I carry an iPhone in my pocket all the time. And on that phone I have enabled two intelligent personal assistants (IPAs): Apple’s Siri and Google Now.
Each has advantages. Siri is quicker to get to, as it’s better integrated into the iPhone. A long press on the phone’s home button or center button on the earbuds, and Siri is prompted to await my commands. Siri results are often pretty good, and the IPA has a simulated personality—cracking jokes and sometimes saying surprising things.
Google Now requires that I open the Google app. But once there, it provides pre-emptive results. By scanning my Gmail and other personal and public data, it can tell me when to leave the house for my trip to the airport, given current traffic conditions.
Given the power and benefits of Siri and Google Now, which do I choose? There’s no question: Amazon’s Alexa—at least when I’m at home.
(I’ll also soon have two more powerful options: Facebook’s M and Microsoft’s Cortana for iOS, both of which are in beta and expected to be released in the months ahead. And when these are released, I expect to continue favoring Alexa for the same reasons I do now.)
Why Alexa Is Way Better Than Siri and Google Now
The Alexa IPA is a cloud-based platform that you interact with from a dedicated hardware appliance called the Amazon Echo, which costs $179.99 and can be purchased at Amazon.com, ABT, BJ’s, Brookstone, Fred Meyer, Fry’s, HH Gregg, Home Depot, P.C. Richard & Son, Radio Shack, RC Willey, Sears and Staples.
That’s why Alexa is better than both Siri and Google Now—because it lives in a dedicated hardware appliance, not an app.
The Amazon Echo is a black cylinder about the size of a bottle of wine, but not as tall. While the insides are mostly speaker components, the sound Echo produces isn’t quite as good as, say, a Sonos speaker. But the sound is much better than any smartphone can produce, and it’s louder. The Echo also has a microphone, WiFi electronics and other components.
You simply plug the Echo in and forget about it. When you want information or audio entertainment, or to set a timer or alarm, you say, “Alexa,” which wakes up the Echo and prompts for your command.
I use Siri maybe once a week, but only when I’m out of the house. And I pretty much stopped using Google Now. But I use Alexa and the Echo at least 30 times a day.
For starters, when I’m at home I often have my phone in my pocket and my hands are full. I’m cooking, doing the dishes, cleaning up and other things. It’s super easy to get info by simply talking.
I use Alexa as my alarm clock, kitchen timer and music player. I just say, “Alexa: Play Pandora,” and the Echo shuffles music from my Pandora account. I can even ask her to thumbs up or thumbs down a song, and she responds that my rating has been recorded. Or, I can specify an artist and Amazon will stream Prime Music. And since Alexa supports multiple music and podcast services and I’m a huge fan of podcasts, including my own, I also tell Alexa to play specific podcasts.
I get the weather, sports and news as well. I can say, “What’s the weather?” or “Who won the Steelers game?” and Alexa tells me. For the news, I just say, “Alexa: What’s happening?” and the Echo streams NPR news.
And when I ask her to read my audio books, she always knows where I left off previously.
Alexa now has integrations with Automatic, so I can ask Alexa where my car is or how much gas I have in the tank.
Integration with Google Calendar means I can find out which meetings I have coming up.
A Yelp integration gives me information about a business’s hours or about local restaurants. I ask, “What are Lowe’s hours?” and she’ll instantly provide the answer.
And that’s not everything Alexa can do. For example, if you’re into home automation, you can probably use Alexa as the interface. She supports SmartThings, Insteon, WeMo, Hue and Wink devices.
In fact, I can do a gazillion things with Alexa via a recently enabled IFTTT integration.
I’m barely scratching the surface here. The point is that the Amazon Echo model—the home appliance that you talk to and get a fast response with a loud, clear, high-quality, pleasant voice—is the inevitable future of human-machine interaction in the home.
Why Are Apple and Google Letting Amazon Own the Future?
To me, the most confusing question in technology is: Why are Apple and Google handing Amazon a monopoly on the future of computing?
But wait, you say. Way more people have Siri and Google Now than Alexa.
Sure, everyone with an iOS device has Siri. And everyone with the Google app, browser or Android operating system has access to Google Now.
How Amazon Is Winning the Future From Apple and Google
But mere “access” to Apple’s and Google’s IPAs means nothing. These just come free with the phone or apps that people get for other reasons. Every user of Alexa went out of his or her way to buy and use the dedicated IPA appliance.
More to the point, I’d be willing to bet that usage of Alexa is orders of magnitude higher than either Siri or Google Now as a percentage of users who have “access” to each. Stated another way: Most Echo users I talk to are heavy daily Alexa users. Most people with access to Siri or Google Now use those services either rarely or never.
The last time I checked, the Amazon Echo is making most of the “Gift Guide” recommendation lists.
If my personal experience and informal polling are accurate, every new Amazon Echo user is someone who will stop using Siri or Google Now or will be introduced to the wonderful world of IPAs through Amazon’s version of it and will never even seriously use Siri or Google Now.
I believe that if Apple or Google shipped a dedicated Echo-like IPA appliance, usage of their respective platforms would skyrocket.
So why haven’t they done so yet?
The failure of the companies to ship an Echo-like appliance is an act of gross negligence, the result of a massive blind spot about this category.
Why Amazon’s Kitchen Computer Could Kill the Competition
A Wall Street Journal exclusive in late August reported that Amazon’s visionary Silicon Valley-based Lab126 is working on a kitchen-specific version of the Echo called Kabinet, which has a screen.
I already use my Echo as a kitchen computer. It lives on the fridge, and I use it for converting measurements, setting cooking timers and other cooking tasks. Give it a screen and add third-party appliance support, and this thing would be a must-have device, as far as I’m concerned.
By third-party appliance, I mean kitchen scales, refrigerators, ovens and other smart devices that would enable you to cook via voice.
The danger here for Apple and Google is that IPAs are platforms that engender loyalty. Once a consumer befriends Alexa, they’re unlikely to go back. As more users embrace Alexa and reject Siri and Google Now—and as the capabilities of IPAs increasingly replace basic actions like Web search, email, messaging and calendaring—Apple and Google may find themselves on the sidelines of computing while Amazon dominates.
Five years from now, we’ll all wonder: How did Apple and Google let Amazon take over computing when all they had to do was ship a simple IPA appliance?
I’m sure Alexa will have a good answer.