Michael Hiltzik Columnist
Column

I own an Amazon Echo and an Echo Dot, and I still don't know what they're good for

“Alexa, what good are you?”

That’s what I find myself asking my Amazon Echo voice-activated device more often than any other — not aloud but on the inside, as the comedian Bobby Collins might say, because you don’t really want a robotic presence in your house doubting your commitment to your mutual relationship.

Alexa, you might know, is the female persona inhabiting the Echo, a Wi-Fi-enabled black cylinder about the size of a Pringles can, which you prime to answer your questions or perform services by invoking her name. “Alexa … what’s the weather,” etc. etc.

I was given a $179 Echo last year as a gift, and a $49 Echo Dot — a squashed down version endowed with a lousier speaker but equipped with Bluetooth capability — as another gift for Father’s Day. According to Amazon PR, these devices have ranked among the firm’s most popular items. With Christmas approaching, Amazon has been pushing the Dot mercilessly as a gift item, even bundling it in six-packs.

As an early user, I’m here to warn you that claims that these devices will change your life should be taken with shovelfuls of salt. (Salt and shovel both available for order from Amazon, via Alexa voice command.) It’s not that they don’t have a fair number of functions around the home, but that they do almost nothing that can’t be done just as easily by other means — or more easily.

They’re gadgets that all but scream out the classic question asked about all snazzy new technologies by the late social critic Neil Postman: “What is the problem for which this is the solution?” The Echo, like its Google cousin the Google Home, is still waiting for its killer app. In the meantime, the makers offer killer hype.

That, and another pathway into their ecosystem — especially the retailing ecosystem of Amazon. What Amazon’s Echo is really optimized for is getting you to buy things from Amazon. 

You won’t hear much skepticism from tech reviewers, who seem almost universally smitten with the device. “Always-on microphones combined with clear, snappy responses have made talking to a computer as normal as clicking a mouse,” writes the Wall Street Journal. Gushes Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times: “The Echo has morphed from a gimmicky experiment into a device that brims with profound possibility. ...This machine is opening up a vast new realm in personal computing, and gently expanding the role that computers will play in our future.”

If that’s so, why do the capabilities cited by the reviewers always seem so jejune? You can ask Alexa to tell you the weather, or provide you with pointless factoids, or calculate how many teaspoons are in a cup. Reviewers putting the Echo and Home through their comparative paces as founts of information tend to ask them questions that never crop up except in trivia challenges. “Both knew the 25th president (McKinley), the capital of Zimbabwe (Harare), the year ‘Pretty Woman’ hit theaters (1990),” marvels the Journal’s Joanna Stern, thereby cramming three massive “who-cares?” queries into a single sentence.

So what are the problems for which Alexa is the solution? You can use it to compile a shopping list: “Alexa, add milk to shopping list.” She responds, “Milk added to your shopping list.”

To use the shopping list, however, you have to carry a smartphone with the Alexa app installed to consult at the store. Alternatively, you could compile the shopping list the way our forebears did in prehistoric times … by scribbling items on a scrap of paper and sticking it in your pocket. 

You can instruct Alexa to turn your houselights on and off. But only if you spring for a hub that connects your lightbulbs to the unit by WiFi. The Phillips Hue “starter kit” of a hub and three color-changing LED bulbs lists for $199.99. Additional bulbs are $50 each. For someone genuinely frustrated by the chore of turning lamps on and off by flicking a wall switch, that may seem like a bargain. But for the rest of us it may seem one more decadent step toward the flaccid human physiques in “Wall-E.” Other Alexa-driven smart-home features similarly require additional hardware. (TP-Link sells Alexa-ready bulbs that don’t require a hub for $35 each, but they also can be controlled via a smartphone app, without Alexa; it’s almost as though Alexa herself might be made redundant by technology.)

A couple of months ago, Logitech enabled its remote control hub to respond to Alexa voice commands. As Michael Brown of TechHive reported, “you could say ‘Alexa, turn on my evening activity,’ and Alexa would team with the Harmony Hub to turn on your TV, tune it to your favorite channel, bring down your motorized blinds and dim your smart light bulbs, all at the same time.”

