Amazon wants to set Alexa free


Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Every day, I use Alexa to turn on my lights, switch TV channels, and set timers when I’m cooking. Amazon’s digital assistant is the center of my smart home, but once I step out of the house, Alexa might as well be dead to me.

Like many in the US, I use an iPhone that’s tightly controlled by Apple. Sure, there’s an Alexa app I can use, but I can’t summon the digital assistant with the regular “Alexa” on my iPhone, so I mostly use the app to tweak Alexa settings. Things are slightly better in the Android world where you can set Alexa as the default device assistant, but you still can’t easily summon it with a wake word.

For all of Amazon’s advancements with Alexa, it’s still very much a voice assistant that lives inside your home, but there are plenty of signs that Amazon wants to set Alexa free.

Amazon’s current devices.
Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

While last year’s Amazon hardware event included an Alexa-powered microwave, today’s press event could see Amazon step fully outside of the home. Reports suggest Amazon is working on its own Alexa-powered earbuds, a big move outside of the smart home that it dominates. Amazon has also stumbled into Alexa-powered car integration with Echo Auto, but earbuds would be a significant way to expand where Alexa is used. The earbuds will reportedly track running distance, burned calories, and pace, but it’s the Alexa integration that will be important here.

Beyond earbuds, Amazon could soon unveil a wearable health tracking band. Bloomberg reported earlier this year that Amazon is working on a bracelet fitted with microphones that can interpret the wearer’s emotional state based on just their voice. It looks like the device will also include Alexa integration, putting it up against the Apple Watch and Siri as a consumer health device. Amazon has already started branching out into virtual health care for its own employees, so a health-focused wearable for consumers would be the logical next step.

Google and Apple are still trying to convince consumers to use digital voice assistants out in the real world, but Amazon has a chance to do things differently. There are many social elements to overcome before we’re even close to someone falling in love with a digital assistant, and we’re still waiting on a company to prove that a wearable device with a voice assistant makes sense for everyday tasks.

Apple Watch Series 5.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

I wear an Apple Watch, which has Siri integration, but you’ll never find me shouting at my wrist during a morning commute or at a cafe. However, a voice assistant on your headphones at the gym, on a run, or even in the car is a situation where the interaction could make more sense to some. Choosing to use a voice assistant is still driven by the situation, convenience, and reliability. For example, I wouldn’t use Siri in a quiet restaurant to find out when the next Arsenal game is, but I would ask it to skip a track while my hands were busy steering a bike.

Besides the potential social awkwardness of voice assistants, Amazon will also need to address many pain points with Alexa to bring it beyond the living room. One of the biggest is simple queries. I still find Google Assistant to be far superior to Alexa at answering the basics related to soccer games, points of interest, and other general search queries. Amazon really needs to improve this if it wants people to rely on Alexa for anything beyond carrying out simple tasks like turning on lights or checking the weather.

I use a variety of Echo devices for convenience, but if I want to set a reminder, I’ll choose Siri over Alexa every time. That’s mostly because I know my iPhone will always be with me no matter what, but also because Alexa sets reminders on a per-device basis.

If I set a reminder on one Echo device at home, I’ll only hear it on that particular device or as an alert on my phone. Likewise, if I set a timer, it will only trigger on one speaker. It’s such a flawed system that I use Siri and Alexa for different tasks now, and I have to remember which one to shout at each time. If the rumors are correct, then Amazon is thinking about how to free Alexa from its location constraints.

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Reports earlier this year suggest that Amazon is working on a wheeled robot device that can be controlled by Alexa and will follow you around your home. A robot might address some of the problems of Alexa not being with me everywhere (at least until it’s defeated by stairs), but there’s no way I want a robot following me around the streets of London. Thankfully, Amazon is also looking at some more realistic solutions.

Amazon just unveiled a huge alliance to demand voice assistant compatibility. It’s a partnership of more than 30 different companies that should mean Alexa will be able to talk directly to other voice assistants. We’ve seen a similar partnership with Microsoft for Cortana and Alexa integration in the past, but the way you activate each assistant isn’t exactly great.

Amazon sees seamless interoperability as the future for how voice assistants work across devices, but Apple and Google are two huge omissions from the list of companies involved in the effort. That means the two biggest smartphone platforms in the world will be left out of the conversation. If Amazon, Microsoft, and others can’t convince Apple and Google to relax their platforms to be more voice assistant agnostic, then it could seriously undermine Alexa’s ability to work freely across devices.

This is especially relevant when you consider Apple’s AirPods with Siri functionality and Google has its own Pixel Buds with Google Assistant integration. Both of these companies also operate smartwatch platforms that Amazon may want to compete with. There are also more than 1.4 billion iOS devices that include Siri integration, and more than 2 billion Android devices with access to Google Assistant. Those are huge numbers compared to the 100 million Echo devices Amazon has sold, even if not everyone is using voice assistants on their phones.

Amazon faces some huge hurdles if it truly wants to set Alexa free. Any effort on Apple’s devices could be locked out further by the iPhone maker’s walled garden approach, and even Google’s “open” Android and Wear OS platforms don’t always offer the levels of customization that device makers want. So Amazon is now eyeing new Alexa wearables and big partnerships to convince consumers that Alexa isn’t just for the living room and it can play a role in all your daily tasks.

Today’s Amazon hardware event kicks off at 10AM PT / 1PM ET in Seattle. The Verge will be covering the event live if you want to follow along.