Alexa: Escalate the war.
On Thursday, Amazon announced that it is adding its voice assistant Alexa to its Fire tablets for the first time. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) The voice assistant has previously been in Amazon’s Echo, Fire TV and Fire Stick devices, but will launch with the new, low-priced $90 Fire HD 8 tablet that ships on Sept. 21. Alexa is also coming to the Fire HD 10, Fire and last year’s Fire HD 8 tablets via a free over-the-air software update in the coming months.
This move is significant, as it puts Alexa more at odds with Siri, Apple’s voice assistant, and pitches up the simmering competition in the voice-assistant space.
The end game of all these voice assistants is to become an integral part of users’ lives. Having Alexa untethered from the Echo devices gives Amazon the chance to get the voice assistant within the reach of way more customers and in far more situations. While Amazon does have one portable version of the Echo, by and large Alexa has been an immobile assistant, planted in users’ kitchens or bedrooms to provide news updates, weather information and other assistance.
Being more mobile changes all that and gives Amazon a big boost. Sure, Amazon tablets aren’t as widespread as iPhones, iPads and Macs, which will get Siri for the first time as part of the upcoming macOS update. (Amazon may soon follow suit; there is a report from CNET that Amazon may soon try to get Alexa on PCs.) But it greatly broadens the potential base for Alexa users, which has the benefit of letting the voice assistant learn the quirks of the human voice and the weird ways in which we collectively ask questions.
According to Amazon, Alexa won’t work quite the same on tablets as it does on the normal Echo speaker. For one, Alexa won’t be always listening; users will have to long-press the home button to ask questions. Also, Alexa will only work over WiFi connections.
Still, according to Amazon, users will be able to ask Alexa on the tablet to play songs, open some apps or read audiobooks. Alexa will also provide its standard repertoire of jokes, answers to basic questions and weather forecasts.
Given what Amazon’s released so far, it sounds like Alexa won’t be quite as versatile as Siri or the Google voice assistant in Android devices, which are well-integrated with their devices and very familiar to users. Right now, these more mature systems have an advantage over Alexa, in terms of sophistication.
But when looking at voice assistants as a platform, the competition now is essentially between Siri and Alexa. And where Alexa may have a fast advantage is with the range of partnerships Amazon’s already struck for working with its voice assistant. Alexa gets new skills all the time; Amazon even sends out a regular email to Echo owners in an attempt to keep them clued in to all the extra features they’re getting on a continuous basis.
Amazon's been diligent about striking up partnerships with a wide range of services, including companies like Pandora or Spotify that also have direct competition with Apple, and its open system means that any company can make an Alexa skill fairly easily.
Apple has only just truly opened Siri up to developers, so that Siri will be able to do more — buy movie tickets, pay your friends, send messages through third-party apps. That will take time to build and get through Apple’s approval process.
In some ways, it’s a sort of a replay of the open vs. closed battle that’s been going on between Apple and Google over operating systems for years. Amazon can go broad, but Apple will likely exert more quality control over the things Siri does.
All of this is good for consumers in the long run — competition will breed better products — though right now Alexa probably isn't going to make or break your decision to get a Fire tablet.
It’s going to be a long war, and there’s really no telling at this point who the victor will be. But Amazon is definitely positioning itself as a real competitor.