What is the Deal with the Alexa Powered Microwave? It’s a Message to Appliance Makers.
— Dieter Bohn (@backlon) September 20, 2018
Dieter Bohn from The Verge quipped on Twitter, the Alexa-powered microwave is simply a micro wave. That is true having seen the device up close and it was a funny comment given all the hype around smart devices. However, there is more to the story. News leaked of the Amazon Basics Microwave with Alexa integration prior to Thursday’s official announcement. It is fair to say that the microwave rumor dominated pre-event headlines in part because it seemed so unexpected, even outrageous. Amazon makes speakers, televisions and many other entertainment devices. But, microwaves? Yes, microwaves.
The Alexa Microwave is a Reference Design
Amazon may wind up selling a lot of microwaves. Is there a more commoditized appliance today? Adding Alexa may be just the differentiation needed to steer a consumer decision process. And, the price is compelling. At $59.99, AmazonBasics Microwave is already a best seller and it won’t start shipping until mid-November. It is not the lowest priced microwave available, but it is one among the least expensive on Amazon.com.
What is clear is that Amazon doesn’t really care if it sells a lot of Alexa microwaves. If it does, that will be a bonus. David Limp, Amazon senior vice president of devices offered insight into the rationale behind product during the launch presentation this past week:
It’s kind of common at Amazon that when we create these new APIs…that we dog food our own APIs. It allows us to harden them, make sure they work well…We got to work at an alpha version of the [Alexa Connect Kit] with the team over our Amazon Basics…They got to thinking, ‘what can we do?’ And, they came up with a great product to show a reference design of this which is the Amazon Basics Microwave. Yeah, it’s a microwave. You’ve got to giggle a little bit. Come on? But, it is actually pretty fun…It turns out that the microwave is a very good litmus test for the Alexa Connect Kit.
He shows by his comments that the device is a little unexpected and the team is well aware of that fact. It also seems clear that Amazon is not looking to make a lot of money on microwaves. This is not the signal that Amazon intends to invade the appliance segment next with low cost, branded products. It is a reference design that also happens to be a sellable product.
An Example and a Message to Appliance Makers
Amazon sees appliance makers are slow to integrate Alexa capabilities directly into their devices. The microwave shows them a simple Alexa implementation in an appliance that competes wth their own product line. There is no engineering magic in the microwave nor is there a microphone or speaker to interact with Alexa. However, there is a button. That button activates Alexa in a nearby smart speaker and enables users to control the microwave by voice.
Could this be enabled through an Alexa skill? Of course. But, putting Alexa inside and giving it a button (e.g. Bixby on Samsung Galaxy smartphones) also gives Alexa permanence. It also simplifies the interaction. You don’t have to say, “Alexa, tell the microwave…..” You press the button and just say what you want to happen. No extra language required. Also, you don’t start the microwave from across the room. You must place something in the microwave, so you are right there and pressing the button is actually convenient. This minimizes engineering change requirements for some appliances if they only need to install a button and use WiFi connectivity for the rest.
If Amazon sells a lot of microwaves, it will be a catalyst for appliance makers to get more committed to the Alexa bandwagon to ensure they don’t lose out on product sales. It is also a subtle warning to other appliance makers that they can join the Alexa ecosystem or Amazon just might decide to enter their product category. The company may compete anyway, but the incentive is less if Amazon sees other manufacturers serving consumers with Alexa-enabled products.
Amazon wants a robust product line of Alexa enabled devices. If existing product makers don’t move to integrate Alexa, Amazon will use it’s technology prowess and market power to fill the gap.