Alexa earbuds. Alexa glasses. An Alexa ring. Amazon announced them all today at its annual hardware showcase. What all the devices have in common, aside from a naming convention—Echo Buds, Echo Frames, Echo Loop—is a singular focus on pushing Alexa outside of the home, and inserting it into the rest of your life.
Amazon’s in a tricky position. It established an early lead in the voice assistant race, debuting Alexa on the Echo home speaker in November 2014. At the time it was an unexpected novelty; today, there are more than 85,000 Alexa-powered smart home devices, according to numbers Amazon gave out Wednesday. Alexa fields billions of interactions every single week. But zero in on that descriptive for a moment: smart home. Speakers and smart screens and clocks and a microwave and more speakers, so many speakers. Amazon made clear its intentions last year to stuff Alexa into everything it could. But until today, the various bodies it has possessed stay within in the confines of houses and offices and hotel rooms. Alexa is popular, but it doesn’t get out much.
This presents Amazon with challenges both practical and existential. A digital assistant that only only interacts with you at home might understand what music you like or what time you wake up. But the vast gaps in its knowledge about where you go, and how you get there, and what you do, limit its ability to provide those anticipatory experiences that can make Google Assistant feel at times clairvoyant. (And creepy. Let’s not forget creepy.) The result: a more shallow experience overall.
“The thing I’m pretty sure of is that for customers that are our best customers, use Echo every day of their lives in the home, they have been asking for this,” says David Limp, Amazon senior vice president of devices. “And they find that not having it with them in other parts of their day is not optimal. So for that set of customers—and there are millions of those—Alexa in automobiles and buds will resonate extremely well.”
Extending those skills to earbuds or a pair of glasses—or fully embedding Alexa in cars, as General Motors has now done across its four brands—makes them immediately, obviously more useful, if for no other reason than your ability to access them at any time. More holistic effects could easily take hold as well. In the same way that Google Assistant knows your calendar and commute and flight itinerary, omnipresence will help Alexa stitch together your experiences. It can’t connect dots that it can’t see.
“This is something we have been missing,” says Werner Goertz, research director at Gartner. “We now have over 100,000 Alexa skills but these are largely available only through speakers and through smart home products. Now with things like buds and possibly the other two devices that they talked about on the periphery, these Alexa experiences are going to be made available.”
Without that sort of feature parity, Amazon risks ceding serious ground to Google and even Apple. Siri may not be particularly smart, but it has a home field advantage on the iPhone. Google Assistant is woven deep into the fabric of Android by now. And while you can access Alexa on any smartphone today, it clearly takes a back seat to those native integrations.
“If you could wave a magic wand and have a mobile OS that’s successful in phones, sure,” says Limp. “But the fact of the matter is there are two to choose from and that’s the state of the industry, and in our world we try to work with those OS as best we can.”
Amazon tried to wave that wand with the Fire Phone in 2014, a hardware misadventure that resulted in a $170 million write-down. In retrospect, the stakes were even higher than they seemed at the time. It’s the smartphone, after all, that for better or worse has the most complete insight into how you spend your day. No wall clock can ever match that. But some combination of a ring and earbuds and glasses and who knows what else? Maybe! Or at least, it can help close the gap—and maybe even layer on some advantages.