Tonight’s Packers-Bears game will be the first NFL matchup to stream live to Amazon Prime customers alongside the normal CBS telecast. No, it’s not pro football’s first such experiment (games have been streamed on Twitter), and no it isn’t yet the death knell of free sports on TV. But it is a small piece in what’s becoming an increasingly completed jigsaw puzzle: Amazon and Jeff Bezos have run up the score in the battle to own the living room. For competitors like Apple and Google, it may already be too late to mount a comeback.
Amazon’s winning strategy should be apparent to anyone who caught the news yesterday. Amazon announced six new products in what it calls the “Alexa family,” including updates to its “smart speaker” that answers questions, plays music, and is probably the best kitchen timer ever invented. That device in particular has also become a better bargain, starting at $99 and coming in a suite of new designs, not just black and white. There are also updates to the Fire TV product, a cheaper Alexa device with a screen called the Echo Spot, and even something to turn your landline (!) into a speaker phone.
It’s fair to say that Echo has moved from a quirky curiosity when introduced to what Amazon and others now see as central to the next wave of computing. Brian Roemmele, the wizard behind Multiplex, coined the term “Voice First” to describe what many now understand as a sea change in interaction with technology. It’s important to understand that voice technology, Roemmele and Amazon believe, is as important a shift as smartphones and multi-touch screens were from the PCs that dominated before them.
But this isn’t some investment in a vacuum. Amazon has already sold millions of the devices, especially after introducing the Echo Dot, the $50 version of the device that comes with a much smaller speaker. While that device is great for secondary rooms like a home office or even a bedroom, Alexa’s real win, Roemmele says, is the place where most people live.
Owners of the cylindrical Echo typically install it in one of two spots: the kitchen or living room. In many modern American homes, of course, those rooms are adjoining in a “great room.” When stationed there, Alexa is ready to perform two of her most essential functions: playing music and keeping track of what’s cooking. The utter lack of friction that comes from saying “Alexa, play some music” or “Alexa, set a timer for 4 minutes” is magical in a way that once would have been described as Apple-esque. It’s technology that blends into your world so easily, seamlessly, and reliably you both wonder how you lived without it and practically forget it’s there at all. Except of course when you need it.
Amazon has classic first-mover advantage here having built the original model with the kind of top-notch speech recognition that everyone else is working on from Apple’s Siri to Microsoft’s Cortana to Google’s Assistant. (That I had to look up what the Google one is called tells you a little about where it stands competitively, even though capability-wise it’s pretty outstanding). Alexa’s microphone almost always hears you, even in a somewhat noisy room, and only rare comes back with a reply to an entirely different question. In terms of actually understanding, the growing roster of Alexa skills — from Amazon and third parties — has made the device potentially more useful even though discovering new skills is a huge shortcoming of the technology right now.