Monthly Archives: April 2016

Alexa Needs Macros/Recipes for Consumers

Amazon Alexa
Amazon Alexa’s Logo

Jason Perlow has a good article at on ZDNet: Lesson learned from Amazon Echo: Don’t turn customers into developers. The other subtitle is: “Don’t depend on your user community to bring in core functionality for your IoT device.”

I don’t think that Amazon depending on it’s user community to bring functionality to Alexa. When Uber and Domino’s partner with Alexa, it’s not because one of their users created an Alexa Skill. It’s because they worked closely with Amazon.

That said, Perlow’s got a great point to make. If a consumer wants to do something simple on the Alexa platform, they should be able to do it without being a hardcore Node.js developer.

Perlow wanted to do something pretty easy, “Play white noise on a loop.” I agree that it seems like something that Alexa should be able to do. It’s reasonable and fair that Amazon didn’t think of this previously. They can’t think of everything, right?

I’d like to have a way to tell Alexa to play my night-time script with Jack Johnson. (Hmm, maybe I’d word it quite a bit differently). The idea would be apply a descending volume music over some length of time for any given artist. The next night I might want it to apply to a particular James Taylor album for example. The idea is to create a custom script to do the basic things that Alexa is already good at.

In short, it needs something that I’ll call “recipes.” And those recipes need to be built on basic building blocks of “ingredients” and/or “actions.” This may sound like object-oriented program and that’s exactly the kind of thing that I’d like to see. The best software engineers could create new “ingredients”, while beginner programmers could put write simple recipes from the ingredients. A visual interface might allow them to drag and drop ingredients to create recipes as well.

Most consumers probably wouldn’t care to create recipes. They may be interested in installing new “recipes” with just a few clicks through the Alexa portal. Links to the recipes could be spread through social media or embedded on a webpage. This could create a buzz of people sharing Alexa recipes. People who don’t have Alexa might wonder what all this buzz is about.

If Alexa had this, Perlow could not only create his white noise on a loop, but he could share it with the world. And I can could share my night-time script with Jack Johnson.

Business Insider: History of Amazon Echo

In one of the best articles about the Amazon Echo, Eugene Kim of Business Insiders explains the history of the product.

The article chronicles the history of how Amazon was working on the Echo way back in 2011. However, they didn’t seem to know if it was going to be successful as it was an entirely new concept. Were consumers going to understand something with no screen that would always be listening? Admittedly even after the release of the Echo, it’s taken me some time to get accustomed to the idea.

The article continues to give details on how they reached a nearly impossible engineering feat (at the time) in getting Alexa to respond to people’s commands in around 1.5 seconds. Even with that hurdle conquered, there was a matter of making it extremely user-friendly which required a very process of user-testing.

The final hurdle is one that I believe Amazon is still trying to clear today. In order to sell the Echo to consumers they need a “killer use case.” This was clearly going to be music as that’s what testers said they used the most. However, this lead to an interesting paradox. They didn’t want the Echo to be seen as just a way to play music. Indeed, now it is considered the de-facto home-automation hub.

You may have noticed that recently Amazon is marketing the things other than music that the Echo can do. For example, you always read about it being able to order an Uber or Domino’s Pizza.

Overally, it is a fascinating read and it’s one of the reasons why I’m so excited to write about Amazon Echo and Alexa Voice Services.

What’s Inside an Amazon Tap?

Ever wonder what’s inside an Amazon Tap?

I was recently curious, as it came up in my initial thoughts about how Alexa coming to watches through the CoWatch.

I wanted to find out what kind of battery was inside of the Tap so that I could compare it to the CoWatch. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the information on Amazon’s page anywhere. My Google searches for “‘Amazon Tap’ battery” simply lead me to external battery packs on sale for Amazon.

Fortunately, I finally came across this iFixIt Teardown of the Tap. It showed me that the battery was indeed a 2850 mAh battery, a similar size to what you might find in many smartphones today.

I don’t want to spoil all the fun, as iFixIt deserves the traffic, but I learned a thing or two about the speakers in the Amazon Tap. Personally, I’m not a speaker person, so I don’t know exactly what’s a good or bad speaker. However, if you are into that kind of thing, head head on over.

You might learn a thing or two like I did.

Alexa Can Now Add Calendar Events!

There’s a lot of Alexa functionality that I’m not very interested in. You can dig through the Alexa Skills and find a lot of stuff that will make you say, “Meh? Do I really need a Magic Eight Ball?” (Actually, that’s probably a bad example as it does sound kind of fun to play with the kids.)

However, on Friday, Alexa announced some functionality that I’ve been waiting for a long, long time. When I first got my Echo, I wanted the ability to tell it to add things to my Google calendar. Too often, I’ll have a thought that I don’t want to lose. I often add those thoughts to my calendar so that I can investigate them at a later date.

For a long time, we could get Alexa to tell us what’s in our Google calendar… but we couldn’t tell it to add items. That’s all changed. Here’s how it’s supposed to work from the weekly Amazon Echo newsletter.

