Alexa Explains it All

At 9.25 inches tall, Alexa is a tiny personal assistant. Cylindrical and minimal, she—or he—could just as easily have been conceived at Apple HQ. But the fact that she wasn’t says a lot about the increasing trend of minimalist gadgetry. A look at any number of recent notebooks, tablets, or phones leaves us wondering just how many things a single button can do, if CD/DVD/Blu-Ray drives are really over, and how voice control actually works. Apple may have had something to do with this.

Devices seem to be pushing for simplicity in appearance and complexity in performance. Apple’s recent ad campaign that features their new “4d” touch technology and proclaims that this “changes everything” is a perfect example of a relentless desire to do the most with the least. Their push for added touch functionality is a way to compete with the growing appeal of Android phones, many of which are starting to feature higher quality components than the iPhone, while at the same time maintaining a specific aesthetic. Perhaps it is also a hint at their future response to the increase in touch-screen notebook sales currently monopolized by the Windows platform. Although, to be fair, Microsoft’s new Surface Book is about as Apple-esque as a device can get without being covered in anodized rose-gold aluminum. Even the word choice of “book” is conspicuously sly.

While Apple and Microsoft were busy one-upping each other (Microsoft with its Surface; Apple with its Pen), Amazon seems to have ignored all of these advancements in touch technology, and moved straight into complete voice control. With Alexa (a.k.a. Amazon Echo), they created a market for something consumers didn’t even know existed: the digital concierge. Part Siri, part DJ, and part Smart Home, Amazon has sprinted towards the future of consumer technologies in a way that other companies, even Google haven’t yet.

Amazon seems to think voice—not touch—is the future. For a while, Google did too. In 2014, the enigmatic Google Glass campaign that lasted a year, promoted voice activated functions as part of their wearable gadget. The short lived product was perhaps the most sci-fi device to come out in recent history, but it failed to meet those extremely high expectations. Security and privacy concerns plagued Glass, eventually leading to its discontinuation.

Alexa is thriving where Glass failed because it lacked those inherent expectations. Initially marketed as a voice activated speaker, its consumer base was less “techie” and more “yuppie.” This cultural distinction set it apart, all the while allowing for expansion into other realms. It was only a matter of time before customers demanded more functionality, to which Amazon responded enthusiastically. The software platform allowed for third party developers to expand Alexa’s capabilities. This now includes services like Uber, Dominos Pizza, and Spotify.

What I find most intriguing about Alexa is that its range of domestic tasks goes far beyond any of its predecessors. As of today, Alexa has the capacity to order a pizza, read an audiobook aloud, summarize daily news, and control your thermostat. In contrast to Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana, which have tended to focus on scheduling tasks and relaying directions, the tiny, sleek, black cylinder is practically a smart home in a can. It is also a standalone object. The fact that it is decoupled from a phone or screen gives it a unique presence in the home; a kind of omnipresent virtual butler.

If talking to a robot scares you, it might be something to get used to. As the technology advances, voice control is spreading to a number of consumer devices and automobiles. From a safety standpoint, hands free communication is the most efficient way of preventing device-related distractions. An increase in voice activation features, such as google’s phrase, “ok, Google” and Apple’s “hey, Siri” envision a world where On/Off switches are simple commands. Germaphobes will rejoice, no more sticky buttons. Less fingerprints on screens would be nice too.

But the move to be less “handsy” and start talking to inanimate objects will not be as wacky as it seems. In fact, the amount of time we spend looking at screens might decrease as we start communicating more with our voices. Text conversations might once again be able to convey tone without the use of emojis or animated gifs. New figures of speech might replace abbreviations and make their way back into the social milieu. It is very possible that having vocal conversations with machines will allow us to continue to interact with each other in a human way.