last updated: 10 January 2017 (approximate reading time: 4 minutes; 793 words)
In 1170 the King of England, Henry II, is reputed to have exclaimed, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”
While there is some question about the precise words that were said, what happened next is not disputed. Four knights took the utterance as a royal command and proceeded to Canterbury where they found the troublesome priest—Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury—and put him to death.
It’s now 2017 and the present Archbishop is unlikely to be murdered at the command of the monarch. But have you ever heard yourself exclaim, “Who will rid me of my troublesome lack of washing powder, cat food, and toothpaste?”
Just me then…?
But if you are prone to expressing yourself out loud, you may soon find your commands are obeyed with washing powder, cat food, and toothpaste arriving at your door.
Meet Echo and Alexa
I am, of course, talking about the Amazon Echo and Alexa. The difference between the two is Echo is the hardware (a tube or a puck-shaped device) and Alexa is the voice assistant.
Over the holiday season just gone the Echo Dot was the best-selling, most gifted item on Amazon dot com, so there’s a good chance you own one (or several) of these things.
If you haven’t played with one of these, then don’t worry, you can command Alexa to do more than just order stuff from Amazon. For instance, if you try any of these commands, Alexa will understand:
- “Alexa, what’s on my calendar?”
- “Alexa, add write next Boniface book to my to-do list”
- “Alexa, add milk to my shopping list”
- “Alexa, turn on the light”
- “Alexa, how tall is the Statue of Liberty?”
- “Alexa, read me the news”
- “Alexa, what’s the weather?”
- “Alexa, set a timer for five minutes”
So it does tricks…but is there more?
We’ve had voice-whatevers in our phones for years, but this is the first voice controlled—and exclusively voice controlled—product that has become hugely popular, and probably the first voice controlled device that has implemented this stuff in a practical manner.
Voice control is far more natural than opening up an app on a phone or tablet. It’s also a lot easier to give a command directly (“Alexa, turn on the lights”) rather than looking to find your phone (and making sure it’s charged) and then going through a process something like this: unlock the phone > find an app > close that app and find the correct app > search through the app and hit a bunch of buttons and options in an attempt to figure exactly how to turn on the light.
Turning on a light may not seem a particularly troubling task—even if your hands are full—but think about the wider implications for a moment. Beyond the basic convenience of not needing to stand up and turn on a light (or whatever), it should be remembered that these seemingly trivial tasks are not necessarily easy—or indeed possible—for everyone. And the power of opening the world of computing to people for whom a smartphone is a frighteningly complex piece of technology should not be underestimated.
Going to a world of voice control isn’t cheap. It’s not simply about buying a few Echo Dots. You need a whole collection of new bulbs, switches, sockets, thermostats, TV remotes, and so on. Then the process of setting up the devices is a pest (and very boring). The set up is even more tedious if you’re controlling a lot of devices.
It’s not cheap. It’s not simple to get up and running. But it might be a huge step forward.
Another reason that Echo/Alexa matters (and this reason is closer to home for me) is audio books.
Audio books have been with us for as long as I can remember. You used to be able to buy them on cassette and then on CD, but in recent years we’ve all got rid of our CD players and audio books have become a thing you listen to on your phone or tablet.
A phone or tablet can be convenient, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the first choice as a listening device in the home—the built-in speakers aren’t great, the device needs to be charged, and you’ve then got to find the app and find the book.
The Echo offers a much better audio experience and listening to a book only requires the command, “Alexa play audiobook The Girl on the Train.”
I say only requires a voice command… Of course, you need to buy the audio book or pay a monthly subscription to Audible.
What About You?
Were you one of the many to receive an Echo over the holiday season? How are you using it? What have you found most useful?