The unimaginable has happened: I've run out of Coca-Cola. I know how bad it is for me but drastic life changes can wait until the new year, and right now there's a magic cola button across the room that's giving me a knowing look. "Just one press," it says. "Go on. You don't even need to go outside."
And so I do. I push it like I'm part of some Pavlovian experiment. It's positive reinforcement: push a button, get a prize. The selection process, the transaction of money, the postage; I don't have to think about any of these things. Everything is condensed into one simple, satisfying push of a button.
Amazon's made a lot of interesting moves in the home space over the last year, so I spent a week bedding myself firmly into its ecosystem to see just how well it all fits together, buttons, scanners and smart assistants included.
Here's how it went.
Monday: Dash buttons arrive
For my diary I order a handful of Dash buttons and one of Amazon's Dash wands, which can be used to scan the barcodes of items around the house for later ordering. I forgot how small the Dash buttons are, but choosing where to put them is actually difficult. I don't like the idea of decorating my apartment with brand logos, so I stick a couple on the fridge and a couple under a cupboard.
Amazon depicts a world where our homes are decorated by these magic sticky gizmos - Tide on the washing machine, Gillette on the bathroom cabinet door, Meow Mix by the cat's litter box - but I don't think that's the world most people want to live in. It probably says a lot that when Amazon first announced its Dash buttons in 2015 many people - myself included - thought it was a big joke. In our defence, it did announce the news on the eve of April Fool's.
As for the wand, it's a tad more subtle but I prefer to keep it on the kitchen counter. Both the buttons and wand are easy to sync up to the Wi-Fi and once that's done I'm able to use them even if my phone is nowhere nearby. My Echo, the only one of the devices I am proud to have on display, remains sat on the living room coffee table. I am now officially sponsored by Amazon.
Tuesday: Supermarket sweep
This morning I spend nearly an hour just walking around my apartment scanning barcodes. It's great fun, and yes, I do momentarily regress into childhood and swing it around like a lightsaber. But now I'm an adult and scan barcodes for serious grown-up things like acquiring sustenance.
Amazon's wand is supposed to make buying new groceries and products easier, by of course pushing you to its own store. In the app it will divide scanned items into those available through Amazon's Fresh grocery service and those through standard delivery.
Even if Amazon can't find the item, it leaves a record of it in my search history, which is useful, and actually I'm already seeing the benefit of using the wand as just a shopping list device. I try the voice recognition but it's not brilliant at detecting what I'm saying, and I'd save time just writing "more toothpaste" down on a notepad. For voice recognition I find the Echo itself better, so I make an IFTTT recipe that adds my Alexa shopping list to Evernote.
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I later take the wand to a supermarket and start scanning everything I see. When the wand can't connect to Wi-Fi it keeps a memory of what you've scanned and adds them to your basket later, although Amazon doesn't advertise this feature. This, I think, is actually really useful, and something I'll definitely be using it for in the future.
The problem is that I'm not a big weekly shop kind of person. I'll do a big supermarket trip once in a while, but even then I tend to mix things up a lot, rarely opting for the same things every time. But some people (families?) prefer to do a big shop, or tend to order the same things regularly, and in those cases I think Amazon's wand is better suited. For me, I'm finding it more helpful to remind myself to buy generic items, like scanning a box of Cheerios just to remind myself to buy some cereal, even though I'll probably go for a different brand the next time. I've been meaning to try Apple Jacks.
Wednesday: Age of instant gratification
It's easy to be cynical of big corporations. Every time I tap a Dash button I have premonitions of the scenes in Wall.E where everyone is living in hover-chairs eating "cupcakes-in-a-cup".
But right now we've nothing to worry about. More than a year after launching, the Dash buttons are still frustratingly limited. Only a select few brands are available in Dash form, but more annoying is the small number of SKUs you have to pick from when deciding what you want your magic button to order. Take Bounty: there are just three options to choose from on the Dash button, the cheapest being $20, but if I go to Amazon's site I can buy a six-pack for $10. With Cola there's only one $23 option. I can't assign the cheaper 12-can fridge pack, nor change to Diet Coke should I feel the need to start weaning off the sugar.
Right now, the wand will let me add individual items to my basket, making it much more flexible than the Dash buttons which push you to bulk purchases.
If there's one thing you know you're going to order time and time again, and you know Amazon is always going to have the best deal/don't care that much about saving a few quid, then I get why the Dash button is useful. Same goes for location. I live just above a Walgreens, so if I want more kitchen towels it's easier for me to just pick them up when I'm next down there, which is guaranteed to be in the next day or two. I know I can probably get them cheaper there too. Plenty of people don't have that luxury.
