Without question, the phrase heard most around this year’s CES is, “It works with Alexa.” (Second place: "Where do I go to pick up my Uber?") Amazon’s personal digital assistant software, till now found only in its line of Echo wireless speakers, is the belle of the ball, acing out Virtual Reality, Internet of Things/Smart Home, UHD, drones, robots, and any other trend in what is one of the few home run tech stories we’ve seen since the birth of the iPad in 2011. The ability to have a device controlled by voice, or in a few cases actually summon Alexa in a non-Amazon Echo speaker, has turned out to be a pivotal killer app. The question is how big a deal this is: Is Alexa’s popularity a momentary trend, or are we seeing a major tipping point for the future of the connected home, here for the long run?
So far, Alexa and the Echo have been a bona fide hit for Amazon, with estimates of more than 5 million being sold in the United States as of November before the crucial holiday season. If you’ve never experienced one, it’s an impressive experience: Using natural language, you quickly get used to calling up your favorite radio stations, asking for news summaries, or adding items to lists, using voice to start cooking timers, and so on. (We reluctantly installed an Echo in our kitchen a year ago and have rarely looked back since, and even our kids have a fluent grasp of how to interact with Alexa.) If Alexa were only a voice-controlled speaker, she’d be a success. But her real impact has turned out to come from her ability to be constantly updated with new so-called “skills” that come from third parties. Early on, Amazon had the foresight to allow companies or even individuals to experiment and create functions with their own products or services for Alexa. But It was a risky business move that has seemingly turned out to be one of the canniest in memory.
Initially the skills were largely silly games that relied on simple database queries, canned trivia, or math games and the like. But then Alexa was able to control a few select smart-home devices, such as Philips Hue bulbs, the Nest Thermostat, and soon Lutron lights and also some devices connected to Samsung’s Smart Things Hubs. Other companies caught on quickly that Alexa’s voice-control capabilities and, crucially, the ease of creating skills for her, turned out to fill a gap in their own products, and in the past year, Amazon’s once modest but successful wireless speaker has arguably become the most powerful presence in the consumer-facing smart-home space.
As we have written in the past, the smart-home is at turns inspiring and befuddling, due largely to the industry’s unwillingness to unify behind a single set of standards for controlling smart-home devices, leaving us with an often Balkanized experience. If you simply went shopping and bought the smart-devices you liked or that had the best reviews, you might have a thermostat, a smart-door lock, some security cameras, a few window sensors, and maybe a smoke alarm that are all largely incompatible with one another. What Alexa has done is to be the largely neutral middle man, allowing once incompatible devices to be somewhat more unified and useful. Through one device, without lifting a hand to a smartphone or remote, one can now control many of the most popular smart-home devices around. That’s huge.
What’s especially interesting, though, is that at CES this year we’ve now seen devices from other companies that actually have the cloned guts of an Echo built inside, with Amazon’s blessing. It’s a major distinction: As these products trickle into the market, you’ll now be able to talk with them directly, rather than having to go wherever your nearest Alexa device is. This means in effect that once you have a handful of these devices installed around your home, Alexa will become the de facto whole home control system we’ve heard so much about since the early days of sci-fi and Star Trek. In the coming year you could, without great expense, equip every room in your home with voice-controlled Amazon Dots or other devices and comfortably control everything using only your voice. And so far this week we’ve seen announcements about a smoke alarm, a few varieties of speaker and alarm clocks, a smart switch and power strip, a refrigerator, a living room lamp, and, naturally, a robot, and, off the record, other companies have suggested they have plans in the works to add Alexa’s guts to their products, too.
Here’s where things get a bit hazier. The smart-home has a few other heavyweights in this game with hardware chops, strong AI and cloud infrastructure and existing and refined virtual digital assistants, who aren’t simply going to tuck tail and walk away, namely Apple, Google, and (to a lesser extent) Microsoft. Apple’s HomeKit is particularly powerful and secure, and Siri has gotten way better even in the past couple months — and thanks to Apple’s worldwide user base of 1 billion users, it makes Alexa’s current U.S.-only reach seem positively puny. Similarly Google has about 1.4 billion Android users around the globe, and its line of Nest products are cross-compatible with a number of smart-home standards. In short, the battle for the smart-home has really just begun.