Alexa, Go Away

With the massive proliferation of Amazon Echo / Alexa devices, Amazon found a gaping hole by which to get their hardware into people's houses. For years Amazon has generally released shoddy, commodity (AKA crap) they sell at a loss in order to get you to use their services more. The Echo was a hit, mostly due to its incredible speech recognition and speed with which it could reply.

When Amazon first introduced the Echo, the question was "what do you do with this thing?" but it quickly became a perfect Kitchen computer for setting timers and reminders. Alexa was the go-to "person" to settle debates on who was taller or what a country's population could be. Playing some music or podcasts or NPR hourly updates rounded out things a lot. But, like all tech, it reached a plateau. Amazon sure doesn't like those, because according to Jake Swearingen at Insider, Amazon is about to take a machete to their Alexa service because it's a "glorified alarm clock."

The division that houses Amazon's Alexa is on track to lose $10 billion this year alone, as Insider's Eugene Kim reported. And as layoffs hit Amazon, the Alexa team, once 10,000 people strong and a passion project for the then-CEO Jeff Bezos, is now a juicy target for cuts.

But Amazon's internal data and user surveys began to show voice commands are great for a narrow range of tasks: setting a timer, playing music, and finding out the weather. You may have heard Alexa plaintively remind you that it can do much more than set a timer — that's because Amazon knows that most people don't do much beyond that. Some people even stop using the product after a few weeks.

The pessimistic view was that "Amazon has succeeded in selling a huge number of glorified clock radios," as Benedict Evans, a former Andreessen Horowitz partner, wrote in 2019

It's a core paradox for voice assistants like Alexa or Google Assistant: The technology was tremendously successful. Many consumers find it genuinely useful. And no one can make any money with them. 


Amazon's Echo, to me, falls into the same bucket as all the Google Assistant devices and even Apple's HomePod Mini: their use cases for "normals" is very small. Outside of timers, reminders, and just a handful of other small questions, people generally ignore them. I have not personally used a hardware Google Assistant device, but late in 2021, I swapped out my Echo for a HomePod Mini due to two irritants.

First, "By the way" became a phrase of annoyance for me. Every time I asked a simple question, Alexa would offer up some nonsensical thing I had no interest in learning more about. Amazon offered no way to disable this "feature". Secondly, I had had enough of Amazon's poor data privacy track record and did not want their microphones in my home. They already suck up tons of data and I realized I didn't want to continue to be a part of that.

While Siri is not necessarily better than Alexa, it is good at what it does and when I expect it to do basic stuff. It's far from perfect and given Apple's years-long lead with Siri, it's quite astounding how much ground they ceded to Google and Amazon with their early leads.

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