Adding an alternative would slow down adoption and weaken the core experience.
A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.
According to Bloomberg, Amazon is developing a high-end Echo-like device which will feature a better speaker and a seven-inch touchscreen. The speaker is said to be larger and to tilt upwards so the screen can be visible when on a shelf or counter and the user is standing. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that Amazon’s Lab126 hardware unit was working on an Alexa-powered device featuring a tablet-like computer screen known internally as “Knight.” The device will be running a version of Fire OS.
The temptation of adding a screen
The people familiar with the product who talked to Bloomberg said the screen will make it easier to access content such as weather forecasts, calendar appointments and news. It might just be me, but I struggle to see this as a solid business driver. The great advantage of using Alexa for my morning briefing is that I can listen to it while I get breakfast ready or pack my daughter’s lunchbox. I would not have time to stop and read or even look at something. Also, Alexa’s voice travels so well across the room over the morning chaos, a screen would have me move close to it to be able to look at it.
I cannot help but think that the main task a screen would help with is shopping. If I am trying to buy furniture, clothes and gifts, being able to see them is a huge improvement versus Alexa just calling out the description of the item.
Having a screen could, of course, also help with content, and would allow Amazon to enrich some of the experiences by adding a visual output to the voice. Music is a good example of this. But the question is whether Amazon needs to add that screen to Echo.
While a screen could add to the overall experience, I strongly believe it should not be an alternative input mechanism. Adding touch to voice would weaken Alexa in an environment where consumers feel very comfortable using their voice. As voice-first is not yet an entrenched behavior, giving an alternative would slow down adoption and negate the considerable progress Amazon has made in this area.
Leveraging existing screens versus adding a new one
We have plenty of screens in the home that Alexa could leverage — some, like a Fire TV or a tablet, might even be “controlled” by Amazon. Others, including our phones, could be exploited by the Alexa app. If our interactions with Alexia remain voice-first/only, the screen would be a simple display with no need to interact with it. This would make the Fire TV the perfect companion for Alexa.
The risk of adding touch is, even if Amazon does not intend it as an alternative input mechanism, consumers at this initial market adoption stage might easily revert to old habits. In a way, this reminds me of how people, at the beginning of the tablet market, bought a keyboard to use with their tablets so they could revert to a user experience they had experienced for so long with PCs and that felt familiar and safe.
Over time, as AI continues to develop, I could see a role for a device that intelligently understands what is appropriate to show on the screen, and proactively does that by having Alexa suggest, “Do you want to visualize it?” or saying “Let me show you.” There are instances where displaying the content seems easier than an alternative solution. Recipes are often used as an example to illustrate how voice-only does not work. But if you had an app that lets Alexa break down the steps so you could literally have her coach you through the recipe and check, “Ready?” or “Tell me when you are ready,” you would not need to visualize the steps.
The risk: Turning Alexa from leading actress into a supporting role
Echo was successful because people bought it for what it was: A speaker with a digital assistant. Actually, a digital assistant in a speaker would be a better description of what consumers were buying. Users did not have other options but to talk to Alexa to get her to do anything. There was no old behavior to revert to.
Ironically, Alexa being trapped in the little cylinder allowed her to be free — Free of any limitations that being part of a more traditional device, such as a smartphone or a tablet, would have imposed on her. Trying to turn Echo into a glorified Fire tablet could demote Alexa to a mere feature versus the genie in a bottle we know her as. For people who bought Echo, there was nothing else the device could do other than allowing them to interact with Alexa.
To grow engagement, Amazon needs to penetrate our homes more, and to expand beyond them, but this needs to be done in a way that leaves consumers deeply connected with Alexa so their reliance feeds their loyalty. Voice needs to remain the main input, as this is ultimately how our assistant will become personal.
While competition in this space is growing, the battle will not be won by adding features that, while differentiating in looks, weaken the core experience. Accelerating Alexa integration with other devices, continuing to expand her skills, and improving her knowledge will help to stay ahead of the curve and keep users engaged and loyal.
Carolina Milanesi is a principal analyst at Creative Strategies Inc. She focuses on consumer tech across the board; from hardware to services she analyzes today to help predict and shape tomorrow. In her prior role as chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, Milanesi drove thought leadership research; before that, she spent 14 years at Gartner, most recently as VP of consumer devices research and agenda manager. Reach her at @caro_milanesi.