Monday, April 6, 2015

Echo Part III: Alexa, I Like You -- But With a Few Changes, I Could Love You

Alexa has been in the house now for three weeks. I can tell you that she doesn’t eat much, doesn’t try to steal the TV remote, and provides a lot of good information when you ask her the right way. Overall I have been pleasantly surprised by Alexa’s capability and ease-of-use.  Now comes the real question, would I pay the full $199 MSRP for her?  Probably, but only if she had a few more of the features that I list below in my wish list.  I feel that those are necessary before she will start to meet the potential that I feel she has. Am I in any way disappointed at this point? No. She will continue to live in the house and I will continue to send suggestions on to the development team as to functions for which she should be capable. 

I started this review by talking about how Star Trek started me down the road of wanting to be able to verbally interact with my computer. A lot of progress has been made during my lifetime, most of it in the past few years. Alexa is to me a breakpoint between some of the attempts of the past and the turning point where I can now see the realization of my quest.  I pass on a loud “Well Done!” To the development team but I have to temper that with an equally loud, “Now finish her.”

The Internet of Things has become a way of describing the direction that is being taken as more and more things become interconnected.  Using the internet, you can control the lights, temperature, alarm systems, and more in your home even if you are not in the same country.  This does make sense in comes cases but for others it is fluff and gee-whiz versus something useful.  Now that the SDK has been released for Alexa, I think that we will see her arise as the interface of choice for some of those "Things".  I think telling her to turn on or off lights, to adjust the temperature, or report on security system status will be part of the natural evolution of the device.  Central control panels for the home already exist, Alexa can be the next generation of that. 

I have divided my wish list into two parts:  Quick Fixes and Hard Fixes.  I have defined degree of difficulty based on my own technical experience and not with any inside knowledge of how the Echo works.  Indeed, what I label as Hard may actually be very easy and with the release of the Echo SDK there may be third party utilities that appear to handle all of these items from other developers. 

Quick Fixes
  • Bring on Pandora.  I prefer the way custom stations are handled in Pandora over iHeartRadio, therefore would prefer access to it.  Pandora’s logic seems to allow you to more customize your listening experience and tailor it to your preferences; iHeartRadio seems to be more about you finding one of their playlists that are similar to your druthers.  People have their favorites, I want to see mine available.  I think Alexa can make this happen more quickly than getting iHeartRadio to allow more personalization to include naming my own custom stations. (Implemented 4/2/15)
  • Allow Music Service setup for existing home media servers.  I know I can upload the 6909 music items and 100+ audio books I have into Prime Music, but I do not want to nor should I have to.  My home network already has a media service built into it – let me allow Alexa to access it.   My Samsung TV allows me to do this, come on Alexa,  you are smart than it is. 
  • Allow for more than one To Do List or Note Pads.  Since the program already handles a Shopping List and a To Do list that have the same format, multiple lists should be an easy fix.  Why? Well shared lists are not always functional, and a lot of folks, like me, keep multiple lists for different things. 
  • Add the following data bits to the To Do list:  Due Date, Reminder and Priority, with Alexa providing audible reminders.  Yes, it is possible to go totally Harvard Project Manager with a simple To Do list, but Alexa should have at least a bare minimum of data to make the To Do list functional and worthwhile.
  • The Android Assistant program allows you to both name the assistant and what you prefer to be called.  I think this would be a relatively easy fix for Echo that minor bit of customization would add a lot to the user likability.
  • I would like to be able to mute the device vocally, even if I have to reactive it using the button on the device.  Sometimes, you realize you are about to enter a topic that you do not want even accidentally overheard and it would be more convenient to be able to shut the device down quickly and worry about the restart later.
  • The alarm should be able to use music instead of an alarm tone -- I used the alarm in concert with the timer to create a snooze; it worked but a snooze command built into the alarm would be easier.
  • The ability to delete all Cards with a single command; it is tedious to do this one at a time.
  • Create a Settings entry to be able to toggle Cards on and off, with separate toggle for Wikipedia information.  Beyond the initial break in period, when you might want to check what Alexa heard, the Cards provide little value to the end user, with the exception of Wikipedia look ups for in depth information.
  • Expand Wikipedia look up results, by offering to Email the detailed results to a default address rather than having it only available via the app/website.
Hard Fixes
  • This is under Hard Fixes, because Alexa should have been done able to do this from the beginning, the fact that she cannot leads me to believe the developers had a hard time making it work.  The capability to remove items from the grocery list by name, item number or the ability to wipe an entire shopping list all at once needs to be added – I should not be forced to fix it manually.
  • Allow look ups on Google as well as Bing.  Right now if you try to tell Echo to "Search Google", Echo plays a variety of songs, to include selections by Xeno Tornado and the Google Brothers.  Not exactly what I was looking for, but the song "Nothing" from the Rambling Man album was interesting.
  • Allow look ups within the Amazon databases.  I tried to look up the author for Three Paperclips & a Grey Scarf and Alexa said she did not have the information.  The book is among the Amazon book listings and therefore should e something to which Alexa has access.  Yeah, yeah... I know who the author is, it was a test.
  • The unit should be able to verbally report its own MAC and IP addresses, software version number and device name. 
  • I think an interface with Microsoft’s OneNote program would be awesome and take care of a lot of the comments I had for both Shopping and To Do lists.
  • Add an “Alexa, Listen to This” command that prompts her to sample the audio and respond with the proper reference (like Shazam or other such programs).  Many times I am watching TV and they use a song as part of the soundtrack and I want the info on the song to look up later, Alexa could provide that data.
  • She should take dictation and produce the output as a text file in the app/website.  It would require both start and stop commands to avoid confusion with query interaction, i.e. “Alexa, take a Note”, “End Note”.  To me this would be very handy.
  • A big one:  Alexa To Go.  When I am out, let me access and use Alexa from my phone.  This is the next evolution and will truly let her be the voice of the Internet of Things. 
Disclaimer:  I did not get my Echo for free (I did get the Prime Member discount which was available to anyone), I am not being paid by Amazon (or selling them ads), I am not excerpting this from any other review (surprised how many reviews I have read are primarily material from elsewhere), I am not going to repeat tech specs and marketing words (check with Amazon site for that), and I am putting this thing through its paces based on what I consider important and useful functionality.


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