The Amazon Echo has been something of a revelation. Not only has it changed the way we think about voice-controlled gadgets, taking them from gimmicks to greatness, but thanks to its integrated voice assistant, Alexa, it's become the device that's finally made smart home devices accessible to everyone.
The difference is that you feel like you're talking to a person rather than a machine. Not only does Alexa have a human name, but she also has a sense of humour, albeit one that's been programmed, of course. Don't believe us? Just give these Alexa Easter eggs a try.
OK, Siri checks those two boxes too but Alexa's far-field voice recognition removes some of the social anxiety around conversational interactions. Amazon is stretching its digital legs beyond its Echo-based foundations too, with the voice assistant starting to pop up in everything from lamps to fridges and playing nice with products ranging from robot vacuum cleaners to shower heads – yes, seriously.
Out in the US for 18 months and in the UK since last September, it would seem that Alexa is the frontrunner in the war to dominate the smart home space. But is all as it seems? Is Alexa really winning the smart home war or by humanising technology or are we giving too much attention to an internet connected speaker? We tried to find out.
Beyond the hype
It would be easy to look at the hype surrounding Alexa and instantly declare it the early winner of the smart home space. "Voice is absolutely the future of technology," Daren Gill, head of Alexa product development at Amazon, told us. "The genie is out of the bottle, it's only going to spark more and more innovation and it's not going to go away."
Appealing to the world's love of sci-fi inspired tech and getting us all nostalgic about past TV and movie joys, Alexa has risen to prominence in a sea of connected thermostats, smart security services and lighting that you can control from your phone. That doesn't mean she's not proved successful in her own right though.
"Alexa is one of the most talked about products at the moment, and it would be difficult to say that it wasn't the most successful smart home product over Christmas," Mark Hosgood, senior smart tech manager at Currys PC World told Wareable. "If you've ever watched Star Trek or sci-fi, it's always been people talking to thin air. It's a technology that's very engaging and one that people are catching on to quickly. The Echo has definitely broken into the mainstream a lot quicker than we would have expected."
It's not just Alexa's futuristic ways, sharp tongue or even her impressive cross-compatibility skills that have helped her reach the top though. Timing has played a key part. "In smart home in general, there seems to have been a real lift in sales just before the UK launch of Echo back in September . As soon as it got cold and dark, sales started to pick up," said Hosgood. "What's getting lost in all the excitement around Alexa is that there have already been some really successful smart home products. They don't get the same level of media coverage or noise around them, but the likes of Ring and Canary have been doing really well."
The smart home hasn't made the shift from early to mass adopters yet
After going on sale for US Amazon Prime members in November 2014 with a wider release in June 2015, the Echo has been out on its own until recently. In that time, Alexa has just kept getting better and better and her legion of American fans - may of whom bought the gadget straight from Amazon - has grown. Hosgood isn't the only one to suggest timing is key to Alexa's success, with Katrina Mills, buyer for Audio and Connected Home at retailer John Lewis, pinning Alexa's success on a current lack of competition due to it being first on sale.
"The reality of the UK market at the moment is that Alexa is the only device that is really available," she explained. "Some of its main rivals like Google Home haven't launched in the UK yet. It's probably safe to say that it's not that they're winning, it's that they're the only credible option in the UK at the moment.
"We are on the verge of something interesting, but the smart home as a whole hasn't made that shift from the early adopters to the mass adopters yet. We have seen a lot of interest in the Echo in John Lewis though."
So although Alexa is proving a hit with Brits, its success might not all be down to its abilities. That said, the digital assistant is widely regarded to have pushed voice-controlled gadgets on to heady new heights, with a more personable, engaging touch than the likes of Cortana, Google Now and even Siri, all of which have lived inside our smartphones and wearables for years without this kind of breakthrough.
Yes, this cheeky charm might be skewing our perceptions of the assistant's success slightly, but with Alexa starting to pop up in so many third-party devices it's impossible to ignore the service's deserved successes elsewhere.
Alexa & friends
Lenovo has debuted its own Amazon Echo-style device, with the cylindrical Smart Assistant speaker even playing host to Alexa. This is just one of a number of newly debuted devices that either have Alexa built in or that are being developed with Alexa Skills to play nice with the smart service. With this list including products and devices from LG, Samsung and Ford amongst others, this is a sign that Alexa is indeed edging ahead of the competition.
