Amazon Alexa and Echo Turn Five, Explode Out of the Home
The Amazon Echo smart speaker and Alexa voice assistant evolved rapidly after debuting on Nov. 6, 2014. The five years since have seen a single product and a limited set of basic interactions become an entire ecosystem of devices supporting more than 100,000 skills. Amazon is celebrating as usual with a sale and a sentimental video about Alexa. Looking at some of the highs and lows for the voice assistant and smart speaker over the last year offers hints of what Amazon is planning next as Alexa continues to change.
New Features, New Privacy Rules
Amazon lacks the smartphone footprint of rivals like Apple and Google. To make Alexa competitive has always meant making the voice assistant as flexible and accessible as possible. Amazon kept up that trend this year both technologically and geographically. The company rolled out several new features to encourage developers, including making it easier to connect Alexa skills to smart toys and improving how the voice assistant connects to mobile accounts. A very recent, but potentially monumental, change came with Alexa opening up personalization options to third-party skills.
The Echo hardware family saw some new additions as well in the last year. Most notably, a third generation of the main Echo smart speaker debuted last month. Though updated and improved, it’s still very recognizable as a descendant of the one from five years ago. There’s a lot more variety today, however. The Echo Show 5 arrived as a rival for other small smart displays and, after a brief stumble, the Alexa-powered wall clock joined the stable. Meanwhile, Amazon kept creating sales that all but gave away the Echo Dot smart speaker, while a new version of the Echo Dot Kids Edition started selling in the face of lawsuits.
Those lawsuits are only one facet of the bigger privacy and security fight that Amazon faced over the last year. Stories about contractors listening to Alexa recordings led to worried consumers and questions from regulators and lawmakers. Amazon was far from alone in facing backlash but decided against ending its program of using contractors for quality control and improvements. Instead, the company updated its service agreement with language to make the fact that humans will listen to some of the recordings very clear. There is also now an opt-out option if users want to withdraw from it.
Talking to More People in More Places
Almost immediately after turning four, Amazon Echo, accompanied by Alexa, arrived in Mexico. Nearly a year later, Brazil joined the list of countries where the smart speaker and voice assistant can be purchased. Each expansion included a new voice in each country’s main language, along with Alexa skills localized for the country and often made by its citizens. The linguistic additions weren’t limited to brand new countries for Alexa either. The voice assistant recently started speaking Hindi and Hinglish, a Hindi and English hybrid, in India. Though Amazon started selling Echos in India almost two years ago, the new languages expand the circle of potential consumers on a huge scale. Other Alexa features expanded globally in the last year, including the developer reward system for skills with premium content, which Amazon brought to several new countries.
Alexa in Everything
The shape of Alexa’s future became much clearer at Amazon’s big hardware event in September. Along with new varieties of Echo smart speakers and smart displays, Amazon showcased several new wearable tech devices. The Echo Frames smart glasses, Echo Loop ring, and the Echo Buds earbuds are all built on the idea of maintaining a connection to Alexa as much as possible. The original Echo opened the door for people becoming familiar with Alexa, but the latest products are designed to make Alexa a constant companion, making up for the failure of the Alexa-powered Amazon smartphone.
Along with wearables, cars are a growing focus for Alexa integration. The recent news that General Motors is integrating Alexa into several of its new models, followed by Volkswagen announcing a similar integration for the next generation of Golf model cars is likely just the beginning of an aggressive push by Alexa to become the default voice assistant for new cars. Alexa may not achieve the goal of becoming a ubiquitous presence in people’s lives immediately, but it isn’t slowing its willingness to try out new ways to be everywhere for everyone.