An Echo from the void

I bought an Amazon Echo back in January, unusually late for someone who is usually an early adopter of the latest gadgets. I had visions of all the endlessly useful conversations I would have with Alexa. I would always know the traffic on my route to work, train times would be available at a shout’s notice, and any song I could think of in history would be playing moments after barking the appropriate command across the room. I was ready for the Amazon Echo lifestyle.

To my surprise, and much like the Kindle, Amazon’s previous foray into selling hardware, my usage of the Echo in the months since I bought it has dwindled to be at the point where I’m seriously considering whether or not I should simply sell it. It’s very disappointing.

I should state now that I have no ‘smart home’ appliances – while it’s a pretty cool demo I’ve seen at friends’ houses, I’m quite OK with setting my thermostat on a timer or pressing a light switch when I need some light. I’m even OK with opening curtains manually, and don’t get enough visitors to warrant a smart doorbell. So perhaps I’m the wrong audience.

I also don’t have an Amazon Prime account, and although I’ve considered it, Amazon’s pushy sales technique of trying to trick me into signing up has made me actively avoid it. They’ve tried trick me, and I’m not going to give in! I’ve also seen what’s on their video service and wasn’t at all impressed. Again, maybe the Echo simply isn’t aimed at people like me?

Music could be good though, right? For roughly £3 a month the Echo can set itself up with Amazon Music Unlimited. That seemed fair enough. A small amount on top of what I pay already for Apple Music that’s worth it for the convenience of being able to shout the name of any song, artist or album and have it play immediately. (As long as it’s easily pronounceable.) Indeed it was good, great even as I was able to connect my Sonos speakers and therefore command Alexa to play songs would would in turn start playing on my Sonos Play: 1 stereo setup. The sound was brilliant. Until that is, Amazon (or maybe it was Sonos) released an update which stopped Sonos from working with the £3 Music Unlimited subscription. It now wants me to upgrade to something that’s substantially more in order to enjoy Sonos integration. So I cancelled the music subscription. It felt dishonest of Amazon to allow this to work, and then take it away. I still have Apple Music on my Sonos, but that doesn’t work with the Echo. I could switch to Spotify, which works on both, but that doesn’t work on my Apple Watch, which I do enjoy using when running. Vendor lock-in is brilliant, isn’t it?

As it happens though, using an Echo for music for a month or so while I had the subscription taught me something significant: I actually quite like browsing music visually. If I have to recall a song or album from memory then I tend to only play the big hits or albums that for some reason stuck in my mind as being great. That means lots of U2’s Achtung Baby but far fewer obscure album tracks from Manic Street Preachers’ Know Your Enemy get played.

It’s quicker to look at my phone to see the weather. Timers are annoying on the echo because you have to keep asking how much time is left – there’s no visual indication. The National Rail skill for Alexa is a joke. It asks me every time if I mean ‘Reading station in Reading’. It’s actually quicker to use my phone than try and have a conversation with this awful app. Most other skills seem more of a novelty than an innovation.

I thought being able to wake up and say ‘Alexa good morning’ and have the Echo read out the traffic, weather and BBC News might be good, but I’ve ended up setting the Echo to start playing BBC Radio 4 every morning. I get the news and weather, without having to articulate anything first thing in the morning, the traffic was mostly useless anyway as it would have changed in the 15 minutes I take to eat breakfast and shower. Yes, I paid £90 for a clock radio.

Don’t get me wrong, the Echo does have some good uses. I’ve moved it into the kitchen and now use it as a Bluetooth speaker for podcasts. It’s good for quick maths questions, adding appointments to calendars, querying random facts. On the whole however, I feel it’s basically a gimmick rather than the next evolution of personal computing. Maybe that’s OK?

With my Sonos, iPhone, laptop and Apple Watch I feel as though if any of these broke I would want to replace them. With the Echo, I don’t think I’d miss it at all. Just as my Kindle sits on the shelf (I call it a ‘black hole for books’ because I usually forget about the books that are on it, unlike physical books which I almost always finish because they are sat there on my bedside table), I wonder if the Amazon Echo will be a passing craze and that the product category will need to evolve in some significant way before it can really become a mainstream device like smartphones or televisions.

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