Amazon just went big, announcing about a dozen devices at its September event:
- A new smart display
- Two new smart speakers
- An Alexa device without a speaker
- A device that records and streams TV
- A subwoofer
- Two smart-home amps
- A smart plug
- A smart clock
- A smart microwave
- A new security camera
- An in-car Alexa device
But while the devices themselves were impressive—if not for their depth, but for their breadth—it was the new abilities and skills that Alexa is gaining that will help keep Amazon's voice assistant one step ahead—or at least on a par with—Google Assistant.
We already know that Amazon is looking to kill the Alexa Skill as we know it, and these new smarts will help evolve the assistant into more of a conversationalist.
One of the more impressive demonstrations during the presentation was Alexa's ability to know the context in which a person was asking it something. For instance, by the end of the year, you'll be able to whisper to Alexa, and it will answer back in a whisper, too. This will be great for those who don't want to disturb a sleeping partner or child.
I was also intrigued by a new feature called Alexa Hunches, which will offer you suggestions based on contextual clues. For example, if you tell Alexa "Goodnight," it will look at all of your connected smart home devices, and ask if you want it to lock your door, or turn off your lights. It will be interesting to see how well this feature, coming later this year, will work in practice, and how Amazon will extend it beyond smart home devices.
Alexa Guard looks to turn your Alexa speaker into an ad-hoc security device, as it will be able to listen for breaking glass or a smoke alarm, and send you an alert. Another great feature, which we've seen in our favorite smart plugs, is the ability to randomly turn your smart lights on and off while you're away, giving the impression to any burglars that you're still home.
A key feature that Google would be wise to copy is local voice control; this will let you still control your smart home devices via Alexa even if your Internet connection goes down. However, you have to be using either the new Echo Plus or the new Echo Show for this to work. This was one of the advantages of Zigbee and Z-Wave networks over Wi-Fi only smart homes, and if Amazon is able to successfully implement it, then it will remove a further obstacle for those who want to create a smart home.
It sounded hokey, but the $59 AmazonBasics Microwave could actually make microwaving even easier. Personally, I don't think you save much time telling Alexa to turn on the microwave versus pressing a few buttons, but the shortcuts that Amazon has added to Alexa could simplify things for the culinarily disinclined.
For example, you can say "microwave a potato" or "microwave a bag of popcorn," and your Alexa device will automatically send a preset time command to the microwave. This will only be useful so long as Amazon keeps adding presets, though.
Still, there's some areas where Google Assistant beats Alexa, namely in general knowledge—Google has the power of its search engine behind it—as well as the ability to recognize multiple individuals. Those are things that Amazon will have to account for, too.
Yes, all these devices mean that Alexa will soon be everywhere you go, but it's what you'll be able to do with these new products that will make them useful for consumers. We're hoping to test out a lot of them over the next month or so—as well as these new features—to see how well they work. And, we're more than interested to see how Google responds.