Amazon Alexa: The best friend you never knew you wanted or an over-priced gimmick?

Echo, what’s that?

Alexa is an intelligent personal assistant developed by Amazon, which is integrated with Amazon Echo, Amazon Dot, and Amazon Tap devices. Presently, Alexa products are only available in the US, Germany and the UK, but there are plans for the company to introduce the voice-activated smart speaker Echo to India in the second half of 2017. Ahead of the release here in India, t2 reflects on the ways in which the product has been affecting the lives of people in the UK.

Oops – Alexa did it again

There have been a few bumps in the road for Amazon since they released the product. Alexa has been the unwitting accomplice in a number of accidental spending sprees, after a US news station reported about a little girl asking Alexa to order her a dollhouse, which led many devices across the States to follow suit and order their owners a dollhouse as well. Alexa was also witness to a murder case, with tech giant Amazon asked to hand over recordings in a court case, after customer James Andrew Bates’ was accused of strangling his friend Victor Collins. In the wake of these unfortunate incidences, consumers rightly raised privacy concerns regarding the fact that the devices are always listening for their wake word.

Is Alexa safe to use?

However, Amazon did its best to reassure consumers and address their safety concerns, explaining that the information being collected by the device is not dissimilar to the way that websites use cookies to collect information on your browsing habits. Amazon sending you a targeted email about sushi cookbooks after you ask Alexa to order you a sushi rolling mat seems a small price to pay for having a machine that can make your life so much easier – or at least that seems to be the thinking of the UK consumers who don’t seem to have been deterred from spending £149.99 on the Echo device.

What can Alexa do?

But what does that many British pounds actually get you? Well, Alexa enables the user to create a ‘connected home’, which means you can pair your device with a number of other devices – including speakers, lights, TVs and your FitBit – and you can control all of these things with a simple vocal command.

Entertainment seems to be Alexa’s primary function, as the Echo speaker can stream music from a number of services, including Amazon Music, Spotify, and Apple Music. If you’re too busy having fun to stand in the kitchen, you can get the personal assistant to tell you when your dinner will be ready by setting a timer. Or, if you don’t feel like cooking you can ask Alexa to order you food via JustEat (which is the UK equivalent of Swiggy). The platform also offers a number of practical functions for daily use, Alexa can give you weather reports (provided by AccuWeather), read you the news, and you can also ask Alexa to wake you up in the morning.

What can’t Alexa do?

The downsides are the fact that Alexa can only handle one command at a time; you can’t ask it to turn off the lights in the bedroom and change the song in the same sentence, you would have to say, “Alexa, turn off the bedroom light’, followed by, “Alexa, play something else”. It’s worth remembering, though, that this is still less effort than having to walk into another room and manually switch off the light yourself, especially if you are busy entertaining guests or cooking.

Is Alexa life-changing technology?

Speaking to twenty-year-old English student, Juliette Rowsell, t2 asked if she thought the Amazon Echo is a worthwhile investment. “Overall it is not necessarily the revolutionary piece of technology that people expected. It still feels too novelty to take seriously, and I find that most of its features go unused, especially when things like weather updates are so easily accessible on your phones. As a sound system it is fantastic, but as a new (electrical) member of the household, Alexa isn’t worth the hype.”

Who is Alexa for?

The key to Alexa’s appeal seems related to the age demographic of the user, for Juliette told us she felt silly using the voice command feature to change the song at a social function, but felt that her parents – who bought the device for their family home – were, “much more likely to use the voice activation for requesting songs.” Whilst for teenagers the product might be nothing more than a good quality speaker with the same novelty factor as Apple’s Siri, for other users, the product has proven a lot more useful.

App-ealing to all

One of the biggest tangible benefits of the product is the fact that Alexa is extremely easy for disabled people to use, particularly as the product works with synthetic speech. Using the internet can be difficult for those with disabilities, as many websites feature unlabelled images, auto-playing videos, intrusive and confusing adverts as well as links and buttons that require the user to be able to use a mouse. A voice-activated intelligent assistant like Echo has removed that stress for some disabled users, and helped them feel more independent in their daily life.

Is Alexa worth the hype?

Whilst Amazon Alexa has not been a life-changing piece of technology for most British consumers who’ve bought one, it has shown to us Brits that Amazon is a front-runner in the development of intelligent technology, which is helping to close gaps in our society.

And, when Alexa comes to India later this year there is certainly a case to be made for wanting to be first in line to experience that more connected world.


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