My week with Alexa

For Christmas, Santa brought me an Amazon Echo Plus, a gift I didn’t know I wanted. Over the holiday break I’ve been taking a deep dive into most of its features – including dabbling with writing an app skill.

It’s a great device, here are the highlights.

Privacy & Security

Even though I’ve become accustom to carrying a powerful listening and tracking device in my pocket 24/7, the idea of an always-on microphone in my home listening to my family’s conversations makes me extremely nervous.

The Echo’s “drop-in” feature amps up my paranoia even more though. With this feature enabled, approved contacts can listen-in and talk via the Echo’s microphone and speakers. Kind of like an intercom… across the internet. A cool feature no doubt, but it’s not much of a leap to think that Amazon/NSA/other bad actors might be able to turn this feature on silently.

When you bring a device like this into the home you’re making a decision to trust Amazon with the most private data. It’s important to step back and think about this for a moment. Do I trust Amazon to keep my data private? Yes, until I’m given a reason not to. Amazon even recently took steps to protect their customer’s privacy in a murder trial. They’re off on the right foot in my opinion. Should I be more paranoid? Maybe.

On the security front, the Echo hardware itself is likely very secure. Amazon’s online store and their cloud hosting services have a great security track record (to my knowledge). Securing hardware and software from viruses, hackers and breaches is one of Amazon’s core competencies. I’m confident that the echo will remain free of security issues.

Voice Assistant

Alexa’s ability to do basic voice assistant tasks like taking down lists, setting alarms and reminders, playing music, etc is on par with Siri (the only other assistant I have experience with). Where Alexa really excels is in finding answers to random facts and sort of… spontaneous responses. For example, “Alexa, good morning,” will be met with a random bit of trivia or other information. Alexa’s weather and precipitation reports are much more thorough — though neither Alexa nor Siri seems to know about windchill factor.

The Echo’s voice recognition also seems slightly better, especially with my kids, who Siri cannot understand at all.  This positive is counter-balanced by need to say commands more  precisely. Alexa is more like a voice controlled computer than an AI.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but I’ll mention it anyways. Actually ordering items from via Alexa is flawless. Alexa lists the full price including taxes and shipping, with an expected arrival date. If you make a mistake, you can cancel anytime before it actually ships. I can only imagine how cool this would be in cities with 1 hour delivery.

I have been using Siri on my iPhone since day one and by comparison Amazon Echo doesn’t really add a lot functionality that Siri isn’t able to do. Yet the fact that the Echo sits in a stationary location with a microphone that’s able to pick up normal conversation from across the room, has lead to a mental shift in the way I use it. I don’t have to pull anything out of my pocket, or yell and wonder if my phone is charged. And our house has been full of music, not having to futz with anything makes music streaming a breeze.

Skills & Flash Briefings

“Skill” is what Amazon calls the voice apps that run on the Echo and it’s one only area of the ecosystem that could use major improvement.

Invoking is skill is extremely clunky, you have to include the name of the skill + the precise action you want to perform. For example, “Alexa, ask the weather network for the current temperature”. I think the reason for this is because Amazon has opted for a simple development model (more on that later) that involves zero AI.

Secondly, the skill marketplace is pretty lacking, most of the available apps seem useless or boring. I assume this is because the Echo has just entered the Canadian market place. Some of the US players like Domino’s and Uber still don’t have skills for Canada and I’d love to see a Skip The Dishes skill.

Flash briefings are pre-recorded news snippets that play when you ask Alexa about the news. Sort of like podcasts short, timely podcast. They’re exactly the type of on-demand news I’ve been looking for. I presently have Daily Tech News show, my local Winnipeg CBC radio and Alexa’s weather report in my flash briefing queue. My only complaint is that already listened briefings are repeated throughout the day. Since CBC updates hourly, but DTNS is only daily, I end up having to skip DNTS if I check the news more than once per day.

Smart Home

Santa brought me the Echo Plus, which means it is also a smart home hub. So far I’ve only set up one Hue light strip to replace dang hallway lighting. It’s definitely neat, but at the same time it feels like a gimmick. I wonder if smart home might not be a fad that dies off in a few years. I mean, when exactly did we collectively decide that flipping light switches was too much work? And normal white-ish lights were too boring?

I’m still waiting for a few items to be delivered so I may have some more thoughts on this in a few weeks.

Building a Skill

If you’re interesting in building Alexa Skills, I recommend taking a look at Alexa’s Fact Skill github repo. It’s one of the simplest type of skill, took me about 30 minutes to get rolling.  Skills are pretty cool and very simple. Basically node.js functions that run on AWS Lambda.

Once I started digging in to the development environment, I understood why talking to Alexa can be so clunky. When developing a skill you are required to assign precise phrases to a specific function. So you sort of have to think of every possible permutation of things someone might say when addressing your skill. This leads to a robotic/binary interaction where users have to say precise commands.

Hopefully in the future Amazon is able to wrap skills in AI or something clever. For the time being, it’s a good choice that really lowers the barrier to entry for developers.

Surprise: Amazon Calling

Amazon allows you to call any North American phone, for free! This feature flew completely under my radar and has just totally obviated the need to ever have a home phone, period.


Watching Star Trek: The Next Generation growing up, I was consciously aware that a lot of the technological advances depicted in the Star Trek universe were bound to be come into existence much sooner than the 24th century.  We’ve seen cell phones effectively mimic Star Fleet communicators, tablets are basically PADDs and we have ubiquitous flat screen displays; Amazon Echo combined with smart home gizmos brings us one more step closer to living on the Enterprise. Hell, you can even change Alexa’s wake word to “computer.” With an IFTT rule and a smart tea pot, I bet it’s possible to set up a response to “Computer, earl grey, hot.” We truly are living in the future.

I think Amazon should also be commended for a great Canadian tech roll out. Maybe the best I’ve ever seen. We’re often second class citizens when it comes to tech releases and it’s nice to see full support for Canada in The Echo. Kudos.