Why Amazon's Alexa Ran Away With CES

"Alexa, how did we get here?"

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Jan 6 2017, 8:00pm

Image: George W. Bailey/Shutterstock

A trend emerged at CES this week: Amazon's digital assistant, Alexa, is about to be in, well, just about everything.

Appliance makers are including the voice commands in refrigerators, vacuums, washer-dryers, security systems, dancing robots, and God only knows what else, plus smartphones and speakers, of course. But is this really the new big thing? Or just another one and done CES fad like 3D TVs?

Lots of stuff happens at CES that doesn't really pan out, both in the macro and micro sense. 3D HDTVs had little consumer demand, but the major electronics companies really, really wanted to push them on us. So they did, but nobody was especially interested in them, especially with 4K around the corner. CES is also the same event where the Motorola Xoom, the flagship for the first tablet-optimized version of Android, won the "Best in Show" award even though the Motorola booth only had a demo unit looping a video. When it hit the market, the Xoom was a flop, and before long it became clear that the "iPad killer" segment of Android tablets would not actually become a thing.

When Amazon's Echo, the initial Alexa device, hit the market, the tech media was skeptical. Why would anyone want a crappy speaker that larger duplicates the same functionality as their smartphones? But thanks to its wide variety of voice recognition functions and Amazon's magic, it's done quite well, to the point that Amazon later unveiled a smaller version (Tap) and a $50 version that plugs into existing speakers, a la Chromecast Audio. So with the success of the Amazon devices and their willingness to license Alexa, it's only natural that, at least for now, it's starting to be built into everything. But how long will that last?

Better quality wireless speakers, like Sonos, integrating Alexa obviously makes perfect sense. So does just about everything else in the smart home, like it's lighting, temperature control, etc. For others, there are certainly use cases, like making the controls on a washer-dryer more simplified, but a lot of those can be accomplished just as easily with a small touchscreen. In time, the devices that don't need voice controls will likely filter out and drop them, or just keep them as a checkbox feature if implementation becomes cheap enough. But outside of the "common sense" devices that would be enhanced by voice control, it doesn't really look like there's an incredibly bright future in this space.

Unless you want to yell at a device like a washer-dryer that you're already standing directly in front of.