The biggest tech companies in the U.S. all have their own virtual assistants: Apple has Siri, Google has Google Now, Microsoft has Cortana, and Amazon has Alexa. Most of those assistants are available primarily on the smartphones sold by the companies behind them (though Apple is reportedly working on bringing Siri to the Mac). In fact, you may or may not have considered which virtual assistant is the most capable the last time you purchased a new smartphone, since you likely won’t have much opportunity to use an assistant that isn’t baked into your device’s operating system. But in Amazon’s case, the major flop that was its Fire Phone actually worked in Alexa’s favor, and perhaps even ensures that just about everybody will eventually use Alexa, regardless of what kind of smartphone they have.
Lauren Goode reports for The Verge that Amazon’s smartphone flop may have been “the best thing that happened to Alexa,” noting that an event where the brand unveiled new Alexa-equipped hardware wasn’t really about the hardware, but was about extending Alexa and making the assistant available in more places. That contrasts with the current strategy of other tech giants. Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google’s Google Now are all anchored to the smartphone (though Cortana extends to Windows 10 devices), and Goode notes that using each requires adopting a certain mobile operating system and, in most cases, being near “something with a display.”
Not so with Alexa, especially since the assistant is available not just in the Amazon Echo, but now the portable Amazon Tap speaker and the tiny Echo Dot. Goode notes of the ecosystem that Amazon has gradually assembled: “The original Echo is now a kind of spine for Alexa in the home; the Fire TV and Echo Dot are part of the peripheral nervous system; and the new portable Tap speaker is the first attempt at giving Alexa legs to roam. It’s simultaneously amazing, and terrifying (if you consider the security implications).”
It’s likely that little or none of this would have happened if Amazon had found any success in the smartphone market. In that case, the company likely would have continued to promote the phone, tried to convince developers to create apps for its platform, and would likely have introduced Alexa on its smartphone and even limited the assistant’s reach. Think of it this way: there probably aren’t that many people who would choose a phone from Amazon over one from Apple, Samsung, LG, or other tried-and-true smartphone makers. And if Alexa were only available to users of an Amazon phone, relatively few people would ever get acquainted with Alexa.
If the assistant had only been available on the Fire Phone, there would been little to differentiate its functionality from that offered by other smartphone-based assistants. Instead, Amazon introduced Alexa with the Echo, a speaker, that you don’t have to swipe, touch, or even remember to charge. Goode notes, “Soon enough, for people who went ahead and bought the thing, the wake word ‘Alexa’ became synonymous with the speaker. Echo who? It’s Alexa.” While Amazon hasn’t disclosed how many Echos it’s sold, it was Amazon’s number one selling item over $100 on Black Friday.
Echo has also attracted interest from developers, and Alexa now has more than 300 different “skills,” including reading books and playing podcasts, calling you an Uber, dimming your connected lightbulbs, ordering Dominos, or controlling your thermostat. These are all tasks that your smartphone can accomplish, but with Echo, you don’t need to tap on a display or open an app.
Alexa misunderstands questions and commands like any other virtual assistant, but putting voice control first makes Alexa more accessible than her competitors. “Failing at smartphones meant Amazon had to make Alexa work without screens and with any developers,” Goode notes, “and that means Alexa is good — all on its own.”
Amazon clearly intends to make Alexa available in as many places as possible. It’s unclear if those places will eventually include the smartphone, or if Amazon is focusing on display-free artificial intelligence. But more importantly, Amazon has positioned Alexa to occupy a central place in the smart home. Just as you can assume that just about anyone has an Amazon account and a Prime membership is becoming ubiquitous, it’s very likely that more and more people are going to be talking to Alexa via one of the devices in which Amazon has made the assistant available.
Alexa is quickly becoming a much more capable assistant than its competitors with the real-world tasks that busy users need to complete, bolstered by the efforts of app developers who making Alexa into a virtual assistant that can make things happen in the real world.