“Alexa, add an event to my calendar.”

“Alexa, add ‘brunch with Mom’ to my calendar for Saturday at 10 a.m.”

(Unfortunately, the newsletter isn’t easy to link to on a webpage. In addition, the examples of things you can ask are images and not text I can copy and paste. Thus expect transcription errors.)

Unfortunately, in practice, it was a LOT more difficult for me.

First, I noticed that my calendar had become unlinked. I’m not sure when that happened, but now you know how often I use Alexa to get my days’ schedule. I thought that it wasn’t linked because I was trying to use my Echo Dot instead of my Echo where I originally set up my calendar. I presumed that calendars were tied to a device. (That might be nice since my wife could get her own Echo and have it linked to her accounts by default instead of mine.) There’s pros and cons to that and I’m not saying that Amazon made the wrong choice, but just one that I didn’t expect when my calendar became unlinked.

Once I realized that calendars were account specific and not device specific, linking my calendar was very easy. I just wish adding an event was that easy.

I started off with

“Alexa, add an event to my calendar.”

That brings up a dialog asking when you’d like to add. Since this was a test, I said, “In 10 minutes.” I found that works great for Alexa alarms, but Alexa was confused by it for calendars.”

I decided to try to set an alarm for 2PM (which was 45 minutes from when I was writing the article). That initially seemed to go well until I got to the day. I wanted to set an alarm for “today” which didn’t work either.

On the next attempt, I got a little further. I was able to communicate “2PM” and “tomorrow.” That only broke down when I gave Alexa the name of the event at her prompting. Since this was a test I was calling the event, “Test Alexa.” Unfortunately, that triggered to be confused and report that it doesn’t know what I want it to do and shut down. Fair enough, but let’s hope you don’t have to pick-up your daughter named Alexa at the airport.

I was finally able to successfully set up an appointment to say hello to my dog tomorrow at 2PM. Alexa read it back to me (which I wasn’t expecting) and asked if it was correct. Because it was unexpected, I missed the date and time and simply agreed to set it up. Alexa confirmed she added it to my calendar.

Unfortunately when I looked at my calendar, there was nothing added. I tried to search my calendar for any of the words and couldn’t find them.

At that point, I simply gave up. I may try it again with the longer form that I quoted above.

I need to recognize this is just the first version of adding things to calendars… the bugs aren’t really surprising.

Let me know if it works better for you. If not, maybe we should let Amazon put this back in Alexa’s oven and bake it a little longer.

CoWatch with Alexa

CoWatch: Alexa Coming to Watches

It seems like interesting in getting Amazon’s Alexa is growing. The latest evidence is that there’s an Indiegogo campaign to package Alexa in a watch.

It’s easy to create an Indiegogo campaign, but this particularly notable because it comes with some pretty extensive media coverage. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first I’d like to point out that they already reached their funding goal.

And before we get to the media coverage, it’s worth describing the watch. In my opinion it looks beautiful. What do you think?

CoWatch with Alexa
CoWatch with Alexa

The CoWatch seems to come from a Chinese company called iMCO. A lot of good things come from China, but there are also a lot of things such as media sticks that aren’t particularly high quality. It seems like this intention is to bring a very quality product, but I’m a little skeptical that’s possible for the pricing.

One concern I have is the battery. A 300 mAh battery isn’t very strong. It’s powerful enough to work for a watch, but as we’ve seen with the Amazon Tap having Alexa work, even by touch, requires a fairly large battery. In fact, a teardown of the Amazon Tap shows that it has a 2850 mAh battery. So at nearly 10x the battery it doesn’t have hands-free, always on listening like the Echo or the Echo Dot.

My initial reading of “With up to 32 hours of battery life in an always-on mode, CoWatch works as hard as you do…” lead me to believe that Alexa is always on. Unfortunately this just applies to the watch. (Which begs the question, “It’s a watch supposed to be ‘always on’?”)

It wasn’t clear until that I read the reviews that you’ll have navigate to an Alexa app and then speak a voice command to it. Suddenly the battery life makes a lot more sense. Of course, if the watch isn’t used to play music like the other Alexa devices from Amazon, perhaps the battery will last longer. Then again, the watch adds fitness tracking sensors such as an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and optical heart rate sensors.

I’m not sure the value of Alexa on a watch when you have to navigate to an app and then tell it what you want it to do. The suggestion is that you can do simple home automation tasks, but those typically have their own apps. What do I get by using the Alexa app when I can use my Nest app? At a minimum an Amazon Tap-like dedicated Alexa button would be useful. That would avoid navigating through apps, which really takes full advantage of Alexa’s potential. Of course, it is easier to get information back than having to type on a watch screen. That said, it would seem like this is what Google Now and Siri are for. It’s not that Alexa can’t do it, but that functionality already exists on smart watches.

