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Amazon's Alexa: A Short and Passionate Affair or a Longstanding Relationship?

I interact more with Alexa than I do with Siri, Cortana or Google Now, because Alexa actually gets me.

Recode photo illustration/"2001: A Space Odyssey"

There has been a lot of coverage in the news about how Amazon’s Echo has been quietly creeping into our homes to become our favorite virtual assistant.

Alexa gets me. I don’t mean in a deep intellectual way — I mean, Alexa actually understands my complex accent — native Italian, lived in the U.K. for 18 years, married to a New Yorker and now living in California.

While many of the tasks Alexa is performing can be done by other virtual assistants, it seems the always-on voice recognition plus the multi-microphone setup of the Echo have empowered Alexa to build a tighter bond with users. If I use my personal experience — I know, something an analyst should never do! — I interact more with Alexa than I do with Siri, Cortana or Google Now, because Alexa actually gets me. I don’t mean in a deep intellectual way. I mean, Alexa actually understands my complex accent — native Italian, lived in the U.K. for 18 years, married to a New Yorker and now living in California.

When it comes to what I do with Alexa, however, our family relationship is made up of simple tasks like quick music entertainment over breakfast, a timer for homework or cooking, changing our Nest settings, and the occasional trivia question.

As an Amazon Prime user, I had never relied on Prime Music before Alexa arrived in our home, mainly because the music selection is less rich than our own library or other streaming services we use. While the UI is more fun, hearing “playing a sample of …” is a big letdown, especially when you are asking for a song that is in the charts.

And purchasing through Echo might work for less mundane things like detergent or garbage bags, but it certainly isn’t for me when buying toys, shoes, bags — all things I have purchased from Amazon in the past that actually require the item to be seen. Our home automation is growing, but many of the things we have invested in are not yet controllable by Alexa, like door locks.

Dot and Tap aim at deepening the bond and expand beyond the home.

As Amazon could not rely on the Fire Phone as a way into our lives, it had to think out of the box. As The Verge addressed here, not having a device we would carry around all the time probably got Amazon to think about focusing on the home with an always-on solution we could interact with from across the room versus through a screen.

It also meant that Amazon did not have to worry about picking a platform, and then investing time and effort in convincing developers to embrace it. However, Echo is not for everybody, due to the main-speaker functionality and the price tag associated with it. So Amazon came up with two new products: Tap and Dot.

Tap is a smaller, battery-operated, portable Bluetooth speaker that helps Alexa get out of our home and keeps the experience consistent for the user. As it is the case for Echo, Tap is more about Alexa than the speaker. Dot serves a different purpose. One would think Amazon could have used Dot to lower the barrier of entry for Alexa. After all, it is half the price of Echo. Instead, this is a device available in limited numbers that can only be ordered through Echo.

The barrier of entry it might help break is the one of getting users to experiment with buying through Amazon with Echo. Dot builds on Echo to expand the range of interactions between us and Alexa so user engagement can grow and the reliance on Alexa can intensify. However, devices are not the only part of the equation Amazon needs to grow for that reliance to deepen.

Increased functionalities and discoverability will be key for long-term success.

Maybe because Amazon rolled out Echo without talk of world domination, or maybe because everybody thinks all Amazon wants to do is to sell Echo’s owners more “stuff,” Alexa has become the belle of the ball in no time, with connected-home devices brands lining up to work with her.

Amazon has done a great job at keeping users informed of what it is adding every week, both through the app and via email. This not only gets you to try new things but gives you the clear feeling that your investment has been worthwhile.

This week, Amazon has taken another step in increasing the value Alexa will have by introducing new, open software that will allow more connected-home devices to work with her. The smart Home Skill API, as Amazon calls it, will make it easier and faster for device makers to create the skills that synch their products to Alexa. More important for the users, it will make it easier to communicate with Alexa by cutting down on some of the current setup: “Alexa, ask the X thermostat to lower the temperature to …” For now, the new API is limited to thermostats, lights, switches, and plugs.

When it comes to home automation, however, we are at the very start and, while consumers are experimenting with it, Amazon needs to rely on more to make sure that current users continue to engage with Alexa on a regular basis. Alexa after all, needs that interaction as, like every other virtual assistant, it learns from you. Growing content and coming up with different ways to shop with Alexa seem to be easier short-term wins versus waiting for consumers to be ready for a fully connected home.

Could Alexa ever be Samantha?

While Alexa might be an important agent within our home, the big question is whether she could ever be Samantha, the powerful, warm-voiced OS from the movie “Her,” unless she gets out of the home and spends most of her time with us. Tap, the Dot, and the deal with Ford are ways in which Amazon is already trying to do that, but the experiences are not necessarily consistent, and Amazon might not always be “learning” about them.

Maybe the conspiracy theorists are right, and Amazon might just be about making Alexa our favorite shopping agent. But if the ultimate goal is to deliver Samantha and not just Alexa, the big question is, can Amazon do that without getting into that rectangular slab of glass that rules our lives?

Carolina Milanesi is a principal analyst at Creative Strategies Inc. She focuses on consumer tech across the board; from hardware to services she analyzes today to help predict and shape tomorrow. In her prior role as chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, Milanese drove thought leadership research; before that, she spent 14 years at Gartner, most recently as VP of consumer devices research and agenda manager. Reach here @caro_milanesi.

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