The First Alexa Phone Gets Amazon Even Closer to Total Domination

The First Alexa Phone Gets Amazon Even Closer to Total Domination

Tuesday, 18 July 2017
This post was originally published on this site

Amazon’s Alexa has plenty going for it. Developers have trained the virtual assistant with over 10,000 “skills”—apps you talk to instead of tap—to do everything from hailing a Lyft to checking your stock portfolio. At home, Alexa can control the lights, set timers, play your local NPR station, and generally achieve that Jarvis-level assistance that feels so much like the future. Until now, though, Alexa lacked what it needs more than any of those things to secure its success: a fighting chance on smartphones.

Alexa already lives on Android and iOS. But you have to go hunting for it like some sort of Neanderthal, rather than just conversing as you might with Siri or Google Assistant. Even if Alexa beats the pants off of other virtual assistants, convenience will always win out.

Now, though, a single smartphone has put Alexa on par with its native competitors. Just say “Alexa” to the HTC U11 flagship, and it’ll appear. It’s a small step, which needs some refinement. But it’s one that Amazon needed to take, before the voice revolution it led threatens to leave it behind.

Rocky Start

Alexa and Google Assistant are like roommates on the HTC U11. You can yell “Alexa!” at your phone to enable it, or squeeze the phone’s edges to bring the chirpy blue assistant to life. You can also say “Hey Google” or long-press the home button to summon Assistant. Both are integrated onto the phone and can be used interchangeably.

But in use, it’s obvious that Alexa isn’t native to the phone. It takes three or more seconds for Alexa to show up after you squeeze the edge or speak the wake word. By then, you’ve tried to activate Alexa again, which makes Alexa stop listening, so you have to activate Alexa again, and round and round you go. You can’t use Alexa if your phone is locked, and not having the Alexa app downloaded hampers the experience.

Despite the lags, Alexa does excel at doing Alexa Things, like controlling the music, playing flash briefings, and making to-do lists. Strangely, though, there are a bunch of Alexa Things you can’t do here—at least, not yet. You can’t play music from any service other than Amazon, set timers, or hook into Amazon’s new Echo messaging service. And there’s no indication, ever, that Alexa knows it’s on a screen. Alexa can read the upcoming events on your calendar, but won’t show them. “Show me videos of cats” leads to zero videos of cats. You can buy things on Amazon, but Alexa won’t show them to you in the Amazon app before you buy.

Eventually, as the Echo Show becomes more popular and developers build more visual skills, Alexa and a phone could play nice, or at least acknowledge each other. Eventually, Alexa will probably learn to do more smartphone-y things too, like navigating in Google Maps or turning on Bluetooth. It just hasn’t had to yet, because RIP Fire Phone.

One pleasant surprise: how totally un-weird it was to flip between assistants. Google Assistant is wildly better for jumping around on your phone, sending texts, making calls, and opening apps. Alexa does a better job with controlling the lights and locks, and offers a giant list of skills that make calling a Lyft or ordering pizza as easy as asking out loud. All in all, it’s a very peaceful coexistence. But on this phone, at least, Google Assistant has so much more upside. It’s truly part of the phone, at the deepest levels. For now, Alexa’s just a supercharged app.

One Small Step

Alexa on the HTC U11 may feel like a half-measure, but that beats no measure at all. It also won’t turn Amazon into a mobile player overnight, since HTC only holds 1 percent marketshare in North America. But even Amazon describes itself as “still at day one” when it comes to getting Alexa on phones.

The opportunity presents itself to expand quickly from here. Apple has 14 percent of the market locked up with iOS and Siri. Another 23 percent belongs to Samsung, which has Bixby. And Google’s Pixel phones will stay true to Google Assistant. That still leaves plenty of mid and low-range players who might welcome a voice assistant that helps check Google’s influence on their products. Paired with Amazon’s robust lead in the home, it might just be enough.

“As far as Alexa, it’s been very promising so far because they’ve touched many more points than some of their competitors” in non-phone areas, says Gartner mobile analyst Tuong Nguyen.

In that sense, the specific impact of Alexa on the HTC U11 doesn’t matter much at all. At least, not nearly as much as what it says about Alexa’s future.

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