Amazon steals a march on talking tech

Amazon Echo Dot

Alexa, Amazon’s “intelligent personal assistant” (IPA), was the online retailer’s phoenix that rose from the ashes of the Fire Phone. The Fire Phone, launched in July 2014, was Amazon’s entry into the crowded smartphone market, because Amazon didn’t want to rely on other tech firms to be able to sell its products. But it was an instant failure, and before the year was out, Amazon had written off $170m. All was not lost, however.

Just two weeks later, the Amazon Echo appeared, a sound speaker featuring the voice-activated personal assistant, Alexa, through which users could play music, get a weather report or even order pizza. “Although few expected it at the time, Alexa has given Amazon precisely the entrée it had been seeking with the Fire Phone — just in a different format”, says the Financial Times. “Instead of asking users to interact with a screen, Alexa is entirely voice based.”

Amazon is coy about how many of the Alexa-enabled units, the Amazon Echo, it has sold over the last two years (a smaller version, the Amazon Echo Dot, was released in March 2016). But by selling its Echoes at an estimated 10% to 20% loss, according to investment bankers Evercore, Alexa has been popping up in homes across America – 5.1 million to November, according to analysts Consumer Intelligence Research’s best guess. Others put the total much higher.

The Echo has been on sale in Britain since September, but its worldwide expansion is hampered for the moment due to Alexa only speaking English and German. Still, while Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana IPAs have been around since 2011 and 2014, Alexa’s success, particularly last year, has sent Google scrambling to catch up. Its Google Home “smart speaker” was released only last November. For now, Alexa is in the lead.

Alexa has even climbed out of her column speaker and into the Ford car of The Wall Street Journal’s Geoffrey A. Fowler, who made it his mission to go on as many “speed dates” with Alexa as possible. “She gave me directions to Starbucks while my hands remained on the wheel. She’s the voice of a cuddly robot called Lynx, who danced when I asked. Alexa even one-ups the classic lava lamp, residing inside a stunning circular lamp from GE that changes colour while she’s talking.”

But the question, says Fowler, “is will talking tech really solve more problems than it creates inside my refrigerator, wristwatch or ceiling fan?” Possibly not. Earlier this month, a six-year-old in Dallas, named Brooke Neitzel, was chatting with Alexa and accidentally ordered an expensive dolls house and cookies – both arrived the next day. When a television presenter related the story on air, the Alexas in the homes of his viewers, too, started ordering dolls houses.