Every once in a while, it’s irresistible to review something here that’s outside the world of cinematography tech. Since we’re all to some extent gadget freaks, a few thoughts about the new and hard-to-get Amazon Echo can’t be too far out of place. After all, something that takes down notes you may dictate in the morning while combing your hair, then sends them to your cloud account with an alert sometime later, will help you make films: “Alexa: Add to to-do list, pack extra battery for Wednesday shoot.” Yes, it’s true, you must always address Echo as “Alexa,” which amounts to a repetitive, depressing reminder for most of us that we can’t afford an ARRI.
But my rant starts here: Amazon has a basic instinct (and capitalist right) to assume that consumers will buy stuff from them while going about their daily lives, checking e-mail, listening to music, and now, using the Echo. You should own that understanding, anytime they offer you something.
They designed their tablets and phones based on the open Android operating system, though on sort of a loophole, they locked it down to an Amazon-centric environment, in a style that’s basically anti-customer. There is no customer on the face of the Earth, for example, who prefers using the Amazon App Store instead of the Google Play store. But Amazon wants to hold the mic at Google’s show, and Google doesn’t mind having more friends, even if they’re pushy.
Echo is an interesting wrinkle in Amazon’s quest for world domination: they are opening up the device just a wee bit more than usual. It was totally shocking to find a Google Calendar integration feature added last month, like diplomatic talks opening with North Korea. And to a very limited extent, Echo recently got interoperability with IFTTT.com, Phillips Hue, and Belkin WeMo for home automation tricks. I’m sad to admit that my every day ends now with me saying, “Alexa: Bedroom Off” — and that starts a 1-minute countdown of two lights fading to black, while checking to ensure that the rest of the house is saving energy. Aaand…scene.
But lest we forget, Amazon is sorta like the Apple Corporation: when it comes to offering core features, they hedge to the lowest common denominator. Those cool kids they want to run with (actually, older/wealthier non-techheads) cannot possibly be confused by anything, so their Echo is dumbed down, to the bone. Customization is utterly minimal. And Amazon’s responsiveness to feature requests, even the most elementary ones, is predictably perky and bubbly and inclusive-sounding…though they ignore almost everything.
Case in point: forums are lit up with people noting that Echo boasted about being an alarm clock, while every such device lets you keep a daily wake-up time. Amazon has ignored these thousands of complaints about how you need to manually re-program the Echo for every new day, starting from scratch. And again, Amazon won’t empower customers with a single little checkbox inside the Echo app, for daily repeating, or even (gasp) a 7-day schedule like every modern thermostat (or the Chumby alarm for that matter) — Amazon doesn’t want to hear about any confusion from the 1%.
But OK, it’s time to stop complaining and say something positive. It never hurts to step into the shoes of a more innocent P.O.V., admitting that Amazon Echo is sorta amazing. There’s nothing else like it. The microphone array almost never fails to understand commands, even from a room or two away. It tells corny jokes. And it reads books from Audible.
Even so, Amazon will always be Amazon. They’ll never cede control of their technology to the smart set. And on this, they’re extremely vulnerable: the moment Google invents something like the Echo, without a closed architecture and faux customer embrace, the Echo will become just an echo.
Amazon Echo is now being sold without the need to wait for an invitation. It’s now $179, after the early-adopter $99 run that ended earlier this year.