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Why Amazon's Alexa is the future of computing

Latest Consumer Technology Products On Display At CES 2017 Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

Amazon doesn’t have a booth at the Consumer Electronics Show, but Alexa is everywhere at the Las Vegas event this week. Dozens of companies have announced plans to work with the virtual assistant that powers the Echo, Amazon’s smart speaker.

LG is building Alexa into one of its refrigerators. GE made a fancy Alexa-enabled LED lamp. Even Ford has announced plans to add Alexa to its cars later this year. This means you’ll be able to ask any of these products to look up recipes, play music, or tell you what the weather is like.

At first glance, this might all sound a little silly. After all, consumers aren’t clamoring for a crock pot that can tell them the score of last night’s game. But Amazon is actually trying to do something incredibly ambitious: create a third major computing platform that will take its place alongside the PC and the smartphone in our homes.

Microsoft dominated the PC era, when computing was defined by a keyboard and mouse. Google and Apple are currently battling for dominance over smartphones — a platform defined by touchscreens. Amazon is trying to build the third great computing platform: one for devices that have no screen at all.

Since it unveiled the Echo in 2014, Amazon has been quietly laying the groundwork to dominate this market. The fruits of those efforts have been on display at CES this week, with a wide range of companies rushing to add Alexa to their devices. But Amazon’s dominance isn’t a sure thing yet. Google knows it’s behind, and it’s desperately trying to catch up with an Echo-like speaker called Google Home that has an Alexa-like interface called Google Assistant. And Apple and Microsoft — creators of Siri and Cortana, respectively — aren’t going to give up without a fight.

Voice-controlled devices are the next great computing platform

Latest Consumer Technology Products On Display At CES 2017
LG unveiling its smart fridge with Alexa support.
Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

Computer chips have become so cheap that we can put them in everything from refrigerators to light switches. I wrote about this market back in 2014 and predicted that these chips could become the basis for the next great computing platform just as mobile chips made the smartphone revolution possible. Back then, there were already “smart devices” in every category you could think of, from lightbulbs to crock pots.

But the big challenge facing companies in this market was figuring out a user interface. As I pointed out in 2014, “It won't be practical to add a touchscreen to every lightbulb. Users are never going to accept a system that expects them to configure every lightbulb individually.”

I guessed we’d wind up with some kind of open standard that allows people to control their smart devices from a website or an app. But Amazon is suggesting that you control the devices in your home with an interface that doesn’t need a screen at all: our voices and our ears. If you want to turn on the lights in the living room, you can say “Alexa, turn on the lights in the living room,” just like they do on Star Trek.

Alexa is different from the PC and the smartphone because it’s designed to run on many different kinds of devices. Most of us have just one smartphone that we carry around in our pocket and use to run a wide variety of apps. In contrast, Alexa is getting baked into a lot of single-purpose devices like lamps and refrigerators. So you’ll be able to ask your oven to set itself to 350 degrees, ask your TV to start playing Game of Thrones, ask your fridge if you need milk, ask your Echo to play some Christmas music, and so forth.

Cars may be one of Alexa’s most compelling use cases. For decades, cars have featured radio as standard features, allowing people to listen to music, news, and sports as they drive around town. Alexa has the potential to do all these functions better than the radio can, and its hands-free voice interface is perfect for people who are supposed to have their eyes on the road. Saying, “Alexa, play my commuting playlist,” is a lot easier than messing around with the Bluetooth settings on your smartphone.

Not having a smartphone gave Amazon an advantage

Amazon Unveils Its First Smartphone
Jeff Bezos announcing the Fire Phone in 2014. It was a total failure.
Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images

To understand the current moment, it’s helpful to go back and look at the smartphone market of the early 2000s. Back then, it was becoming obvious that mobile computing would become a big market. But early companies in this market made a big mistake: They tried to design the smartphone interface to work the same as a desktop PC.

This was most obvious with Windows CE, Microsoft’s early attempt to create a mobile operating system. It looked like a tiny version of Windows, complete with a tiny start menu in the corner. Windows CE devices typically had a tiny hardware keyboard and a stylus that functioned as a replacement for a mouse. And it was practically unusable, for reasons that would be obvious to anyone who is familiar with modern iPhones or Android devices. A desktop PC interface just doesn’t work well on a tiny smartphone screen.

A screenshot from Windows CE Version 5, released in 2004. This was obviously not the right way to create a mobile operating system.

Other early smartphones from BlackBerry and Palm weren’t so comically PC-based, but they still tried to cram a physical keyboard into the size of a cellular phone, and they still borrowed heavily from the user interface conventions of the PC world.

