Christmas 2016 really felt like the season of the Amazon Echo. At least it did in our house when I finally succumbed to Amazon’s extensive marketing efforts (not that I needed much persuasion. The geek in me just had to have it).
I probably don’t need to tell you what the Echo is. Even if you don’t have one yourself, the chances are you know of someone who got one over Christmas, or you’ve at least seen the adverts. Amazon made sure of that. I’m pretty sure that from about October onwards you couldn’t go on the internet or watch anything on the TV without seeing the Echo advert at least once. You know the one I’m talking about. I wanted to be that man. The man with a dog called Buster who was due from the vet tomorrow. The man who asked his Echo to add dog biscuits to his shopping list and play his Buster playlist. Cue “Just the Two of Us”… ah, what a life that man has because of his Echo…
I wasn’t expecting to love the Echo as much as I do. It’s just so neat and tidy, sounds great and works surprisingly well. Alexa – the voice-enabled digital assistant does a great job. Think of Alexa as Amazon’s version of Siri or Cortana – but with the critical difference that she has direct access to your Amazon credit card so she’s a lot more dangerous (or useful, depending on whether you feel your household can be trusted with the ability to buy absolutely anything with your credit card just by asking Alexa for it).
Just like Siri and Cortana, Alexa doesn’t get everything right, but I’ve found her to be significantly more reliable than Siri, who I’ve all but given up on due to her consistently poor performance these days. Overall Alexa makes far fewer mistakes, so I’m more likely to use my Echo over anything else. Her voice recognition is the best I’ve found, albeit not perfect. She did struggle to understand commands from a certain Scottish guest…
This brings me onto my one negative point about the Echo, although I should point out this is an issue that goes beyond the Echo itself. But it’s an issue I feel the Echo could do a better job of solving.
The mess (and stress) of music streaming
I have to get this off my chest. As much as I love my Amazon Echo, music streaming is the elephant in the room here. The Echo’s standout feature for most people when they see it is its ability to play songs just by asking for them. It does this brilliantly, like magic. But it’s magic with a MASSIVE caveat. The Echo’s music playing functionality is severely limited by the fact it will only play music from subscription streaming services, and only two of those for that matter (Amazon Music and Spotify). Tough luck if you’re an Apple Music or Google Music subscriber. Those won’t play seamlessly on your Echo. While you can technically stream music to the Echo from those services via Bluetooth, you can’t use Alexa’s voice commands so you’re really just using Echo as an overpriced Bluetooth speaker at that point. And if your internet goes down mid-song, so does your music.
While I doubt the Echo will ever support all four of the main music streaming services (the Apple/Amazon/Google rivalries are just too strong), the Echo should at least be able to play music from your local music collection i.e. stream music files on your Mac, PC or music server over your local network. Perhaps I’m living in the past, but if I have a copy of Appetite for Destruction sitting on my Mac in the other room I want my Echo to play it over the network. I don’t want to use up internet bandwidth and pay £10/month just to play a song I already own.
Luckily for me we already subscribe to Amazon Prime for its other benefits. This gives us access to two million songs for our Echo, so I can impress my friends by asking it to play Tom Petty, and Alexa obeys. But it’s amazing how often the song I ask for is not among the two million songs. Either I have such eclectic musical tastes that Amazon is stumped, or it’s holding back the songs I want behind it’s £79/year paywall. As if it would do such a thing! It’s not the end of the world, and I know this is business, but it is particularly frustrating when it refuses to play a song I know I have on CD in the other room.
I know the Echo did not invent the walled gardens that have sprung up around the various music streaming services, but it’s the most visible form of this practice (at least for me). There are workarounds, but they just amplify the mess. For example if your subscription doesn’t have the song you want but you already own it, Amazon lets you upload 250 songs to Amazon Music for free to play on your Echo (and other Amazon devices), but this requires to ask for the song before you know it’s missing. Then you have to trudge over to the PC to upload it. By that point the moment has passed. You’ll then hit your 250 songs limit and need to pay Amazon £21.99/year for the ability to upload all your music. I already pay this to Apple for iTunes Match so I can do the same thing with my Apple devices. What a mess! I could cancel iTunes Match and pay Amazon instead, but that means using the Amazon music app, which I just don’t like as much as the Music app on iOS.
But it’s still magical
For all my grievances with the decisions Amazon, Apple and Google are making with their walled garden approach to music streaming, I still love my Echo. So much so that I now have two. It’s just magical. And the ecosystem Amazon is building around Alexa is brilliant. While it still needs some work (voice commands for my Nest thermostat could be more intuitive for example), I can’t wait to see where it goes, particularly with further integration of smart home devices.
Amazon, if you’re listening (which I know you are), keep up the good work, but don’t get complacent now.