The watch uses Cronologics OS which is neither the two obvious watch OSes from Google or Apple. That’s an initial cause for concern, but the Cronologics OS is based on Google’s Android, so maybe it is a good choice. That said, I’d feel more comfortable about the watch if Amazon itself was making it using Google’s official Android Wear.

There’s a lot of skepticism in this post, but I’ll end it with a big media review, The Verge and what they say:

Normally we approach crowdfunded hardware with a fair amount of skepticism, given just how hard it is to make hardware. But CoWatch, which has been in the works for a year, and Cronologic OS have shown me just enough to think they might be on to something.

If they can convince a writer at The Verge, then who am I to argue?

Amazon Echo Dot Reviewed

I’ve been on vacation the last week. However, now I’m back and ready to give you the best tips, tricks, and reviews for Amazon Alexa and Amazon Echo products.

I was supposed to receive my Echo Dot while I was on vacation, but it arrived a week earlier than I expected on April Fool’s Day. Luckily it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke.

I earmarked the Echo Dot for the bedroom. My house isn’t big, so having upstairs and one downstairs seemed to make the most sense. I thought the main uses would be for music during showers and folding clothes. That would hardly be the best use of $90, but I wanted to get it to review here as well.

On the first day, I learned that I would use it more than I expected. For example, I often get up very early and go to bed late. This gives me a time in the middle of the day where I crash. I have found that a short nap is a perfect fix. I would use the timer on my cell phone because I didn’t want to disrupt my wife’s alarm or do math. For me, that meant entering an Android app, setting the time to sleep, and then setting the phone to “Alarms Only” so that I wouldn’t be disturbed. When I wake up, I have to remember to put the phone back in normal mode or miss phone calls.

It’s not the biggest of problems, but it’s certainly much easier to leave my phone downstairs and say, “Alexa, set a timer for 40 minutes.”

It’s a minor convenience, but a bunch of minor conveniences add up over time. Let’s look at…

The Long-term Cost of the Echo Dot

At $90, I thought it was fairly expensive. However, if you only had it for one year, it’s around 25 cents a day. At two years, it’s around 12.5 cents a day. At 3 years, it is around 8 cents a day. Since it is a one-time fixed cost, the price per day gets cheaper each year.

Unlike many electronics, I don’t see a reason to upgrade. There are no moving parts so it is unlikely to break. I don’t intend to be mobile with it (more on that later) too often, so it’s unlikely to get much physical contact. The main use is to access the cloud, and it can reasonably do that as long as Amazon keeps Alexa running (which doesn’t look like it is in any danger of ending any time soon). I could see myself using the Echo Dot for 10 years or more. That would bring the cost down to around 75 cents per month… not bad right?

If Amazon comes out with something that gives me a significant reason to upgrade there will likely still be a market for the Echo Dot on Ebay. I figure I should be able to get at least $50 for it (unless Amazon routinely runs deals on it like they do their tablets). The effective cost might be $40 for 2 or more years worth of use.

Solving the Speaker Part of the Echo Dot Solution

The Echo Dot has a small speaker, but to be honest, I haven’t really tried it. That may make me a bad reviewer. However, I think the general market for this is for people to add Alexa capabilities to their existing speaker solutions. I originally thought that I’d use my Oontz Angle Bluetooth Speaker with it, but I went in another direction. The Oontz is around $28 which make the total price of the Echo Dot and Oontz around $120… quite a bit less than the current price of the Amazon Echo at $180.

I decided not to pair the Echo Dot with the Oontz because I found, these Philips Bookshelf speakers on Meh.com for $28. I saw that they typically run nearly $100 elsewhere, even on Amazon, so I jumped. These speakers have Bluetooth, but I used the line-in into the Echo Dot and they sound great to me (Note: I’m no audiophile). Many of the comments on Meh.com suggested that they typically have speaker deals and that this wasn’t anything special. Nonetheless, they do the job for a small bedroom.

The Echo Dot is Portable

It isn’t portable in the same way as the Amazon Tap… it doesn’t have a battery. However, I Won’t Buy an Amazon Tap (Yet), because it isn’t always listening and hands free.

However, the Echo Dot is portable in another way… it is small enough to travel with very easily. I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity to bring the Echo Dot on vacation with me, but I did. Unfortunately, it was a crazy-busy vacation and I never had the chance to plug it in and play with it.

If I had more time, I think combination of the Dot with my Oontz would be very compelling. They don’t take up much space and the Oontz is a useful battery-powered travel speaker in it’s own right. There’s a value to the modularity of the Echo Dot and a Bluetooth speaker with travel. You can use either one alone or combine them to create something similar to Echo without taking up the space.

Final Thoughts on the Echo Dot

As Dennis Green famously said, “They are what we thought they were”:

Fortunately, we have a much more positive result than he did.

The Echo Dot is what we thought it was. That means it is everything the Amazon Echo is, without the speaker for half the price. It may sound expensive at first, but when you view it as a long-term purchase with no subscription fees, it’s easy to see it as money well spent.