It was about three or four years ago when my wife and I decided to finally get rid of our landline. We weren't really using it anymore — it was mostly an emergency backup, and a great way for solicitors to bug us. (That it occasionally made phantom 911 calls in the middle of the night was another impetus.)
This presented a problem, though. Our kids ride the bus home, and family members pick them up there. But what happens if for some reason nobody shows? The kids need a way to call their parents.
I had a brief flirtation with Google Hangouts for this. But it was clunky at best, and now is a nonstarter, since Hangouts is dying. And so this is how our eldest daughter got "her" first phone way earlier than I would have liked.
This is also why I'm ridiculously excited about Amazon's recent announcements. Which naturally, have implications for Microsoft's Skype platform, and any efforts to bring Cortana to the living room.
The window of opportunity for Microsoft's own "Invoke" speaker — powered by Cortana and sourced by audio giant Harman/Kardon — is potentially already shrinking.
Finally announced at the 2017 Build conference in Seattle, it may well be the best-sounding smart speaker we've seen. But details are still sparse. Will it compete with the price of the full-size Echo or Google Home, both of which come in under $150? And we're probably still at least four months away from release (I'd say that's on the early side, actually) before we even get a chance to buy Invoke.
This is what Microsoft and Harman/Kardon will have to compete with, Amazon's Echo, and the brand new Echo Show.
But first ... a word on your contacts
When you first set up Alexa calling you have to give the app access to your contacts. Don't do that without some hesitation. You're giving Amazon the ability to see every person in your contact list. Same goes for anyone who has you in their contact list.
That in and of itself isn't evil, but it's poor implementation. I have at least one person in my Alexa contacts now who I had to look up. They'd emailed me for an Android Central thing back in 2012. And now I have their phone number and the ability to call their Amazon devices wherever they may be? That's ridiculous, and something Microsoft could pounce on in criticism.
Amazon must (and I'm sure will) add granular controls as to who is allowed to contact you through Alexa calling. And it needs to do it ASAP.
Alexa calling changes everything
If you have young kids or aging parents, Alexa calling and an Echo Dot is a no-brainer.
What I really needed was a way for my kids to be able to call their parents without needing a phone. The new calling (and messaging) feature in the Alexa app makes this a reality.
Setup was super simple. You'll need the Alexa app, (which, of course, isn't available on Microsoft's platforms, and that's not likely to change either. If you do have a compatible device, you'll need to give it access to your contacts. Once you do that it'll match the peeps in your phone with the peeps who own an Echo. (There's a pitfall here, but we'll get to that in a second.)
And that's it. Once that's done you can call anyone in your Alexa contacts. And when you do so it'll ring their mobile devices and any Echo devices. If you don't want to have a live call, you can just leave a voice message, or send a basic text message through the Alexa app.
Don't mistake these for regular phone calls and SMS messages — they're not. But that matters less and less these days. So long as the meaning gets through, who cares what the mechanism is?
And my kids aren't the only ones who are going to take advantage of this. My grandparents are 90 and still ridiculously awesome. (One's on an iPhone, and the other on Android. Along the same lines as my wife and I, now that I think about it.) But smartphones at 90 aren't necessarily as easy as smartphones at 40. Simpler is better, especially if an emergency happens. And is there really anything more simple than a $50 Echo Dot that can call me in mere seconds?
For young kids and aging relatives, this is a game-changer.
Echo Show — we'll see ... and it will, too
The other major announcement from Amazon was Echo Show — an Echo with a touchscreen and a camera. That's a big deal, too, for a few reasons.
All this connected stuff at home is great. But we've yet to see a proper visual hub that could finally tie it all together. Sure, there are DIY smart mirrors, and Apple TV and Android TV have the potential to serve as display hubs. But none of that has really happened yet.
And none of them has the Skills that Alexa has. That is, Alexa is the endpoint for thousands and thousands of APIs for so many services. A visual hub makes so much sense here.
It's also a big deal for video calls. While Apple's FaceTime has always been excellent for this, it's limited to someone having an Apple device nearby. Same for any other video chat service. Mobile devices are, by definition, mobile. But video calls on a home hub mean it's always there, and always available, for everyone.
I'm less bullish on the "Drop-in" calls — wherein someone — after you've granted them access — can literally drop in on you with a video call, basically saving them the trouble of accepting the call themselves. (They'll still have the option to reject it, though.) But I'll just have to wait and see how well that actually works.
And Echo Show will do more traditional things like watch videos and play music and order things from Amazon. And surely that's just the beginning.
While having a camera in the living room isn't a novelty anymore, I get that folks will still be hesitant to let Amazon (or any other company traditionally outside of the security space) have a look at what's going on so easily. But I also think the ease of communication will trump that fear.
An imperfect, huge head start
Messaging through Amazon Alexa is a big deal. But it's far from perfect and definitely has room to improve. A few thoughts off the top of my head:
- Again, the contacts thing is ridiculous. That should never have happened.
- So technically my kids are calling my through my own account, but whatever. It just works.
- But having more than one person in the home is a little clunky, even with the Amazon Household stuff. You have to tell Alexa to change accounts. Google has that beat with voice recognition for multiple accounts on Google Home.
- (That also means anyone who has access to an Echo device can listen to your messages. So keep things SFW, folks. Or not.)
- Know what else I want? Some sort of web or (even better) native computer support for when I'm sitting here working.
- The Alexa app is still not great, if you're looking to actually use it as a messaging app. In fact, it's bad for that.
- And Amazon needs to give more assurances that your messages are secure.
The simple fact of the matter, though, is this: While Apple beat everyone to the mobile assistant game with Siri, and Google Assistant is very good and growing all the time, neither has reach ubiquitous status, leaving Amazon to fill in the large gaps left by anything that's not traditionally mobile.
Google Home has helped with that, but there's no denying Echo has a huge lead. Microsoft's Invoke definitely looks promising. But so many questions remain, especially whether it has any chance at being more than a niche product for the hardcore fans. And Microsoft (like everyone else) was already far behind. Not seeing Harmon/Kardon's speaker until the fall doesn't help matters, and anything similar from Apple is still in the rumor status. Microsoft has struggled to capitalize with Cortana and Skype voice-activated calling on home PCs and even Xbox, thus far, too. The messaging space is more competitive than ever, and Amazon's product line-up is breaking new ground while Microsoft is still attempting to modernize Skype.
Will Echo Show extend Amazon's head start? There's almost no way it can't at this point.
For now, it's still Amazon's game to lose. And with Alexa calling and soon with Echo Show, it's making nothing but winning moves.
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Phil is the father of two beautiful girls and is the Dad behind Modern Dad. Before that he spent seven years at the helm of Android Central. Before that he spent a decade in a newsroom of a two-time Pulitzer Prize-finalist newspaper. Before that — well, we don't talk much about those days. Subscribe to the Modern Dad newsletter!