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Amazon's Alexa on PC gets off to a rough start and is not that impressive (yet)

Alexa PC app
Alexa PC app (Image credit: Windows Central)

I recently wrote an editorial laying out two potential possibilities for why Amazon's Alexa app for PC is not a widely available download for all users. One reason is it requires unique hardware (or firmware) to make it work even on a basic level. The other is just nonsense "exclusive" deals in a lame attempt to sell new laptops.

I now have my answer. The reason you can't just download the Amazon Alexa app is that they don't want you to have it. That's it. Amazon (and Acer and Lenovo) think you'll want to buy their laptop because of Alexa and you shouldn't.

Even on supported hardware, it's not supported (yet)?

The Lenovo X1 Carbon (6th gen) is one of the officially supported laptops for Amazon Alexa. As such, the app became available at the end of May to download and use.

Interestingly, one of its main features – 'wake word' where you call upon Alexa with just your voice – does not work. Lenovo did release a specific BIOS/firmware to enable the option, but it does not work. Lenovo and Amazon are investigating.

This custom firmware to enable the wake word is presumably why this app is exclusive, but that seems a bit of a cop-out. The app works fine without it. You can install Alexa on any PC and use it in manual mode – that is, you launch the app and click the blue button. This ability works on desktop PCs like my HP Omen gaming desktop or the Surface Book 2.

Alexa's 'wake work' doesn't work yet even on some supported PCs. It also means any PC can run this app.

Alexa's 'wake work' doesn't work yet even on some supported PCs. It also means any PC can run this app.

Even more worrisome is that for Alexa to be useful on Windows 10 it will require manufacturers to work on, compile, and release custom firmware and BIOS updates to enable it. That's never a good thing if you are looking for market penetration. That's not entirely Amazon's fault either as even Android phones have this issue (see Cortana and using voice control there).

Is Alexa even useful on PC? It depends.

I'll let you judge whether you find Amazon Alexa for PC a necessary component of your work routine. I think the experience will be like Cortana if you have a corresponding Invoke speaker: you'll ask Alexa to do something only to have a barrage of Echo speakers chime in at your house offering to help.

On the road with your laptop, asking Alexa for the current weather, cycling your Philips Hue lights, or ordering some garbage bags may be useful, but beyond that, the assistant does not touch your email, contacts, calendar, or anything in Windows 10 (so no app launching, or volume controls).

This weakness can be overcome, at least a little bit, through Alexa app updates and general improvements to Alexa's backend, e.g., those skillz, but outside of answering trivia, or finding out some necessary information, Alexa on PC still feels half-baked.

Just a band-aid

Cortana and Microsoft logo

Cortana and Microsoft logo (Image credit: Windows Central)

I think the whole "Cortana vs. Alexa" thing is a bit overplayed. Amazon's Alexa is very good at knowing you as a shopper and working with third-party apps (so long as you remember the trigger phrases).

Cortana is (or will be) better at knowing you through email, contacts, web and search history, and deep integration into Windows 10 across your devices.

For those looking for Alexa to be some Cortana substitute, I think you'll be sorely disappointed. Remember, Alexa is slightly worse than Cortana for local availability. For instance, officially the app is only supported in the United States with a promise of "stay tuned" for additional availability.

Related, Alexa only supports English UK, English US, and German. Cortana, for all its faults and limitations, is at least available in Australia (English), Brazil (Portuguese), Canada (English/French), China (Chinese Simplified), France (French), Germany (German), India (English), Italy (Italian), Japan (Japanese), Mexico (Spanish), Spain (Spanish), United Kingdom (English), United States (English).

Long-term the real solution here is the best of both worlds: making Cortana and Alexa interoperable. That is the current project set forth between Amazon and Microsoft and if they can make it natural to use it could be the ultimate solution for consumers versus the current model. Both services have their strengths and weaknesses but combined the two assistants could span your PC to your shopping life to your connected home in one fell swoop.

But if you were thinking about buying a PC just for this Alexa app, well, you'd be crazy to do so.

Where to get Amazon Alexa for PC right now

If you want to install Amazon Alexa for your laptop or desktop PC you can now do that. Just read our tutorial on where to get it and what works and what doesn't for more information!

Daniel Rubino is the Executive Editor of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft here since 2007, back when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and arguing with people on the internet.

