An Amazon Echo Tale: Thanks But No Thanks, Alexa [review]

Amazon Alexa
Written by Dennis D McDonald

Should you break down and bring Alexa and the Amazon Echo into your home? After months of heavy use, Dennis McDonald says no. Here’s why. [review]

aNewDomaindennis d. mcdonald alien — The ring at the top of my Amazon Echo went blue.

Responding to a marketing message from her maker, I’d just asked Alexa what special deals Amazon Prime had for me. And Alexa reeled off a couple of electronic items along with their pricing and discounts. She asked if I wanted to order them. I declined.

I then returned Echo to its native state around here: as a high-quality Bluetooth speaker in my office streaming iTunes via my MacBook Pro.

I do enjoy the Echo’s sound quality, I like how I can check the weather and set audio alarms by voice and how, in a pinch, I can use the voice interface to request, start and pause music genres. I just say things like “Latin jazz” or “relaxing piano music.”

Still, I’m not sure how far I’ll take the Amazon services and interactivity that the Echo and Alexa can provide, especially if a long menu of items has to be navigated by voice.

I already subscribe to iTunes, which provides an astonishing variety of all kinds of music I can stream to a variety of devices. Adding another subscription service from Amazon to supplement Amazon Prime’s more restricted variety just isn’t a priority for me right now.

It’s true that I’m not totally engaged with the Amazon ecosystem. Yes, I’m a Prime customer. And yes, I do buy a lot of stuff from Amazon. Our household has an Echo and several Kindles — including a Kindle Fire. I even have the Amazon Fire TV Stick.

But we also own an Apple TV device, two Rokus, two Apple iPhones and a mix of Macintosh, Windows, Linux, and Chrome computers.

The last thing I need is more infrastructure-specific devices and services.

I do find myself using Siri a lot on my iPhone and my MacBook Pro. But I also use the voice interface feature on my Comcast cable tuner to occasionally cut through the XFINITY interface nightmare. That works.

But I really want to start controlling my thermostat, lights, and other home appliances through an Amazon supplied interface, especially if I have to add still more hardware in my home to provide such improved control?

Um, no.

My complex collection of hardware and services isn’t the only reason for my skepticism. A bigger one is that I live in a legacy house, an older house with multiple floors and features that require constant updating and repair.

Anyone who’s got a place with hard-to-find, custom sized wooden shutters that need repair or replacement every couple of years knows where I am coming from here.

Echo is slick, sure. But as slick as it is, the ultra-sensitive device and its multiple microphones and high quality sound isn’t what I would call a whole house device. It usually just sits in my upstairs office, which is on the floor directly above our kitchen.

If I’m working in the kitchen I know I can ask in a normal voice about, say, the weather. Nine times out of 10, Alexa will hear me. But usually I have the Echo’s volume set so I won’t hear Alexa from downstairs. And anyway, I usually have my phone with me so I just ask Siri.

I can see how the Echo and Alexa will work in a single floor smaller dwelling or an apartment. But it doesn’t fit in with my home and life, right now.

Perhaps I’m just not the target market; my wife and I are empty-nesters who just rattle around this big old house these days.

Devices and systems like Echo and Alexa show promise, I think, for younger people that will grow up dependent on such technologies. Still, these technologies are going to have to get a lot more mobile — that is, capable and built for moving from home to car and back again. Also, products like Alexa are going to suffer moving forward if people view it just as a company that mainly sells and distributes other companies’ stuff, as opposed to one dedicated to delivering stellar service and support.

As for me, I don’t mind getting up and walking over to the thermostat to adjust it like I’ve always done. And I want to avoid the inevitable commercialization of such ordinary tasks as long as I can.

I never want to hear my thermostat saying something like, “I see you just increased the night time temperature again. We have a terrific set of long underwear on sale in your size. Would you like to buy them? They’ll arrive in your house this time tomorrow …”

No thanks, Alexa.

For aNewDomain, I’m Dennis D. McDonald.

An earlier version of this column appeared on Dennis D. McDonald’s DDMCD site. Check it out here.