Amazon’s Alexa Echoes Across Tech and Beyond

Xconomy Seattle — 

For the second CES in a row, Amazon’s Alexa is grabbing headlines as the tech world’s annual Las Vegas bacchanalia gets rolling.

Alexa is fast becoming the cloud-based, voice-activated personal assistant and remote control for everything from your television to your home security to your washing machine. But some analysts see it as something more: an operating system.

The power of owning a ubiquitous operating system is well known in these parts. Witness Windows and what it did for Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), and by extension, the Seattle region, beginning in the 1990s. Ben Thompson, independent analyst at Stratechery, posits that Alexa is emerging as an OS for Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), and while he doesn’t see it minting millionaires the way Windows and its highly profitable licensing fees did, it is central to the company’s core commerce business—making it easier than ever to order whatever you need, just by asking for it.

A key aspect of a successful OS is its flywheel effect. Operating systems provide uniform set of standards that commodify hardware, making it easier for developers to build applications atop it. As it amasses more users, the growing addressable market provides more incentive to developers, who build more software, apps—or skills, in Alexa’s case, now numbering more than 7,000—and thereby attract more users to the OS, and so on.

Thompson sees that happening with Alexa now. Amazon itself is doing all it can to encourage it, of course, releasing developer kits, making Alexa capabilities available as services to be integrated into other apps and devices, and fostering startups. Techstars will host its first Alexa-focused accelerator, bringing 10 or so top-flight startup companies focused on the technology here later this year, and adding to an already robust lineup of companies large and small (including some backed by Amazon’s Alexa Fund) building the future of the voice user interface.

Alexa, at first as the intelligence within Amazon’s Echo devices, found its beachhead in a place that existing operating systems have yet to control in a meaningful way: the connected home. Yes, we have our computers and phones at home, but as Thompson notes, these aren’t always the most convenient devices for doing what Alexa does well: controlling the Internet of Things—connected doorknobs, refrigerators, window shades—that we’re filling our homes with. Alexa is really good at other information retrieval tasks that want to be hands-free: Who wants to touch their phone with batter-covered fingers to double-check a measurement in the midst of cookie baking? Alexa, how many tablespoons in a quarter cup?

Thompson writes:

“In short, Amazon is building the operating system of the home—its name is Alexa—and it has all of the qualities of an operating system you might expect:

“All kinds of hardware manufacturers are lining up to build Alexa-enabled devices, and will inevitably compete with each other to improve quality and lower prices.

“Even more devices and appliances are plugging into Alexa’s easy-to-use and flexible framework, creating the conditions for a moat: appliances are a lot more expensive than software, and lot longer lasting, which means everyone who buys something that works with Alexa is much less likely to switch.”

Those appliance and gadget announcements are streaming in this week from CES.

But before we all buy refrigerators with microphones (are they sensitive enough to hear milk curdling?) there’s another Alexa to consider:

Alexa the would-be witness. Police in Bentonville, Arkansas, hoped to gather evidence from an Amazon Echo device present in the home of a murder suspect. UW Law School professor Ryan Calo tells The Seattle Times that there’s little chance the device recorded anything relevant. But this is just one case. As The Times’ Ángel González writes:

“What’s more interesting, in Calo’s eyes, is what police could do in other cases. For example, they might get a warrant to activate an Echo or some other digital assistant remotely—turning it into what’s essentially a bugging device.

“’Then you’d have a microphone in someone’s house,’ Calo said.”

Indeed, the utility of Alexa, and its presence in a growing range of devices—all waiting patiently for you to say that wake word, when it begins listening in earnest—is leading to an unprecedented proliferation of microphones that we’re willingly, if not always knowingly, arraying around ourselves.

The business impacts of Alexa for Amazon are becoming clear. We’re just beginning to glimpse the societal impacts.