Geoffrey A. Fowler wrote a critique of Amazon’s Echo in a recent Wall Street Journal article. Fowler notes that the list of actions Alexa (the default name of Echo’s intelligent assistant) can perform is relatively short. Alexa can tell you the time and report the weather, read short entries from web data sources such as Wikipedia and the dictionary, set timers and do measurement conversions to help you in the kitchen, make shopping lists and buy music on Amazon, and play music from streaming services. It performs all these actions based on your voice input.
Fowler’s favorite use for Alexa is as an on-demand DJ. He’s disappointed, though, by the broad range of functions Alexa can’t perform. Alexa can’t yet connect to smart home devices, like the Nest thermostat. It can’t read from a book or make book recommendations. It can’t answer many of the questions that Siri or Cortana can answer. Though it can make a shopping list and display the list in a companion app, Fowler notes that it can’t execute any purchases other than buying music on Amazon.
Alexa’s biggest shortcoming, in Fowler’s opinion, is that it has no access to email, calendar, and contacts. Alexa is stuck in your living room, or wherever in your house you choose to place the Echo. That means it doesn’t reside in your smartphone, where most of the context relating to your life is stored.
I wrote about Amazon’s Echo in a previous post, where I dreamed about the day when Alexa could act as a truly powerful personal assistant. In a post where I focused on the yet-to-be released Jibo social robot, I explored the question of whether stationary physical assistants like the Echo, the Ubi, Jibo, and others will ever be able to compete with the intelligent apps in our smartphones. And then there’s the recent Kickstarter success by Robotbase, which is a physical assistant too, but one that’s not completely stationary.
Echo and these other “physically present” assistants are so new, that the jury is still out. But something tells me that in another year or two, we’ll be surprised by the functionality leap these devices have made. Once they have access to the same personal context data that our smartphones do, much of the gap between a Siri / Google Now / Cortana and an Alexa / Ubi / Jibo will be erased. The next challenge will be our desire to take them with us wherever we go.