How Alexa could bring Amazon back to smartphones

Alexa provides a better interface for on-the-go tasks than today's touchscreens, but Amazon would have to overcome many obstacles to break through the Apple-Google duopoly in a saturated market.

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Last week, I wrote that the Alexa-powered Amazon Echo Show feels like the desktop PC of the future; indeed, the company wants it to become a seamless brain for the digital home. The Alexa Show can now use a mix of speech and touch to hail services such as Uber, check statuses of various tasks, deliver news, weather, and other info, play music and video, integrate with smart home devices, even play some casual games. In short, it can also do much of what smartphones can do.

That brings us back to whether Alexa could conceivably drive a new beginning for Amazon in the smartphone space -- one that takes an agent-first approach as opposed to the grafted-on capabilities of Siri and Google Assistant or the ambitious attempt by Bixby to provide full control of the phone and apps.

A phone driven by Alexa, as it now exists, would offer several advantages over an apps-driven experience, not the least of which is that it would likely be a superior option for the visually impaired; it needn't even have a display. However, the Echo Show has demonstrated that Amazon can design an interface in which the display complements the voice-driven nature of Alexa. That display can serve many of the functions it does today such as viewing photos, maps, and videos.

But Amazon would have to plug a few technical and business holes to make the "Alexaphone" a truly viable option.

  • As voice is simply not a practical input method for all situations, it would need to provide some kind of keyboard input as other agent providers have done.
  • With web browsing still an important smartphone activity, it would need to step up or replace its Silk browser to make it a stronger rival to Safari or Chrome.
  • Alexa's focus on where you are -- an increasingly important part of the mobile experience -- would need to become sharper.
  • An Alexaphone could probably get by with selected notification about social media updates via skills. There's really not a lot of interface manipulation involved in passively consuming Instagram posts. Participating, however, could require more adapting of touchscreen interactions than Echo Show does today.
  • Addressing weaknesses in the Fire phone and its Fire tablets, it would likely need to find some way to tap into Google's leading services. Some, like Gmail, offer many paths in. But others, like YouTube, are a locked door if Google doesn't want you in. Amazon could, of course, sign up to make the Alexa phone a Google-certified device, but that could put restrictions on the device's look and feel, which would eliminate much of the differentiation.
  • An Alexaphone would also have to deliver games. The Echo Show has shown how well it can handle casual games such as Jeopardy. But getting at something more complex would require a more traditional approach.

Finally, there's the huge issue of Amazon gaining consumer acceptance for a smartphone that operated more like the Echo Show, that is, something that is based on getting things done rather than navigating grids of apps and more hamburger menus than in all of the McDonald's. There's a big difference between having success with a little cylindrical Bluetooth speaker and displacing a tool that consumers rely on throughout their day. Apple faced such an education challenge with the iPhone, but even that adapted familiar elements of the desktop graphical user interface such as icons and scrolling.

It's hard to imagine that Amazon has said goodbye to the smartphone market for good. But even if it is too late to reinvent the smartphone, Alexa represents a more promising approach for a host of next-generation connected devices with constrained input and interfaces, including smartwatches, TV, and augmented reality,

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