23 Comments
  • One company needs to buy the other's digital assistant. Using Alexa to launch Cortana or vice versa isn't a good user experience. It relies on the user knowing what assistant to use instead of just asking a device to accomplish a task. I don't see either company giving up their tech, but until a true merger or one dethrones the other, Siri has a wide open door to take over if Apple ever decides to spend some money on it.
  • "Siri has a wide open door to take over if Apple ever decides to spend some money on it."
    Very wrong analysis. Siri is even worse than Cortana and Alexa for smart "things" and as an assistant. It doesn't work across devices or ecosystems and Apple's own AI/cloud team pales to the competition. Have an iPhone but use a PC (like most iPhone users)? Too bad. No, the real threat is Google who just surpassed Amazon last quarter for home speaker sales for hte first time. Google has the cloud, AI, reach, and partners here. Siri is in a bad spot just existing on iPhone and the few Pods they sold.
    "Using Alexa to launch Cortana or vice versa isn't a good user experience."
    Well, one reason why this is taking so long is to make sure it is good and to figure these things out. That is something that they can grow around, but it will likely take time. Either way, until it is here it is hard to really judge, so we'll hold back for now.
    "It relies on the user knowing what assistant to use instead of just asking a device to accomplish a task."
    This is the exact same problem as boasting your assistant has 200,000 "skills". It's all problematic at this stage. The real "A.I." bit has yet to really take effect. This is just voice recognition + triggers at this point, nothing more.
  • I do wonder if they will just merge the tech but it will work of you day Alexa or hey cortana. For me I was a big fan of cortana but wp being dropped I moved to Android and Bluetooth was my main use of cortana on wp asking it's o read texts ect but could not do that on an android phone so started to use Google alittle more and then android auto. I was then bought a Google home just before Xmas and I now own 3 and I'm fully moved to Google's voice system now. I do think Microsoft and Amazon need to look at pushing the tech asap to catch Google up
  • I think the solution is interoperability. Google, for all its magic, has ZERO insight into your PC and work life. Even for gaming on Xbox it will likely be a basic trigger system (but not know anything about how you use it, what games you play etc.). The question is, would Google allow interoperability? I very much doubt it. They seem to believe that one assistant can rule them all, but as more companies roll out personal assistants and the tech grows, I think a framework for getting them all to "link" together will be the only true solution. We'll see what happens.
  • I don't believe one framework for AI will come in the future because all the companies want the data for themselves. Unless they learn to share that will never happen. Having said that I am kinda surprised that Amazon and Microsoft decided to partner in that regard. The only way that A.I assistants will exist is of they partner in what they do best and just make their products better through interconnection.
  • Read their privacy terms and then sell your Google stuff.
  • How are they different than Microsoft's?
  • tbf, Microsoft does not sell or share your data with third parties and it's quite easy to delete/manage/control what they do have on you and prevent it in the future. Google's whole business is selling and using your data. Google is an ad company that built a search engine, not much more.
  • Ok great, but what about the TOS are different? Microsoft's certainly allows them to share your data: "When you upload your content to the services, you agree that it may be used, modified, adapted, saved, reproduced, distributed, and displayed to the extent necessary to protect you and to provide, protect and improve Microsoft products and services." Google Dashboard shows everything they have saved and gives you easy controls. They have had this for a while (2014). Microsoft's Privacy Portal is fairly new (2017) and not as robust. They are improving it though.
  • "Microsoft's certainly allows them to share your data:"
    With third parties? No. And Microsoft went out of their way to make all of their apps/services GDPR-compliant worldwide regardless if you're in Europe or not. Again, Microsoft does not sell your data to third-parties or for ads. Yes, they do use anonymized data to improve their services/machine learning, etc. but that is something you can opt out of or delete. When it comes to data it's still the same story as it was 5 years ago: No internet/PC > Apple > Microsoft > Google > Facebook. Zero has changed.
  • This distinction is very important. The revenue model and privacy policies are very important when choosing a service. There is one group, Microsoft/Apple/Amazon that profits from selling you products and services. There is another group, Facebook/Google that profits from selling the user themselves. For some the latter does not matter. For those of us who do, though, our software choices are important especially as integration into our lives increases.
  • Wether they do or don't, their ToS allow them to share your data. I don't know how else to interpret the part I quoted. Maybe "distributed" means something other than what I think it does.
  • You seem to be ignoring the second half of that sentence: "to the extent necessary to protect you and to provide, protect and improve Microsoft products and services" That is the qualifier for the first half. That does not grant them permission to share to a third party, in fact it explicitly states that its for either user protection and Microsoft telementry. Distributed is being qualified by the end of the sentence.
