My Amazon account says I’ve been a customer since 1999. Back then, you had to stay at work after hours to shop online because waiting for each page to load on dial-up was just too painfully slow. The infrastructure wasn’t quite there, but the potential was clearly there for something amazing.
Ten years ago, I felt the same way about the impending magnitude of my first iPhone. Capturing the sheer power of an entire computer in the palm of your hand changed the way we view entertainment.
The Echo devices allow you to transition to a smart home with a limited amount of hardware, and you can completely avoid any wiring depending on the solutions you choose. Amazon aggregates all of the apps you might otherwise download onto your phone into one voice-controlled portal.
Voice control systems like Alexa are changing the way we interact with entertainment devices.
Alexa: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
The smart home you see in SciFi movies is here, and it doesn’t require you to pull a phone out of your pocket. Ask Alexa to tell you who plays the lead in a movie, turn up the volume, set the audio to Movie Theater settings, or pause while you pop the popcorn. She will even make fart sounds to amuse your teenage boy.
With a little help from her friends, Alexa lets you walk into a dark room and start a movie on your Xbox without ever finding a remote. After it’s over, you can request that the lights be turned on at 40%, or give a command like, “get ready for bed” to turn off lights and arm the alarm.
Alexa: Be my remote control
Skills for basic TV functions are widely available in Amazon’s Skill shop. If you want to perform basic operations like adjust the volume up or down, pause or play a video, you can enable voice control through your Echo device. There are a few good choices:
Obviously, one of the most seamlessly integrated voice control setups is with the Fire TV or Fire stick. Without any additional hardware, you can use voice control to play video and music, and perform other basic remote control functions.
Harmony has invested a significant amount in making their high-end remotes compatible with Echo voice controls. Based on the structured activities, you can use Alexa to give the same command without worrying where the remote is or needing line of sight infrared to make it work. This elegant solution requires the premier remote or the purchase of a hub to enable the complex sequences, but if you’re a Harmony owner, you already understand that the solutions are worth the investment.
AnyMote is a less expensive way to make your entertainment system compatible with Alexa. This requires the purchase of an AnyMote Home hub to make your phone into the universal remote control and also enables voice control.
Roku is an easy win as well, with basic functions enabled directly with a skill and no additional hardware. A skill called Quick Remote enables voice commands for play, pause, rewind, or fast forward. It will also start Netflix and navigate the main menu with left, right, select commands. It’s not as elegant as the Harmony solution, but it works in the dark, so you don’t have to search for that tiny Roku remote in the cushions.
Alexa: You sold out
If you want proof that consumers are ready, just look at the estimated sales of Alexa-enabled devices. The Fire TV Stick with Alexa-enabled remote and the Echo Dot were the top-selling products in any category on Amazon.com this holiday shopping season, and the siblings Spot and Echo both sold out. Amazon said it sold tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices worldwide.
Lots of people must have received these millions of devices on Christmas Day since the Alexa app was one of the most popular apps in the Apple App Store and on Google Play that day.
Before Amazon released these numbers, I read that Amazon’s Echo devices had about 70% of the market. This is a huge market advantage, expanded by the fact that it remains the only device on the market with built-in shopping capabilities.
Alexa: Don’t trip on your way out
The device is remarkable. The audio system is first-rate, with seven omnidirectional microphones. It understands commands better than any other device I’ve used. But, Amazon needs to whip the skill industry into shape to support the capabilities.
The skill industry is a little clunky, and it’s stumbling on its way out of the gate. Large corporations with significant budgets have created skills to manage their products. Mid-size companies have mostly tried to get by with scraping content from their website and having a presence in the skill store.
The biggest risk right now is that Amazon doesn’t have a clear, published plan for paying third-party “skill” developers. Some get paid monthly; others aren’t making anything. The apps (called skills on Amazon) are mostly free, and the demand for companies to prioritize development of their skills doesn’t exist yet. In hindsight, though, Apple had a lot of junky apps that we all downloaded at first – remember the Bic lighter app on the iPhone?
The supply and demand factor should make for a thriving 2018 for skill developers. Too many people have them, and the market won’t dare ignore all of those potential customers.
Alexa: Nobody likes a snitch
According to my in-depth research, which consisted entirely of me talking to friends and family about my new obsession with Echo devices, the main point of resistance seems to be this: I don’t want Big Brother listening in on me in my home. Here’s the thing that Amazon has done really well: when using an Amazon Alexa-enabled device, you have access to any audio recordings made and the option to delete them.
Amazon deployed best of class privacy features throughout the device. They are clear what words are recorded, and you are further cued that the device is listening because it lights up. Then you have access to both a transcription and voice file of what the device transmitted, along with the ability to delete it.
I’ve read the stories about Alexa calling emergency services when violence was suspected, but they’re unfounded. Alexa cannot call 911. Echo devices only stream your requests when you use the wake word (choose from Alexa, Echo, Amazon, Computer) followed by a specifically worded request. These requests show up in the app, and you can delete them if you don’t want to leave a record.
Alexa: What’s the magic word?
Although I find myself saying, “please” and “thank you” to the device (shoutout to my mom), the only magic words are specific phrases for commands. If you enabled a bunch of new skills at the same time, as I did, you might be tempted to write down key phrases near the device. But, if they’re truly skills that you’ll use often, the temptation will fade quickly as you and your Echo develop a secret language.
Controlling your TV and other devices with your voice is one of those things that you never realized you were missing. The nice thing is that you never have to cede control of the remote to whoever is holding it. The spoils go to those who know the magic words.
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