It’s obvious what’s missing here: How will you know what’s on? Most people don’t have a single favorite channel. They tune the TV to whatever they want to watch at a given day and time. To know what’s showing, they consult a channel grid, which can’t be displayed by Alexa because she doesn’t have a screen. To navigate a program grid on a TV screen, one typically uses a handheld remote. And once you have a remote in your hand, isn’t it easier to click on a single button to change the channel, rather than vocalizing, “Alexa, change the channel on my Samsung TV to…?”

This is a reminder of an important issue relevant to all voice-activated devices. The organ with the greatest bandwidth into the human brain is the eyeball. People can absorb vastly more information with a single glance than by ear. In part that’s because the visual field can distinguish many bits of information at once, but also because auditory information has to be delivered sequentially — think of the difference between viewing a programming grid on a screen and having it read to you item by item.

The whole voice-activation thing may be oversold as a labor-saving advance. It may be useful for those moments when your hands are full with packages or babies and you simply must know the weather, right this minute. But is it a life-changer?

Amazon peppers us ceaselessly by email with word of new Alexa “skills,” or functions, but most of these are unutterably lame (“Alexa, tell me a holiday joke”) or suspiciously commercial (“Alexa, order a George Foreman grill” — from Amazon, of course). Not infrequently, Amazon will inform me by email of a deal it has reached with a retail partner. One can now voice-activate Alexa to order a Domino’s pizza, for instance. But that inspires two questions: Is it really that much harder to pick up the phone and voice-activate the kid on the other end of the line, and is it proper to call anything sold by Domino’s a “pizza”? Young visitors to my house briefly got a charge out of toying with the device. “Alexa, kill all humans,” one commanded. “No,” Alexa responded. “I’m not dangerous.” But the exchange resembled tormenting a puppy, and the excitement soon paled. 

What do I use the Echo for? The full-figured Echo in our living room serves mostly as a timer, as when it reminds me to turn off the lawn sprinkler after 45 minutes. The Echo Dot stationed in our bedroom gets a bit more of a workout. I use it to play music while reading, exploiting its Bluetooth connection to drive a Bose tabletop speaker, but here’s a glitch: My music is on Apple’s iTunes, which has a limited interface with the device. ITunes has to be launched from an Apple device, and only then can Alexa execute voice commands to pause and restart the playlist or move to the next song. Full interoperability requires transferring an iTunes library to Amazon’s music service via an Amazon app that, truth be told, absolutely stinks. I never managed to get the whole library ported over, so sometimes I bypass Alexa entirely and simply run my iTunes music. Alexa can play Pandora and Spotify playlists, so I suppose it’s fine if you subscribe to those. I don’t.

Conceivably, my skepticism about these devices is generational. Some of us are so accustomed to using a pen, flicking a switch or pressing a button to achieve goals that Echo can do by voice command that configuring these functions via the clunky Alexa app seems more trouble than it’s worth. Maybe younger users are all as thrilled as Manjoo, who writes: “When Alexa reorders popcorn for you, or calls an Uber car for you, when your children start asking Alexa to add Popsicles to the grocery list, you start to want pretty much everything else in life to be Alexa-enabled, too.” Well, no: I find it just as easy to pick up popcorn at the store or scribble “ppscles” on the back of an envelope. I don’t need a $179 device to “enable” my shopping list.

A year ago, David Gewirtz of ZDNet captured both the gadgety appeal of the Echo and its shortcomings in an article entitled “Amazon Echo: It sucks. It's awesome. It sucks. We want two more.” But he was more descriptive of its inadequacies than convincing about why he needs three in the house. 

“The balance between a device that's genuinely useful and yet another device that exists to suck you into buying yet more stuff from Amazon is a fine line,” he wrote. “I can't yet tell which side of the line Amazon is on with the Echo.” The line is clearer than he acknowledged; it’s identical to Amazon’s revenue line. But with Christmas just around the corner, the betting here is that Echos and Echo Dots will be found nestling under lots of trees, reminding us of an old technology tradition: overpromising and underperforming.

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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