I buy a lot of gadgets. Some people might say I buy too many, and they’re probably right. I select which ones to buy based on lots of things — innovation, reputation, reviews, previous experience, but I still manage to get some real duds. Historically, when you made a choice you were stuck with it — most manufacturers stopped developing a product as soon as it shipped unless something goes wrong.
First Impressions Last
Almost invariably, my first impressions of a newly unboxed and freshly charged gadget are accurate. Some impress immediately, delivering on the hype, while others disappoint, proving that many tech marketing folk can and do make claims beyond the facts.
The fact that many modern devices rely more on software than hardware for the experience they provide means things can sometimes improve. Some merit a revised rating after a bit of use and a few updates but in my experience they rarely fundamentally change. Many updates result in very little appreciable improvement — if you can spot the difference between Android 7 and 8, you’re a true geek. In fact many devices get worse with time — they become slower, outdated and get overlooked by their manufacturers.
But the product that breaks the rules is the Amazon Echo. It has gotten immeasurably better in the nearly 3 years since I first paid over the odds on ebay to get one of the first ones. It’s basically a totally different product now than it was then. It still looks the same, but it has gained more new features than I would have imagined possible.
For anyone that doesn’t know, the Amazon Echo is a speaker that responds to your voice commands. Alexa is the default name of the intelligent assistant that lives inside your Echo. If you’ve already got someone called Alexa in your household, you can change her (the Echo that is! ) moniker to Echo, Amazon or Computer (mainly for Star Trek nerds).
When I got the Echo, the speech recognition was strikingly good. I mean worlds better than anything I’d ever tried before. The speed and accuracy, even across a room, were genuinely amazing. But while it was magical to ask “Alexa, who was the 25th President of the US” and instantly receive the answer “William McKinley”, after a while I realized there weren’t that many occasions for me to need to plug the gaps in my knowledge of US presidential history. And though it was fun to set an alarm or timer with a quick command, the brilliant voice recognition initially felt a little wasted.
In Business School many years ago, I learned of the concept of Kaizen, or Continuous Improvement. I will now be strongly recommending that Alexa become the new standard in teaching about the concept, replacing car manufacturing. I didn’t realize that Alexa would get more useful every single week, sometimes by an order of magnitude. On a Friday, every Friday, I get an email from Amazon telling me about the new things that my Echo (well to be honest, my Echoes at this stage as there’s one in every room) can do. And now, coming up on the 3 year anniversary of my Echo’s initial arrival (way beyond the useful lifespan of many gadgets), the Echo continues to evolve and improve. Having gained the ability to summon an Uber, order a pizza, tell me how many steps I took with my Fitbit or show me who is at the front door (on my Echo Show via my video door bell), I think the two latest updates are among the very best — Echo can now place free voice & video calls and has gained the ability to tell different voices apart and customize her answers accordingly.
There’s still plenty more to come from the Echo — Amazon have promised the ability shortly to group Alexa skills together under a single name (routines) which will mean you can say “Goodnight Alexa” and she will turn off the lights, close the curtains, lock the doors, set the alarm and play restful music. There are over 5,000 people at Amazon working on Alexa and it shows. But many of the skills are actually developed by third parties — virtually every other gadget maker is now scrambling to tie their product or service into Alexa in a rush reminiscent of previous moves to online or mobile.
Despite the numerous improvements, the Amazon device and service isn’t perfect. Google’s competitor (the Google Home) is frequently better at answering direct questions, being able to draw on Google’s search prowess. But Amazon’s head start and focus on skills from third parties means that Alexa remains a compelling smart home device. And Amazon have continued to introduce hardware innovations alongside the intelligence of Alexa in the cloud — they’ve added more models at different price points as well as options with a screen, a camera, better sound and built-in smart home controller.
It’s still early for this new category of devices and the rush from Apple, Microsoft and countless speaker makers to join in means we’ll continue to see remarkable innovation. As more services move to the cloud and hardware becomes a “dumb conduit”, there’s hope we’ll see more and more gadgets improve with time. I know that the Echo will continue to get better with age, even as all the gadgets around the house fade into obsolescence and that makes it the best gadget ever. At least for a while ;)