Now you can say what a timer is for when you set it on an Amazon Echo. “Alexa, set a timer for the pasta for eight minutes.” Then set a second timer: “Alexa, set a timer for the laundry for 30 minutes.” Eight minutes later, the Echo will chime, and Alexa will say, “Your pasta timer is done.” “Alexa, how much time is left on my laundry timer?” “Twenty-two minutes.” You can set reminders, too. “Alexa, remind me to pay the Visa bill on Thursday.”
Sounds pretty natural, doesn’t it? I’ll use it all the time. That’s why it’s my favorite technology of 2017:
• It’s practical and it meets a need.
• It’s easy.
• I can remember it.
That’s not true of a lot of technology announcements this year. The New York Times published an article last week pointing out an uncomfortable problem: we are being inundated with new technology “features” that are too complicated to figure out. Apple is showing off new features for iPhones and Macs at its developer conference this week, but we should look at them with a jaundiced eye. Apple’s Touch3D feature on iPhones is wasted on me – it never occurs to me that a long press on an iPhone icon might bring up a menu of useful options. Relatively few people have explored the stickers and scribbles and apps that Apple wedged into the Messages app last year. The Apple Watch is a complicated mess that went nowhere with consumers. And that’s just Apple. It would be easy to come up with examples from Android, or Windows, or Office 365 – all being crammed with features and services that mostly make us want to lie down with a cool cloth on our overstuffed brains.
Amazon Echo and Google Home are cylinders that sit in your house and listen for their names. When you say their name, they light up and you can ask them to do useful things. Amazon Echo and Google Home are smart speakers. That doesn’t sound very impressive and they’re outgrowing that description, so expect to see references to ambient computing, the new tech buzzword of 2017. A lot of the tech industry believes that we will become comfortable speaking to the technology in the environment around us and expecting to get useful results. Don’t think you’ll ever do that? Maybe, but don’t be too sure.
If you read the hype, the sky is the limit for what you can do with an Amazon Echo or Google Home. Control the lights! Play games! Order stuff from Amazon! Order food! There are dozens of built-in commands and Amazon has literally thousands of “skills” created by third parties to enhance the Echo. All you have to do is (1) find the “skill” that interests you, (2) install it on the Echo through the phone app, (3) remember the trigger words that Alexa will recognize, and (4) remember to use it. “Alexa, ask NASA Mars for a Curiosity Rover update.” “Alexa, talk to Glad Leftovers.”
Think you’re going to do that? No, of course not. And yet, I still recommend that you get an Amazon Echo or Google Home. They’re ready for normal people to put in their homes. The very basic things that they do are fun and interesting. Each of you might find one or two more things that make them your favorite technology. That’s how computers came into our lives, that’s how smartphones made their way into our pockets – one or two things that intuitively made sense, and a couple more that each person discovered that felt just right for them.
If you get an Amazon Echo, put it in your kitchen. Most people start using an Echo to do only three things.
• Get the weather.
• Play music from Amazon or Spotify.
• Set timers.
An Echo is quite good at those things! And that’s enough to get started. You might move on from there to other things that suit you.
If you get a Google Home, it will do those things in the kitchen but maybe you should put it in your living room and set up your TV with Chromecast, either built into the TV or through one of the cheap Chromecast sticks in an HDMI port. Google has improved Google Home significantly in the last six months since it was introduced. Google Home now far outclasses the Echo at answering general questions. And among its other tricks, it is getting better at controlling your TV through voice commands – “OK Google, go back thirty seconds,” “OK Google, play YouTube TV on the family room TV.”
Keep an eye on the new world of ambient computing. Apple and Microsoft will both have their own devices soon but Amazon and Google have a head start and will be tough to dislodge. All of the companies will be trying to find the right features to tempt you – something that is simple and practical that you might remember to use. For example, Amazon just announced the “Echo Look” for your bedroom. It has a camera and works with voice commands to help you decide what to wear. The “style assistant” is a combination of artificial intelligence and real people that will look at your wardrobe options and give you a second opinion. The “Echo Show” adds a screen in case you think visual feedback would make Alexa more useful. Amazon and Google are both working on improving their products so they recognize your voice and connect to your account for things like checking the calendar or reading mail. If you have several of them scattered around the house, they’re getting better at making sure the one closest to you is the one to respond. Google Home will soon be able to make free phone calls to any phone.
And on and on it goes. Try one of them! A handful of simple, easy commands may be enough to make you like your smart speaker. That’s how it begins. For me, it starts with a kitchen timer that I can set without touching anything while I’m cooking.