And when it's late at night and you're told something can be delivered right to your door within an hour, your laziness can be rewarded. Living in San Francisco means I'm better serviced by Amazon delivery than many others, but Amazon is not going to stop until anyone in the world can order a drone at 10pm and get it by midnight - most likely delivered by a drone.
Thursday: Chatting with Alexa
I'd already fallen in love with my Echo Dot before I tried Amazon's other home devices, and have purchased some things with it, but I wanted to see how well it would fit in with the others. Is Alexa better than a Dash button?
When I ask her to order Bounty kitchen rolls, Alexa goes straight to the 'Amazon Choice' option, which is one of the Dash SKUs. She then goes on to tell me the number one search item, which is even more expensive, before rerouting me to the app. When I try to buy Coca-Cola it's the same deal, but she also unhelpfully suggests a $10 tin sign.
However, Alexa also looks into your order history, and will suggest the same SKUs again - so long as they're offered through Prime - which makes her a bit more useful. If there's a cheaper type of kitchen roll I've bought in the past, she'll recommend that; with the Dash button I'm more restricted in my options.
But it's not all about buying things. I find Alexa great for getting the weather forecast, checking the news headlines and playing music. She's also good at talking with smart home devices such as Nest. But there are other things I often do which I don't tend to use Alexa for, like ordering an Uber.
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Immediately my instinct is to say "Alexa, Order an Uber", but she doesn't like that, probably because it's too similar to asking her to buy something. Instead I have to say "Alexa, ask Uber to request a ride" and she responds to tell me there's a driver less than a minute away before I proceed to order.
The only problem I have with Ubering through Alexa is that I use Pool a lot, and right now that's not supported, probably because I can't tell her my destination. I can order an SUV or XL, but I'm rarely going to be getting either from my home. This time I get a regular Uber. You know, just for a treat.
There are also lots of things that Alexa is less good at, like Twitter. Getting her to read out tweets is more hassle than simply opening my timeline where I can digest a lot more information in the same time. I also tried the Kayak app to ask Alexa about some cheap flights, but again, it just made more sense to open my laptop and search from there.
Friday: In the bubble
Amazon wants to keep you in its bubble as much as it can, and it tries to do this by offering you greater convenience. The problem is that right now the technology doesn't quite match the Amazon store experience.
I ask Alexa to search for 3DS consoles and she comes up with Amazon's special edition version. Truth be told I'd recently done some research on this, but now Alexa is telling me I could have it in my hands in the next three hours. "Would you like to buy it?" It's as easy as that, and just one word later I've spent $200. Seriously, if you have kids in the house I strongly recommend adding a passcode to your Alexa purchases before boxes of toys start mysteriously turning up at your doorstep.
It's 5pm when I put in my order, and sure enough it arrives by 9pm. I answer the door in my pyjama bottoms, barely a thought given to the chunk of money that Jeff Bezos's virtual hand is currently taking out of my account.
I feel like this was an unusual situation where I knew exactly what I wanted, but then I suppose that's the point. The next day I decide I've had enough fighting with the oven and want to buy a pressure cooker, but know very little about them. So a good hour is spent looking online at different deals, models etc. In the end I buy one, but not from Amazon. I can't imagine being in that situation and just relying on Alexa to pick the one she (Amazon) thinks is best.
Amazon's smart home tech doesn't work for people who spend hours labouring over purchases. It's for people who are less fussy, happy to buy on a whim, or know exactly what they want. And that's fine, but it's not always convenient.
So... what did I learn from all this?
Amazon's ecosystem, while great in some places, still needs a lot of work if it wants to own our purchasing habits. It feels like ordering with Alexa and Dash is more for people who just aren't fussy, or know Amazon's catalogue so well they know exactly what they're going to get.
For the rest of us, pulling out a phone or opening a laptop is probably worth the small amount of extra time for the potential money saved. It may also remind you just how much you're spending, which is probably a good thing.
But I also don't doubt that Amazon will continue to nudge its way into the smart home. Amazon hasn't just "disrupted" the delivery market, it has created a new one of instant gratification. These connected home devices are starting to play a crucial role in shrinking the space between realising what you want and holding it in your hands. It has a Trojan horse in the Echo, but the Dash buttons are where it stumbles.
Still, it can't be long before Amazon is predicting our orders based on purchase history and preparing our shopping lists for us. Hopefully cupcakes-in-a-cup won't be on there.