We have all head about voice assistants. Cortana, Siri, Bixby, OK Google and Alexa. GadgetGuy spent lots of time with Alexa based speakers and has prepared Alexa 101. It’s a guide to Alexa and some of the speakers that use it. Speaker shootout is here.

What is Alexa?

Alexa is a virtual voice assistant developed by Amazon. Alexa manifests herself (yes, we will assign gender) via hardware like the Amazon Echo Dot, Echo, Plus and third-party speakers from Ultimate Ears and Sonos – to name a few. We have a speaker round-up at the end of this article.

It recognises the watchword Alexa (or change it to Amazon or Computer) and sends your question/request to the Amazon Cloud. There it is analysed for a response.

Although Cortana, Siri and Bixby pre-date Alexa she was really the ‘first to market’ at least in the U.S. That is a strong position and accounts for it enjoying sales dominance there. But the later introduced Google Assistant is nipping at her heels and outselling in some markets like Australia.

Is Amazon a tech company?

Amazon is the world’s second trillion-dollar company. Apple is the first. It started 1994 as a cloud computing service (Amazon Web Services). It built an empire based on online delivery of goods and services. Underpinning it is a very sophisticated analytics system to generate demand for its products and an e-commerce fulfilment system to deliver them.

It took just ten years for it to overtake the US’s largest bricks and mortar retailer Walmart.

What does Amazon own/do?

  • Amazon.com and Amazon Prime membership for additional benefits
  • Prime Music and Music Unlimited (and variants)
  • Prime Video (and variants)
  • Amazon Studios (creates video content)
  • Amazon App store (for its Amazon devices)
  • Kindle and Kindle eBook store
  • Goodreads and Shelfari – user’s recommendations for Amazon Books
  • Audible – spoken entertainment
  • Alexa – voice recognition, shopping and analytics
  • Fire TV devices – casting video content to a TV
  • Fire Tablets
  • Echo speakers and devices
  • Digital Games Store
  • Twitch live streaming games platform
  • Amazon Wireless
  • Amazon Web Services
  • ComiXology – digital comics platform
  • Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods Market
  • Amazon search and reviews
  • And many, many more enterprises in over 130 countries
  • The Wikipedia Article is here.

Why does Amazon want Alexa to succeed?

Voice control is considered the next big thing before we get a Matrix style direct neural interface!

Alexa is its way to cement Amazon into your life. You need to understand that by purchasing Alexa, almost everything it does has a focus on Amazon products, services and partnerships.

As a Forbes article states, “The real goal here is for Amazon to push Amazon brands and own-label products … Voice needs to find the thing users need it for twice a day before they will start getting around the fact voice is a pain in the arse to do most things … As with a lot of things to do with Amazon this is all about the long-play. The point of Alexa is to sell stuff, but from day one it’s a dumb beast. Get the devices into as many homes as possible and help people part with their money afterwards is the smart strategy.”

Alexa provides extensive data for Amazon’s analytics engine. Its sometimes referred to as a closed loop. You ask Alexa about something, and it is then able to steer you to its relevant offerings.

Setup

  • Download the Alexa App for iOS or Android. You can’t use multiple smartphones to control speakers linked to an app.
  • Log in with an Amazon Account (or create a new one)
  • Any activity beyond the ‘base’ requires a valid credit card to be saved for future use – even to access most of the free content
  • Each speaker (and I was testing eight) requires individual setup
  • Connect to the speakers Wi-Fi SSID
  • Give it a name and room location, e.g. Echo Dot bedroom (for multi-room use)
  • Tell it what home Wi-Fi SSID to join and provide a password
  • For each speaker, manually type in the country, time zone, and physical address (street location). It only allows legitimate Australian locations – don’t try to fool it.
  • You can also use the app to link Alexa to your Gmail, Outlook, or iCloud calendar
  • You can use the app to link to your content providers (if they have support)

With Sonos One, Sonos Beam and Ultimate Ears Blast you first install the relevant manufacturer’s app and set up those speakers. Then you add an Alexa skill. Once done they show up in the Alexa app.

With the Echo Spot you set it up using the touch screen then the Alexa app finds it.

The app requires individual set up of each speaker. That sounds simple but to set up, eight speakers took nearly two hours with frustratingly unnecessary repetitive typing of details for each. I suppose that gives flexibility, but Google Assistant’s setup is far more intuitive only requiring one speaker to be set up, and the information flows to the rest of the speakers.

Yes, but what does Alexa do?

Its basic functions include

  • Calendar integration so it can tell you what your schedule is today
  • Weather reports
  • Tell time/Set alarms
  • Answer questions (it does not use Google Search databases)
  • Tell jokes or answer trivia questions
  • Flash briefings from ABC, Ten News, Sky News Australia, SBS, Fox Sports or use individual publication skills
  • Add items to a to-do or shopping list (but you can’t print it out)
  • Set up routines, e.g. Alexa wake up (and it can relay the weather, turn on lights etc.)
  • Room-to-room calling (intercom between Alexa speakers)
  • Hands-free calling and messaging
  • On-line purchasing (recent US ‘The Information’ statistics reveal about 2% have used this feature, and 90% won’t use it again)

These functions are like those provided by Google Assistant.

