Two weeks after my wife and I invited Alexa into our home, we’re saying goodbye to the Amazon Echo and returning it to Amazon for a refund. The reason? This technology, while interesting and a clear peek at the future, just isn’t essential.
Admittedly, I had high hopes for the product, which was recently joined by two other Alexa-powered devices, the Echo Dot wireless speaker ($90) and the Amazon Tap ($)130, a less expensive (and less hands-free) version of the Echo. We went for the original Echo—which costs a whopping $180—after I had been inundated by repeated recommendations from my cohorts at the Build conference earlier this month. Everyone who owned an Echo loved it, from what I could tell, and like TiVo owners, they were eager to evangelize the product.
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So I ordered one, noting a wait time of almost two weeks—unusual for Amazon, but the Echo is apparently in very high demand—and told my wife Stephanie, who seemed curiously interested. (She’s not anti-technology per se, but she is no tech enthusiast for sure.)
Two weeks ago, it arrived. I set it up using the Alexa app on my Nexux 6P, but as a sort of experiment, I left it in the kitchen and told my wife she should figure it out. Which she did.
Over these two weeks, I could hear her adding items to a shopping list, using Echo to create timers for cooking, playing music, getting the weather forecast, and listening to news. She’s actually using it, I thought. Amazing. (My kids, predictably, were enchanted by it, and interacted with the Echo simply to experience some AI-like thing responding to them.)
Not exactly. The other day, I asked Stephanie how the Echo experiment was going, with the underlying goal of seeing whether she’d write up a normal person’s view of this interesting technology. As you may recall, her Microsoft Band 2 review was well-written and well-received and, I think, the type of thing that’d be worth repeating from time to time.
“We should just return it,” she said, surprising me.
And so we are doing so. But before I headed back to Amazon.com, semi-dejected, I asked her to step through the issues she had with the device. As it turns out, there was just one major issue, with multiple examples: It’s just not essential. The Echo is convenient for what it does, but it doesn’t do anything that can’t be done with her (Android-based) smart phone.
“All it does is tell you the weather or sports scores,” she said. Which is interesting, as I had already gotten tired of the Echo’s standard way of explaining the weather, which doesn’t really vary day-to-day. (I also don’t appreciate that it’s not very smart about some interactions. When I ask about the weather, I expect a weather forecast, but if I ask about the current temperature, that is all I want. In both cases, Echo delivers a full weather forecast.)
The shopping list was initially very interesting to my wife, but she noted that you can’t filter this list at all—by store, for example—making it less useful. And when I told her she could use Google Now on her Note 4 phablet to make lists in Google Keep, that was the end of that.
She liked that she could start music or a news report by voice, but as she noted, we already have too many ways to play music. (And we already have a nice speaker, and a Chromecast Audio, in the kitchen.) “I already have NPR One on my phone,” she added, alluding to the Echo’s news briefing, which is indeed just a snippet from NPR. “And I don’t commute, so that feature isn’t useful for me.”
The Echo has great potential, and the voice control is quick and intuitive for the most part. But … it’s just not essential. In that way, it’s a lot like Apple Watch, which I tried to put in perspective yesterday. But unlike Apple Watch, the pieces are in place here for Echo—and the underlying Alexa technologies—to evolve into something truly useful for a wide range of people. (Apple Watch needs a major UI overhaul and a big price reduction before it can do the same.)
It’s just not there now. For us. And so we’re returning it.
Sorry, Alexa. It’s not you. It’s us.