Doubt the Amazon Echo? Don’t.
On January 9th, 2007, anxious attendees of a particularly buzzy Apple keynote sat in the Bill Graham Auditorium in downtown San Francisco, unsure of exactly what to expect. They knew that they were in for a treat — Apple keynotes did, after all, tend to offer up unique combinations of power and spectacle that would, in time, translate into unique new directions within the tech industry. That day, however, was different, and everyone there knew it. Before the audience stood a slight, balding figure in blue jeans and a black turtleneck. To someone on the street, he may have appeared to be just another techie, his round glasses sliding down the brim of his nose, but his eyes shining nonetheless brightly behind them. To say that his look belied the shockwave he was about to send through the world of mobile computing — and the world as a whole — would be an understatement. What cannot be understated, however, is just how transformative the device he was about to unveil — the iPhone — would become within the context of the modern era.
The original iPhone was revolutionary because it combined phone, internet, and music into one beautiful package. And yet, though it is hard to imagine now, it lacked features that are today considered standard. The original iPhone had neither apps nor the capability to shoot video. It connected to only a single wireless network (Cingular — remember them?), and users could not **gasp** text in landscape mode (something I thought was a huge deal then, but who texts in landscape mode?). Cover art was a thing (and an important marketing piece, at that), and the home button still had a square etched into the middle. As for storage, the original iPhone came in two sizes: four and eight gigabytes (the smallest iPhone now comes with 32 gigabytes). The screen would be considered pixelated by modern standards, but was nothing short of artwork then, and the device’s construction inspired a feeling among users that hadn’t existed in any meaningful sense with regard to technology before its release: attraction.¹ Never before had a device so captured our collective cultural attention and inspired us to take action. The iPhone was the first step into a larger world of mobile cohesion and dominance, and Apple has led the way ever since. Though some may argue that other large companies — Google and Samsung, for instance — boast better hardware and software, there is no debate that the ecosystem that Apple has built, starting with its keystone device — the iPhone — is unrivaled in the modern era.
When asked about the original iPhone’s insistence on maintaining a closed ecosystem, Steve Jobs famously emphasized the importance of not over-promising and under-delivering. The iPhone was great because it did a select few things extraordinarily well. It not only stored our music in one place, but it did so in a beautiful and pleasing manner. It afforded us access to the entirety of the internet and offered multi-touch, which pioneered the idea of pinching to zoom in and out, and offered us our first glimpse into a world in which user experiences were governed by intuition, rather than adaptation. The iPhone allowed us to communicate with one another, too, with a virtual keyboard that took a surprisingly short time to catch on, especially given people’s seemingly rigid unwillingness to part from their beloved physical keyboards (RIM, the manufacturer of the original Blackberry, no longer produces mobile devices — more like RIP). The iPhone had other features, sure, but music, internet, and phone were the big three, and as people came to trust the device’s ability to do these three things well, when, in many cases, many devices couldn’t even do one, people came to understand that the Apple brand signaled a unique combination of power and beauty, and began to trust it. Phone manufacturers of the modern era — companies like Samsung, LG, HTC, Xiaomi, and others — have Apple to thank for building consumer trust in the idea of a truly smart, intuitive, and beautiful device.
In the years since Apple’s release of the iPhone, the company has built on its success. The app store has given iPhones previously unimaginable capabilities, and the devices that Apple has built around the iPhone have become better and more efficient. The beauty in Apple’s ecosystem lies in just how in tune with both each other — and more importantly, the user — the devices appear to be. The iPhone was just the start, but from the outset, it just felt right — there is no other way to describe it. Having one made sense both if you had the means, and if you didn’t. Almost fifty percent of the world now has a device in their pocket that at its heart combines media, communication, and connectivity. The iPhone was the start of all of it.
In retrospect, it is easy to have seen the iPhone coming — in fact, how revolutionary it was is likely downplayed by how entrenched it has become. The tech industry is constantly focused on the next big thing. Ten years ago, that was the iPhone. Now, it’s the Echo.
Amazon’s Echo is not as flashy as the iPhone was, granted, in no small part because Amazon is nowhere near as talented as Apple at building hype around a product and still managing to smash expectations. But having used the Amazon Echo for more than a month now, I can safely say that voice will become an integral part of our lives within the next several years. In the same way that the iPhone redefined how we interacted with a mobile device, voice will redefine how we interact with our homes, our lives, and ourselves. Amazon’s Alexa is not all-knowing, or perfect, but she does a host of important things well. Heeding the sage advice given by Steve Jobs so many years ago, she does not “over-promise” or “under-deliver.”