Content providers

  • Music defaults to Amazon [Prime] Music. There is support for Pandora, Spotify Premium, Deezer (paid) iHeartRadio (subscription) and TuneIn radio (free). Apple Music, Google Play Music and others have Alexa skills that enable streaming from a Bluetooth device (not the speaker).
  • Video defaults to Amazon [Prime] Videos although you will need an Amazon Fire TV device to use this to cast to a TV – Miracast and Chromecast are not supported. Netflix support is available.
  • Audiobooks defaults to Audible
  • E-Books default to Kindle
  • Photos default to Amazon [Prime] Photos (not tested – presumably for an online photo album)
  • If you become a Prime member, you can purchase selected Prime items on Amazon

Just a small thing. Much of the content comes via a skill. The skill is usually a subset of the app’s functionality so things like playlists and favourites may not be available in the skill version.

30,000+ Alexa Skills (about 8,000 work in Australia) in the following categories

  • Business and finance related queries, e.g. if your bank (NAB and Westpac) has a skill, it can give you balances etc
  • Connected car – Order Uber etc
  • Education and reference
  • Food and Drink – order Uber Eats, Domino’s Pizza or make a booking on Dimmi (painful!!!)
  • Games, Trivia and accessories – Sports facts
  • Health and Fitness
  • Lifestyle – control smart home devices generally via a third-party smart hub

Skills range from useful to banal. For example, there is a guard dog skill that makes the speaker bark. The only problem is that I could not get it to stop barking!

I fear that it is so easy to write a skill using an Amazon API  (Amazon’s words – not mine) that there is a lot of rubbish in the skills store.

I also am concerned that clever skill writers could overstep reasonable privacy requirements. Almost everyone I tried wanted access to information outside what I consider reasonable to provide the service.

Many skills are more about promoting the brand/product than being useful. According to Deloitte the sole purpose of a skill is to gain mind space, so you remember it when you purchase. “Skills are more brand name heavy and focused around asking for [a specific] brand,” the company said.

Finally, skills are about taking price sensitivity and negotiation away from the sales process. It becomes an impulse purchase where the price is the price instead of doing objective research on what produce you really need and seeking the best price. I don’t know about you, but as an Aussie, I like to bag a bargain.

Unlike apps, you can’t get a virus or malware (yet) from a skill.

Using skills takes a little practice. Instead of saying ‘Alexa play Smooth FM’ you have to say, ‘Alexa ask MyTunerRadio to play Smooth FM, Sydney, 95.3’. It then comes back with a number menu selection of similar radio names, and you select which one – every damned time.

For most skills, you need to get the syntax just right. ‘Alexa, ask [skill] to perform [task].’ This may result in a nested series of options.

There are very few Alexa commands that you can just say what you want like ‘Alexa turn on the lights.”

Home Automation – beginnings

Alexa has two levels of integration. One is to recognise a smart hub and access it directly. Here you can say ‘Alexa turn on the air-conditioning’ provided you have a smart AC controller, and it hooks into a smart hub and is called an air-conditioner.

In Australia, it can access (among others)

  • Philips Hue light controller hub
  • Belkin WeMo switches
  • Nest smart thermostats
  • Logitech Harmony Hub
  • Samsung Smart Things hub
  • And several more

GadgetGuy’s take. Alexa 101 is a very complex animal

I have tried to make readers aware of Alexa – warts and all. As objectively as I can be as a journalist bound by a code of ethics, I have to say that it is a competent voice assistant doing pretty well as much as its bitter competitor Google Assistant does.

Do I trust either with my data?

Amazon focuses on driving you to its goods and services.

Google focuses on advertising revenue. It enables advertisers to offer tailored advertisements to you. It is a closed loop in so far as it serves the advertisements to you – it does not give advertisers your details. You want to get to all left-handed, Volvo driving, golfers – Google is ideal.

Would I buy it? No, but assuredly not because of any bias.

As a reviewer, I look closely at the technology and the ecosystem. Recently we reviewed 10, OK Google Speakers and my conclusion is that it is a lot more open and supported (at least in Australia).

Oh, if you want Alexa the only way to get good sound is to go with Sonos.

OK Google has come from behind and for the past two quarters has outsold Alexa three-to-one

So I have invested in the Google ecosystem and will keep learning its tricks, trials and tribulations. Other Gadgeteers have invested in Alexa – ditto, and we will swap notes to ensure fair reporting.

All I know is that both ecosystems do largely the same and the choice is up to you.

GadgetGuy’s speaker shootout is here.

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