We often talk about the three main voice assistant platforms, Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and the Google Assistant. They’re generally all the same to most people, right?
I’d counter that there’s a massive difference between Alexa and its digital competitors; one that will always keep Amazon at a huge disadvantage: Alexa has no phone of its own so it can’t always be listening for voice commands. The other two assistants have no such limitation because they’re natively baked in to their handset platforms.
Indeed, Amazon did try to get into the smartphone market a few years ago, back in 2014. And the one and only time Amazon attempted to sell its own phone is the one time it failed: The Amazon Fire Phone was universally panned by the tech press.
I actually thought it was a decent handset, even if it was hampered by older internal hardware, and my wife liked it. She appreciated the app carousel interface, now tweaked but common on Amazon’s Fire and FireHD tablets, for example. And scanning objects to get price checks was of value to her as well.
But remember, this was the summer of 2014, a few months prior to the Amazon Echo’s debut, and with it, Alexa. The Fire Phone had many flaws, but perhaps the biggest one was launching it prior to having an always-listening digital assistant. Not attempting a second phone after Alexa debuted is another blunder, but after writing down $170 million due to the Fire Phone effort, I can understand.
That strategic blunder has caused Amazon to launch a number of products to overcome its mistake. Why? Because Alexa has a strong presence in the smart home, where it’s ready to obey your every spoken command, but when you walk out the door, Alexa can’t hear you.
Reviewing the Amazon Echo Frames last month is what got me thinking about this. Stacey was surprised that my overall take was “meh”, which I understand. But for $249, all the product really does is move Alexa from the phone you need to be carrying with you anyway to the glasses on your face.
And if you think about it, that’s essentially what all of the Echo products and services outside of the digital speaker and TV space have been since then. All of them have one primary purpose: Provide an always-listening Alexa device with you outside of your home or in the home where you might not have an Echo speaker.
For example, Amazon has partnered with at least a half-dozen automakers to get Alexa in vehicles, with the first being in 2018. If you have a car that doesn’t support Alexa, Amazon offers the $49 Echo Auto so you can have Alexa available over Bluetooth through your car’s voice system. Stacey reviewed that device last year and found it lacking.
Alexa has also found its way into many headphone products thanks to partnerships with Bose, Jabra, JBL and Sony to name a few. Of course, Amazon introduced its own similar product last year, the Amazon Echo Buds, so you can access Alexa on the go with a simple voice command.
And other wearables besides those Echo Frames I mentioned are available with Alexa too, although there are fewer choices here. The Fitbit Versa 2 is one option, while Amazon introduced the Echo Loop ring last year. Sorry, you can’t speak to Alexa natively on an Apple Watch, which by most measures is the top-selling smartwatch in the segment.
There was potentially good news last week for Amazon when I saw it had made Alexa work hands-free on Android and iOS handsets. But my hopes were dashed when I saw the details:
Yes, Alexa will listen to your spoken commands through the Alexa mobile app but only when the app was open. That’s not really hands-free since you have to tap to open the app. I suppose you could ask Siri or Google Assistant to open the Alexa app on your phone and then speak to Alexa but that’s not quite seamless.
No, Amazon missed the boat when the Fire Phone went down in flames. That was the company’s biggest opportunity to have an always-listening digital assistant when away from the Echo speakers that are found in millions of homes. To be sure, Amazon has partnered with a few phone brands to get Alexa natively available. OnePlus, Motorola and LG are some examples. Outside of OnePlus though, most of the Alexa-enabled handsets are low-end devices and not top-sellers. And even on these phones, Alexa is an simply an option alongside the native Google Assistant.
Unless Amazon decides to put a dedicated wireless data connection such as LTE in wearable products like the Amazon Echo Frames (an expensive and subscription-based proposition for consumers), Alexa won’t be untethered from the the majority of smartphones because Amazon doesn’t make them. Until then, I expect more mobile Echo devices to debut only to find themselves met by more “meh” reviews.