Steve Jobs’s genius with the iPhone was to recognize that a smaller device needed a radically simpler interface. He ditched the keyboard and stylus and didn’t try to make a miniature version of Mac OS — which, at the end of the day, despite its fervent fan base, was far from a market leader. Instead, Apple’s engineers developed new user interface concepts — like flicking to scroll and pinching to zoom — that were tailor-made for a tiny screen that people manipulate with their fingers.

Just as Microsoft’s attachment to the PC hampered its smartphone ambitions, so Apple and Google’s existing product lines have discouraged the companies from thinking about the opportunities for voice controlled gadgets in a systematic way.

Apple began with a big head start over Amazon in the voice assistant business. Siri has been a standard feature of the iPhone since 2011. But because Apple is in the business of selling iPhones, the company has never really tried to make Siri more than a personal assistant for Apple’s own devices. Apple sees Siri as a feature of the iPhone, not as a product in its own right that gets accessed through the phone. Consequently, it has little reason to explore whether the technology underlying Siri could be applied more broadly.

Meanwhile, Apple’s strategy for the “internet of things” has been equally iPhone-centric. Apple has created a platform called HomeKit that allows people to control smart lightbulbs, door locks, and other gadgets with their iPhones. Again, that’s a fine strategy for promoting more iPhone sales, and it’s convinced a number of companies to sign up. But a platform that only works with one model of smartphone never had a chance of becoming a ubiquitous standard.

Google hasn’t been as parochial as Apple. The company has made several efforts to create open standards for the internet-of-things market. But each of these efforts was tied to a specific Google product:

  • Google owns a smart device maker called Nest, and Nest has been promoting its own set of standards for internet-of-things compatibility. A number of other companies have signed up for this “Works With Nest” program. But the standard is focused on getting devices to talk to each other — Nest never really offered a compelling human interface for Works With Nest products.
  • Google also created a version of the Android operating system called Android Things to run on connected household gadgets. But this project didn’t have a compelling user interface either.
  • Google had a voice assistant called Google Now, but, like Siri, it was tightly tied to Google’s own smartphone platform. Google didn’t design it to work on standalone devices without screens.

In contrast, Amazon was a newcomer to all of these markets. Its foray into the smartphone market was a total failure. And this gave the company the freedom to start with a clean slate. Because the Echo doesn’t have a screen, Amazon’s engineers didn’t waste time on functions that were better performed with a smartphone. They focused relentlessly on a few functions where Alexa can be particularly useful — playing music, providing news and weather information, setting timers — without a touchscreen.

Because Alexa started its life on a device with no touchscreen, it’s perfectly suited to be installed on a wide variety of devices around the house and in the garage. Many of devices don’t have screens either, and in many cases it would make no sense to add a screen.

Google is trying to catch up, but it might be too late

Google Pop Up Store Opens In New York Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the past year, Google seems to have recognized that Amazon has hit upon the right strategy for this market. And just as Google scrambled to get Android out the door after Apple unveiled the iPhone, so Google is trying to catch up to Amazon’s lead in the voice-controlled device market.

In May 2016, Google upgraded Google Now and rebranded it Google Assistant — Google’s answer to Alexa. Then in November, Google released a smart speaker called Google Home, the search giant’s version of the Echo, that will feature the Google Assistant.

But Google Home came out a full two years after the Echo. The big question is whether that’s too late. CNet has been keeping a running tally of CES announcements for Amazon, Google, and Apple’s respective voice-activated internet-of-things platforms. Amazon is the clear winner, with 31 companies announcing products with Alexa compatibility. Apple was in second place, with 16 companies touting compatibility with HomeKit. Google was a distant third, with only 10 companies announcing products compatible with Google Assistant.

CNet didn’t include them in its tally, but it’s worth noting that Microsoft’s Cortana personal assistant is also in this race. Microsoft has focused on the car market, with Nissan and BMW announcing Cortana support at CES this year. And Harman/Kardon has announced plans for a Cortana-powered speaker. But Microsoft’s platform seems to have much less buzz than the other three tech giants vying to dominate this market.

Right now it looks like Amazon has all of the momentum, and momentum is hugely important in this kind of market.

The PC and smartphone markets were both two-sided markets: The more devices customers bought, the more attractive the market was to app developers. And the more apps a platform had, the more attractive devices became.

Exactly the same dynamic is at work with connected devices. Amazon has created a sort of app store for Alexa, with the apps known as “skills” that enable Alexa to perform new functions. You can download skills that will read recipes, give workout instructions, or control smart devices around your house. Alexa now has 7,000 skills, up from 1,000 skills last summer. That puts Amazon in a stronger position every time it tries to sell Alexa to a new car or appliance company.

Conversely, as more and more companies incorporate Alexa into their gadgets, the case for creating an Alexa skill will become more compelling. Today, customers expect their banks and airlines to have smartphone apps. In a few years, they may also expect them to create Alexa skills to check their bank balance or whether their flight has been delayed.

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