AI test drive: Is Alexa on your phone as good as it is in your home?
Alexa is making its move. While Amazon’s virtual assistant has been tied to its own devices since its introduction more than two years ago, it is now beginning its an all-out assault on Siri and Google Assistant as it looks to establish a foothold on iOS and Android.
But entering enemy territory isn’t going to be easy. Apple and Google have both built their AI aides deeply into their mobile operating systems, so Alexa has to live inside apps for now. On the iPhone it’s inside the Amazon shopping app, and on the Mate 9 (the only Android phone that supports it), it’s accessible via a dedicated Huawei Alexa app. So to use it, you’ll need to open the respective app before you can start asking questions.
That’s a bit of an obstacle on phones that can already respond to our “Hey Siri” and “OK Google” voice commands, but in actuality it only takes a few seconds. And on the Mate 9, you can set a knuckle gesture to open the app a little quicker.
You’ll also need to install the companion Amazon Alexa app and sign in with your Amazon account. Both versions of the app appear as separate devices with their own customizable settings, and anything you customize in your account (like your favorite sports teams or daily briefing) will be applied to all of them.
Once the apps are open, you can’t just go asking questions, however. At least not on the iPhone. There you’ll still need to press the microphone icon to the right of the search bar to start your query. On the Mate 9, you can either press the center button or say Alexa, and it will respond. (Usually. On both the iPhone and the Mate 9, I experienced some audio issues when not holding the phone near my mouth.) While the Mate 9’s method is definitely better than the iPhone one, it’s still a far cry from the tremendous microphones built into the Echo and Dot.
Listening issues aside, Alexa on the Mate 9 and the iPhone can do a lot of the same things it does on the Echo. Both are able to shop for things at Amazon. Both can answer a wide array of general knowledge questions, from describing historical people and places, to conversions and sports factoids. They will also both tell you who won last night’s Warrior’s game (and any other team or sport) as well as tell you who they’re playing next.
And Alexa’s quirky personality comes through too. Ask it to tell a joke, and it’ll happily oblige. (Unfortunately, the jokes are just as bad on the phones as they are on Echo.) And you can also play games like 20 Questions and Rock, Paper, Scissors, or have a little fun with the “Simon Says” mimic game where it repeats everything you say (within reason).
But while it seems as though Alexa has been tailor-made for a smartphone, the experiences here are hardly perfect. While it will tell you the weather, it uses the location you have saved in the Alexa app (which can be different on each device), not your current location as determined by GPS. The same is true for traffic reports (it sticks to your preset daily commute), and there’s no way to access Google or Apple maps for turn-by-turn directions.
Things get weirder still when it comes to music and alarms, the most basic functions of any smartbot. The Mate 9 can’t play songs at all, but the iPhone can. So, if you subscribe to Amazon Prime Music or just have songs in your locker you’ll be able to ask the Amazon shopping app to play something, but on the Mate 9, where it’s a marquee feature, it won’t oblige. And, you can’t set timers and alarms with either of the apps, which is a strange limitation.
So, clearly, there’s a long way to go. You’ll still need to purchase one of Amazon’s devices to get the full Alexa experience, and while the apps might technically get Alexa onto our phones, it’s not something most people are going to use all that often. Alexa doesn’t do anything Siri or Google Assistant can’t do anyway, and the extra effort to summon it will be a deterrent for most people.
But all is not lost. While it’s unlikely that Alexa will be able to break free from its app confines on the iPhone, it could follow Cortana’s lead and offer a true lock-screen alternative to Google Assistant on Android phones, assuming Amazon replicates the Mate 9 functionality in the Play Store at some point.
But without hooking up with all of Google’s services, it’s unlikely it will ever pose a serious threat to Google Assistant. What made Alexa a hit was its novel concept: an always-listening assistant in our homes. And that’s still the best place for it.
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