Amazon's Alexa ecosystem is exploding, for better and worse

It's going to be a huge year for Alexa and voice computing in general.

The Internet of Things still mostly feels like the Internet of Crap, but there's one ray of hope in the connected home on which plenty of companies are jumping aboard: Amazon's Alexa. In particular, I'm talking about the voice-powered ecosystem that's quickly grown around the company's virtual assistant. At CES, we saw Alexa integration in Dish's upcoming Hopper, washing machines and, much to our delight, a dancing robot. It's even heading outside the home: Both Ford and Volkswagen are bringing Alexa to their cars for hands-free commands.

In a little over two years, Alexa has gone from being a baffling product (a connected speaker from Amazon, really?!) to an essential feature for any connected device. It's no wonder why. With more than 7,000 Alexa Skills -- what Amazon calls third-party integrations -- it's the most robust voice platform around. And as we move into 2017, you can expect Alexa's capabilities to grow even further. Tech companies are thirsty for a ubiquitous and reliable voice platform, although based on what we've seen at CES, there are signs they may be getting a bit too thirsty.

Take LG's new smart refrigerator, for example. It has a giant screen on one of its doors, it can show you what's inside the fridge without opening the door, and, most importantly, it's a full-fledged Alexa device. Like the Echo, it can tell you the weather, add things to your shopping list or tap into any Alexa Skill. It sounds cool on paper, but considering that LG's previous smart fridge launched at a whopping $4,600 last year, we don't have much faith in this one being affordable. And seriously, doesn't it make more sense to shell out $50 for an Echo Dot or $180 for an Echo and put it in your kitchen?

What's notable this year is that developers no longer seem afraid to jump on the Alexa bandwagon. Even Mattel is joining in with Aristotle, a $300 device that starts out as a connected baby monitor but grows with your kids as a learning device as well. While Mattel has put together its own voice-powered service to make Aristotle easy to use for kids, it also functions as an Alexa device for adults. It's hard not to notice that the winds have changed for voice-powered computing when you see a major toy company trying to get kids into it.

I've written plenty about my love for Alexa. The Echo is still something I rely on daily, especially as its capabilities continue to evolve. At first I started out by asking it the weather and playing NPR; now it can control the lighting in my living room. The smaller Echo Dot has also been a useful addition to my bedroom, where it's connected to an aging Logitech speaker. And now that the Echo Dot is only $50, I'm tempted to get another one for my office.

With the Alexa ecosystem growing at a rapid clip, it's worth looking back and considering how Amazon managed to outpace Apple, Google and Microsoft in the voice arena. One reason: It released a device that's primarily controlled with your voice. The Echo doesn't have a screen; you're forced to start talking to it as soon as you set it up. While you can control some aspects of the Echo with your phone (it also works as a Bluetooth speaker), that all feels secondary.

Amazon solved a lot of problems with voice commands that have plagued the computing world for years. The Echo uses far-field microphones with built-in noise cancellation to pick up your commands in loud rooms. It's circular, so it works equally well from any angle, and Amazon wasn't afraid to work with third parties to make its Alexa virtual assistant more useful. Also, Amazon was able to focus and improve its voice-recognition capabilities by limiting the Echo to English speakers in the US for its first two years (it only recently made its way to the UK).

While Siri, Google Now and Cortana were all available on phones before the Echo, they also rely on less-capable microphones. And it's often easier to simply swipe and tap over to whatever you want on your phone rather than hope and pray your voice command gets picked up. In this respect, Amazon's choice to limit the Echo's input mostly to voice seems even wiser in retrospect.

The competition, on the other hand, is still trying to make sense of voice computing. Siri has been notoriously finicky since its release, and Apple also dragged its heels on third-party integration. Google Now long seemed like an experimental feature in Android, only recently evolving into something as consumer friendly as Google's Assistant. Together with the Google Home stand-alone speaker, Assistant might actually give Amazon a run for its money.

Microsoft's Cortana has actually been a pretty useful addition to Windows 10, and we're also seeing plenty of companies adopting it as well. But the failure of the Xbox One's Kinect, which was the gateway to Cortana voice commands on that console, and Windows Mobile left Cortana mostly relegated to the desktop. Still, you can expect to see Microsoft's assistant on roads as part of its new connected car platform, which Volvo, Toyota and BMW are looking into.

Given that hands-free commands aren't at all new for cars, it only makes sense to see virtual assistants headed there. "We know that voice interfaces have been a part of cars for a long time, primarily to support safe operations," Amazon's Automotive Lead, CJ Frost, told Engadget at CES. "When you look at how easily you can engage -- order a pizza in five to six seconds, check the weather -- it's a very easy, safe and consistent interaction and it adds functionality to the car. You can bring your phone to the car, but depending on how the consumer uses it, it can add a level of risk as well. But finding a way to converse without being distracted, with your hands still on the steering wheel, becomes a positive experience."

Both Ford and Volkswagen plan to use Alexa in their cars for the voice commands you already know -- asking for the weather or what's on your calendar -- along with things that are actually useful for driving, such as dealing with navigation. But Frost eventually sees Alexa going even further. "What's big this year is vehicle-to-vehicle communication and data-sharing between cars," he said. "Not an active data sharing or interaction between consumers but cars talking to each other. What happens in the near future when a car can detect snow on the road and tell 15 cars behind it, 'Hey, there's snow on the road'?"

Here's one thing we know for sure about voice computing this year: The competition will only heat up. And hopefully, that will make all the offerings even better. Amazon wants to eventually turn Alexa into something like the ubiquitous ship-wide computer in Star Trek, that can answer any question and take care of your every need. There's no guarantee it will be the company to accomplish that, but so far, it's the closest.

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