Amazon itself sees Alexa's open APIs as key to its widespread adoption, an uptake that's needed to transform the smart system from a strong starter to the true dominant force in the smart home space.
"Alexa is certainly being integrated with many, many partners and the idea of our self-service APIs makes that easier for those partners to find ways in which they integrate Alexa into the experience. We are really excited about the uptake on that," said Daren Gill, head of Alexa. "Early on we decided that these open APIs were going to be part of our strategy."
So why is Alexa getting the nod ahead of rival platforms such as those offered by Google and Microsoft? Well, it all seems to come down to Amazon's early efforts and foresight. Developers have had more time to understand and work with the platform. As Mills says, "It's no surprise it's a more popular choice because for a long time it was the only choice."
It's this open nature that has drawn many in, with Alexa's open APIs making it easier for developers to build support in to their existing and upcoming devices, bolstering the support of the Echo in the process.
Next: Wearables, cars and gaming
From speakers and connected cars to smartphones and even the odd fridge, Alexa is already being crammed into all manner of devices, and, thanks to these open APIs, there are more to come. She's getting ready to leave your house and control the broader parts of your life aboard a fleet of new devices.
According to Gill, this will also include Alexa-equipped wearables. "We're working with tens of thousands of developers to integrate our AVS, our Alexa Voice Services, into these various devices and we're very excited about it," he said. "Wearables, and the ability to be conversing with and controlling watches is an interesting area."
Although excited about the wearable applications of Alexa, this isn't all that Gill sees in her future, with the car, gaming and home all set to be key areas of focus for the platform moving forward.
"Some of the announcements we've made in the automotive space are really exciting," he said. "The powers of hands-free when you're driving is great." And buyers agree with Hosgood pointing to cars as an obvious area to provide tangible benefits: "There are so many things that you do in your car, be it setting the heating or changing the radio stations, that immediately, if you had voice activation in there, would be easier."
How Alexa evolves isn't just a decision to be made by Amazon, however. Those open APIs mean that developers will be a driving force in her next steps.
"We've seen some interesting new devices where people are thinking about ways in which they could integrate it, whether it's appliances in the kitchen or elsewhere," Gill explained. "We're excited by all of the opportunities. It's going to take some challenges to understand what's the right context and whether Alexa needs to change or should shift, but we see it as a really bright future."
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The future is voice
It's not just the devices that matter, but the software and platform itself. If Alexa is going to retain its dominant footing in the smart home of the future, it will need to continue to develop and evolve at a pace greater than the competition.
Getting us into this voice environment was a big leap
Despite Alexa having redefined our expectations of digital voice assistants, such sector-revolutionising steps in abilities can't be expected every year. According to Gill, the rate of progress will slow, and smaller refinements, rather than groundbreaking steps, will be introduced on a regular basis.
"I don't expect that we'll see giant step leaps," the Alexa head explained. "Getting us into this voice environment was a big leap that we brought to the table, but now we'll see steady improvement as to how that ease of voice and AI will get smarter and smarter in understanding users and how they interact."
He added: "We are excited about how well Alexa works, but conscious of all the work we need to do going forward to make it truly personal and natural and let it understand the context of users and what they say at any one moment.
"To truly understand natural language, we have to get more and more robust and look at what the users are trying to say and the multitude of ways in which they can say it," he explained. "Also understanding context better in the future will be really important. That ability to understand your patterns of behaviour, what you like to use your device for, the ease in which you can set up new devices in the home. Alexa will already know which ones you've got available and which ones she can connect to, that's all the sort of challenges we're looking at as we move ahead."
Fortunately, getting hold of these Alexa improvements won't mean annual hardware updates like you have with your phone or smartwatch. According to Gill: "We can do almost everything from the cloud so the improvements come fast and Alexa is always learning, can always learn and get the benefits of the innovation without having to push out new hardware devices."
Alexa might still be in her infancy, but she's already shown us what voice-controlled digital assistants can be. She's winning the smart home war because she's succeeded where the likes of Siri failed – getting us to talk to our tech.