is the proper response to “Who was the seventh president of the United States?” but can’t tell me Thomas Jefferson was the third.
It’s definitely a work in progress. Like Siri or Slackbots or Peach you have to learn some syntax. But, unlike those services, with Alexa you can get into the groove pretty quickly, and find genuine (rather than novel) uses for it.
For example, adding items to a shopping or todo list or setting a timer with no need to use your hands (some of Alexa’s most basic features) are really surprisingly useful. Getting spellings, doing calculations. It’s even unwittingly got me using Bing!
As I expected, Spotify is the killer app. Despite the sound quality of the speaker being fairly crummy, the Echo is now my preferred way of playing music, leaving the much better sounding Sonos One it sits next to redundant.
Now I’ve got an Echo, I can see why I’d want a Dot — the recently announced Echo-without-the-speaker — so I can have Alexa in every room in the house, or hook her up to a decent speaker. I can see that the more I can use Alexa, the more I can just assume she’s there and can hear me, the more useful she will get.
The other way Alexa differs from Siri is openness. It’s getting more useful with every integration. There’s an IFTTT channel (so my Alexa todo list now syncs with Evernote). And there’s Amazon’s secret app store for Alexa ‘skills’ — this is how Uber integration was added.
And this brings me onto what I want from an Amazon phone…
The ‘Kindlexa’ phone I want from Amazon
When I’m jogging I use Spotify Running to keep me locked in to my pace. My mind ‘productively wanders’, and I remember stuff I’ve forgotten to do, or forgotten to add to my todo list. And my brain works stuff out — tricky problems I’ve been grappling with for a while get solved. But I don’t want to stop running to write any of these down. Yet, if I don’t write them down, I worry that I’ll re-forget them.
If only there were some kind of voice-powered assistant waiting for my command? What I need is an Amazon device that means I can take Alexa with me anywhere.
(Sure I could use Siri on my iPhone. But she’s just not as useful and certainly not as open and integrated into everything else I do and use — Apple’s closedness is a serious limit on her usefulness.)
Here’s what I want. A very different kind of smartphone than anything currently on the market. A very Amazon smartphone. Less a phone, more an Alexa endpoint that’s with me all the time.
I’m imagining something with a smartphone form factor. But not a polished, premium monolith like the iPhone or Samsung Edge — or the Fire phone. Instead I’m imagining a well made but utilitarian, Kindle-ish, $150-ish, 6"-ish ‘slate’. I’m imagining it has a backlit colour E Ink screen, for a minimal GUI, but mostly for reading messages, posts and and books. I’m hoping the thing could be optimised for a multi-day battery life? It will need to have an eSIM in it, but a lot of what it does won’t use tons of data (streaming music aside).
But the real point of this ‘phone’ is Alexa. So it will need a nice loud speaker and multiple microphones so I can talk to her from across the room, just like I can with the Echo. And it needs to be strappable, clippable, wearable, chuckable, rugged, water resistant. The point is to be able to just have it around without worrying about it too much, so you don’t have to think before asking “Alexa…”.
In the title I called it a ‘Kindlexa’ becasue, in my mind, it’s Kindle-ish, but with a focus on Alexa. I’m seeing it not as a replacement for my iPhone, but as a complement to it.
So what could I do with it? Being able to control Spotify while I’m running, without having to stop to jab at the screen. Being able to add stuff to my todo list while I’m walking, without bumping into people or things. Being able to get a question answered while I’m typing, without needing to switch apps on my Macbook.
Sounds OK but trivial? Firstly, don’t dismiss it until you’ve lived with an Echo for a while. Secondly, this isn’t actually about a slightly different ‘phone’. It’s about what replaces the smartphone…
Why this matters
Some smart people think that the Amazon’s Echo, Dot, and Tap, plus Alexa — which is what’s really important here — foretell what comes next after the smartphone.
If the last big shift in computing was that from PCs to mobile, is the next a move from mobile (yes, an ecosystem, but filtered through a single, premium, hero device) to a true network model with multiple dumbish endpoints and all the intelligence sat in the cloud, accessible to me through any of the endpoints on demand?
Here’s Daniel Olmstead comment on Benedict Evans’ blog post ‘Disrupting Mobile’:
The next step of scale is logically interaction with multiple smart devices woven into our world rather than exclusively a single device in our pockets. You’re right that IoT isn’t really a new platform on its own, but IoT+AI could be. The only future I can think of where I don’t need my phone any longer is if all the intelligence and functionality of the phone is disseminated into the world around me (central -> decentralized). The next pendulum swing after THAT is recentralizing all that stuff into my own brain. The Amazon Echo is the first wobbly step towards that future that I’ve easily incorporated into my own life.
Is this what can be even bigger than the smartphone industry (with its projected 4.5bn smartphones on earth, creating the first trillion dollar companies)?
And what’s tantalizing is how well Amazon is positioned to lead in this space, with its utilitarian approach to devices, its leadership in cloud (with AWS), and it’s Fire phone failure, which arguably propelled it to ‘think different’ and get ahead in the ‘cloud based AI’ game.