Will it soon feel normal to say, “Alexa, microwave one bag of popcorn”?
Amazon.com unveiled some 70 new devices and capabilities for its Alexa product line at its Seattle headquarters Thursday. Like a rebooted Sharper Image catalogue, Amazon is adding its talking artificial intelligence to a microwave, a wall clock, a wall plug, cars and more.
The new gadgets all hook into the Internet, take voice commands — and make the online retail giant even more central to home life. The question is: Will families see these connected devices as conveniences, new complications — or spies?
(Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
Amazon’s goal is to assert leadership over Google and Apple in the still-nascent market for smart-home tech, with everyday appliances connecting to the Internet to automate operations — and gather all sorts of data on our lives. The upside for consumers is that connected appliances can work together and be simpler to operate via voice. At least in theory.
For example, Amazon’s new Echo wall clock ($30) shows a visual representation of timers set via Alexa — and automatically updates its analog hands for daylight saving time. The new Amazon Smart Plug ($25) lets you switch lights, coffee makers and other analog devices on or off through voice commands or automated routines.
Many of Amazon’s efforts are focused on the kitchen, where voice commands can be most useful and screens are an annoyance to hands covered in cookie dough. The countertop AmazonBasics Microwave ($60) takes voice commands to cook things that might otherwise be complicated. In one demonstration, I asked Alexa to cook one potato and the microwave started itself for 6 minutes and 34 seconds. (I still had to put the potato in the oven myself.)
The upside: I didn’t have to look up how long to cook a potato. The downside: Amazon will now have a record of every time a family with this microwave cooks a potato. And Alexa didn’t understand when I said “Microwave a potato” — instead, I had to say “Microwave one potato.” (A company rep said that’s a bug that would be fixed before it ships later this year.)
Amazon is setting the stage, perhaps, for the tech to simplify dinner prep with ingredients purchased from Amazon, which bought grocer Whole Foods last year. In another demo, the company showed how its redesigned Echo Show ($230), a speaker with a screen, can walk you through the steps — hands-free — to make a meal kit it sells. A microwave or oven that knows exactly when and how to cook different parts of your meal can’t be far away.
Amazon’s efforts to simplify complex things with voice commands haven’t always panned out. The Fire TV Cube, a TV streaming box it began selling earlier this year, promised to, in part, replace a complicated remote control with Alexa. But in my tests, Alexa wasn’t totally up to the task.
Not all of Amazon’s new devices have their own microphones. Instead, you command them via a nearby Amazon Echo speaker. Amazon unveiled new versions of those, too. A redesign of its hockey-puck-shaped Echo Dot speaker ($50) appeared to be significantly louder in a demonstration. There’s also a new Echo subwoofer ($130) that pairs with other Echo speakers, posing a challenge to connected speaker devices.
A new device called Echo Auto, available for now just by invitation, adds talking Alexa capabilities to cars. It connects to the Internet via a nearby phone and allows Alexa to do things such as give directions that require knowledge of its location.
There was one noticeable absence amid Amazon’s announcements and bragging about the growing intelligence of Alexa — any discussion of privacy and security. Amazon has buttons on all its Echo devices that cut off their microphones’ ability to record. But earlier this year, Amazon got a very public black eye when a family caught one of its speakers recording its conversations and sending the recording to a friend. Amazon said the incident was a random misunderstanding on the part of Alexa.
Amazon’s goal is not only to sell its own Alexa-enabled devices but also to get Alexa capabilities built into other devices, from thermostats to toilets. (Yes, toilets.) What is Amazon doing to make sure all those other gadgets handle our data appropriately?
Amazon’s strategy for the holiday shopping season puts the emphasis on low prices and new twists on everyday items. That’s distinct from rivals such as Apple and Samsung, which have unveiled subtly improved — and expensive — new phones, tablets and smartwatches.
But in the competitive smart-speaker market Amazon created, the retail giant has lately been lagging. According to the research firm Strategy Analytics, Google’s Home Mini was the world’s best-selling smart speaker in the second quarter, followed closely by the Echo Dot. Google is expected to unveil its new offerings at an event on Oct. 9.