  • Build a search engine that logs where you go, what keyword you used. Build ads platform so it knows where you go, which site you come from.
    Also the bot will read your mail and analysis your photos (location, who's in it, etc, etc)
  • Your Google analysis really ignores how and where the market is where it is at. Google has been chasing Amazon for years at this point, with about a third of their market share to show for it. Yes they surpassed Echo sales for one quarter, but during that quarter they started literally giving away their smart speaker with phone sales and other promotions. That is a sign of desperation and certainly is not long term sustainable. I agree that Google is best positioned to challenge Amazon, and is certainly willing to lose a lot of money to avoid having smart assistants eat their lunch on search. But I think we need to see a couple of years of sales leads before we call it an inevitable future. Right now all told without any brand loyalty, Alexa is the only legitimate voice assistant for just setting up a smart home and having it 'just work', and the skills support is fairly robust at this point. It wouldn't shock me if Google eventually took the lead, but we don't have the supporting data for that. Large percentage growth rates are normal when the starting point is near zero.
  • Amazon has three languages so far: UK English, US English, and German. Amazon has no native OS platform. Amazon has no action in the car, and is barely on phones, even worse on PCs. This doesn't end well for Amazon. I'm sticking with that. Treos, BlackBerries and Windows Mobile were all once synonymous with "smartphone" too. Having market share and the lead early on means nothing in tech. Nothing.
  • You really haven't been following Alexa very well. It's in a lot more than just those languages. For instance, it's in Japan: https://www.engadget.com/2017/11/08/amazon-echo-alexa-japan/ It also understands Tamil, Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Malyalam and Punjabi and is building out support for responses in those languages as well. Amazon does not roll out to other countries as quick as, say, Google, but they tend to take seriously the markets they roll out in, going the extra mile to make them as native to the market as possible, including local quirks. This is how the Kindle destroyed Sony in Japan in a matter of a week. As for cars:
    https://media.ford.com/content/fordmedia/fna/us/en/news/2017/01/04/alexa...
    https://www.cnbc.com/2018/01/08/amazon-panasonic-deal-pushes-alexa-furth...
    https://www.digitaltrends.com/cars/toyota-amazon-alexa/
    http://techacute.com/jaguar-new-ev-suv-with-alexa/
    https://techcrunch.com/2017/09/27/bmw-to-bring-alexa-to-its-cars-startin...
    https://www.theverge.com/2017/4/21/15385232/mercedes-benz-amazon-echo-al...
    http://www.businessinsider.com/amazon-alexa-nissan-2017-10 Not sure where you thought they weren't all over in that space, because they actually are. I haven't seen any significant agreements with Google, Apple or Microsoft in this space. A brief overview per brand is here: https://www.caranddriver.com/news/alexa-start-the-car-these-vehicles-are... You are correct that it has no native OS platform. I'm not sure why that is relevant, having the most popular in the world didn't help Microsoft or Google to this point. Btw, I did notice that you have yet to respond to the points I made about sales. Most analysts don't make projections based on multiplications of tiny marketshare numbers and single quarters. It's possible Google will overtake Amazon, but you haven't really made a case for it beyond one quarter's numbers and a lack of information you seem to have about just how diverse the Alexa ecosystem actually is these days. Google is still playing catchup.
  • aren't the assistants also waging a battle for appliances (refrigerators, ...).
  • Yes, and Alexa is doing very well in that space. I haven't seen many announcements for Google with partners, but for Alexa they come every month. Also, Spain and Italy announced as the next EU markets with native language support: http://www.aftvnews.com/alexa-and-echo-devices-coming-to-spain-and-italy...
  • Hi
  • The real solution is being able to ask alexa to do something that only cortana can do and getting a result from cortana. And vica versa for cortana to alexa, bonus points if all multi assistant interactions can take place quickly and in the background. That said a solution that requires both companies to swollow their pride in order to create something very useful for consumers and business users is unlikely.
  • <grammar police>
    awkward opening sentence
    "I recently wrote an editorial laying out two potential possibilities for why Amazon's Alexa app for PC is not a widely available download for all users is not" what were you trying to say?
    </grammar police>
  • Wow, they took the least likeliest route possible. The silver lining here for Cortana is that Alexa is even more limited. At this stage Cortana should have been miles and leaps better than Google Assistant. I thought that they would go for mass market penetration out of the gate... Then go for the always on method - instead they went this route to enable low power microphone useage whilst pc / laptop is off, in hibernate or stand by. I can understand why but that poses a privacy and a security concern. I'm not entirely sure how Microsoft and Amazon will work out the natural language side of things when it comes to voice activation. As the crux of it is that you have to say two names, as you don't ask someone to ask someone to do something for you. Unless of course a person is so damn rich that they have a butler and are so lazy that they can't get off butt to ask someone directly. So they ask the butler to ask for them.