On a daily basis, I use Alexa for a small number of tasks. First, I use her to control my music, which requires nothing more than saying, “Alexa, play ____________.” If I want to turn the music up or down, I need only say, “Alexa, turn it down/up,” and she will oblige. She is extremely good at finding even somewhat ambiguous music, and at interpreting hard to understand songs and band names. In over a month of use, she has nailed probably 99% of my music requests, which encapsulate everything from volume changes to obscure album requests.
I use Alexa again for my morning alarm. Before I go to bed, I simply say the words, “Alexa, set an alarm for 5:45am,” and she does it. This is one of the things about Alexa that I did not expect to love, and yet I do — it is weirdly wonderful to no longer have to interact with the alarm app on my iPhone. Similarly, I can use Alexa for things that would typically require my hands even when I don’t have them free. This becomes especially useful when improvising a workout, cooking a meal, or when the music that’s playing no longer suits what I’m doing.
Beyond the simple things, I can ask Alexa to play podcasts, access the Amazon marketplace and relay information on deals, and place an order. She can call a Lyft (though I have not had her do it) and access other resources for me, like a meditation, or calming sounds before bed. Her capabilities are limited, but they are growing. As they do, so will our trust in her, and more importantly, our trust in AI.
Alexa has shortcomings, to be sure. She struggles with questions in context, though she is far better than Siri on this front (and yet nowhere near Google, from what I’ve heard). She cannot carry a conversation with me beyond a few sentences, though I think I would find it weirder if she could. She is still tethered to a cord in a meaningful way; she cannot work while unplugged like a bluetooth speaker would. I purchased a battery attachment that allows me to move her around, but it hasn’t come yet,² and it is frustrating to have to move her, cord and all, from one room to another when I’m cooking, or just hanging out somewhere else. But while she has shortcomings, they are acknowledged, as the iPhone’s were before her. Apple told consumers that the original iPhone wouldn’t shoot video. They told consumers that the original iPhone couldn’t text in landscape mode. They told consumers that it would only be available on one network. By telling users the truth about their technology — by priming them for an incredible experience while admitting that there were still pieces of the puzzle left to fit in — Apple created trust. This allowed them to take the shortcomings of the original iPhone and turn them into some of the device’s most obvious strengths. The iPhone camera is a perfect example. iMessage is another.³
Before saying that Amazon is following in Apple’s footsteps, it is important to acknowledge just how different the two companies are. Amazon has succeeded by laying a bare bones framework on which developers can build. Their launch of Amazon Web Services has given businesses access to cloud-based computing, database storage, and content delivery. Similarly, developers have taken advantage of Echo’s open platform, and are contributing every day to Alexa’s improvement. Amazon’s friendliness towards third party developers — and in turn its ability to leverage them to improve its own products — is one of its fundamental strengths.
Apple, on the other hand, maintains a focus on a closed ecosystem, even while it enjoys the fruits of the ecosystem it has built. Apple is notoriously unfriendly to developers, though it needn’t matter — Apple’s coolness and unrivaled user experience create network effects so powerful that developers are risking career suicide if they do not work within Apple’s rigid framework. The vast expanse of apps available for download through the App Store is a testament to this. Apple and Amazon are fundamentally opposites. Amazon thrives because of — and thereby encourages — third party integration. Apple tolerates it.
Regardless of these two companies’ differences, the Echo has achieved success for the same reason that the iPhone did — it occupied a niche in our lives that we did not know existed until we were presented with the opportunity to fill it. Amazon is thus following in Apple’s footsteps with Alexa. They are slowly but surely reeling out the line on Alexa’s capabilities, but they are starting with the most basic things — controlling the music, setting alarms, telling the weather, or the time. By doing these basic things well, Alexa is building trust. If our future is to include AI in a meaningful sense, this trust is paramount.
Like mobile phone manufacturers that depend on consumer trust have Apple to thank for its hand in the creation and maintenance of that trust, future manufacturers of products that rely on AI will look back on Amazon as the company that got people comfortable with the idea of outsourcing their basic tasks to a non-human entity. Whether you like the idea of AI or not, Amazon has ripped the band-aid off in the race to create a likable and reliable virtual assistant for everything in our lives. By starting with nailing the little things, Alexa is paving the way for a future in which AI will have a meaningful and important place in both our lives, and the world as a whole.
Originally published on my blog.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to David Perell for constantly teaching me about the tech industry, and improving pieces like this immensely.
¹ The iPod could be considered the first device that actually inspired attraction, as could a multitude of others. As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
² I got the battery extension — it’s better, but it only lasts for a few hours, and the nature of how the Echo plugs in makes it frustrating to use.
³ MMS did not exist on the original iPhone. Imagine that!