There have been only a handful of gadgets in my life that, upon their arrival, fundamentally altered how I use technology in my life. The Amazon Echo has been one of those products.
I've long been a believer in the promise of hands-free computing. The basic concept is promising: Voice control promises the ability to engage with computers while still going about our business as normal. Over the past few years, us humans have become increasingly glued to our screens, even while we're out and about. I believe voice control will soon offer the same level of functionality and benefits without the need to bury our faces in our various displays.
Read more: The ultimate guide to the Amazon Echo
Today's biggest technology companies are already laying the building blocks towards that future. Those firms already focused on voice-only interfaces will have a big head start, because that kind of computing requires a total rethink on how we interact with our devices.
This brings us to the Amazon Echo and its artificial intelligence software, Alexa. Alexa is already taking off: The Echo lineup is a big hit, while dozens of third-party device makers are rushing to incorporate Alexa into their own devices. While Google, Apple and Microsoft have voice-activated AI aides of their own, all signs currently point to Amazon as the leader in the field, especially when it comes to third-party integration.
What are Amazon's advantages? First and foremost, it's Amazon cloud, called Amazon Web Services, or AWS. AWS offers a plethora of helpful backend tools that can power AI, natural language processing, machine learning and other technologies that make a gadget like the Echo more useful. Many of the third-party gadget companies that will use Alexa will also use AWS, enabling Amazon to offer favorable pricing for that hardware integration. Amazon also controls a massive e-commerce marketplace, a powerful distribution channel for these hardware products.
The logical progression here is a build-up of a third-party ecosystem around Alexa. Consumers will see a bounty of Alexa-enabled devices connected to one another, helping to convince them to join the greater Alexa ecosystem. An interesting trend we see with the Echo is that, once a person gets one in their home and connects a smart home product like connected lights or a thermostat, they quickly start to connect others, too. So the bigger the ecosystem, the better.
The Echo, then, is starting to look a lot like a trojan horse for Amazon, sneaking Alexa into the home and hooking customers on the larger voice-controlled ecosystem. The key for Amazon is to use these devices to deepen its relationship with its customers. The more shoppers find themselves using Alexa devices, the more Amazon could chip away at the dependencies that consumers have with Google and Apple via their smartphone software.
What interests me the most about Amazon's Alexa strategy is the elimination of the screen as a computing interface. If a screen or touch-based input is available on a given gadget (like on a smartphone, for instance), consumers will default to that input. Rather than learn new behaviors and workflows around voice-only solutions, they will go back to their screen and type text, or set a timer, and so on. Apple needs consumers to start depending on Siri and voice as a primary interface mechanism for AI but, as long as there's a screen involved, that won’t happen in a meaningful way. Amazon, however, is building these new behaviors around Alexa because voice is (pretty much) the only option for interactions there.
Amazon still faces massive challenges in building out its Alexa strategy, as do its rival companies. But Amazon already has a great deal of trust, and is well-primed to become the primary interface for smart home technology in Western markets. It has the business model to support making a run here. It needs to focus more on the security element, which will be critical. But momentum is momentum, and that can't be ignored.