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March 18th, 2017

Alexa’s Arrival On iOS Is A Perfectly-Executed Stealth Attack

“Hello Siri, I’m Alexa.”

Anyone who has read Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” will know that the greatest victories don’t require a full-on battle. The key to vanquishing an opponent, according to Tzu, lies in the strategy taken to achieve a stated goal.

Bearing in mind that Tzu did most of his strategizing in late sixth century BC China, it is extremely unlikely that he would have thought about what happens when a global corporation undermines a competitor by sneaking in the back door.

On March 14, a seemingly innocent update to the Amazon App for iOS failed to mention one rather interesting addition … Alexa. Unlike every other Alexa announcement, Amazon decided to keep this one on the down-low … for a couple of days, at least, The Verge reported.

Instead, the big news revolved around the ability to get Alexa to vacuum a room with a $900 iRobot Roomba and the $100 in promotional credits that developers would now get if they exceeded the limits of the Amazon Web Services Free Tier when building voice-activated skills for the Amazon Echo.

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Both of these pieces of news are incredibly exciting in their own way.

I don’t own a Roomba, but I would be willing to fork out nearly one thousand dollars to not vacuum ever again. By the same chalk, promotional credits that make it (essentially) free to build and publish skills for the Echo will play a large role in taking Alexa even further into the mainstream.

But smuggling Alexa into a walled garden? That takes some hutzpah.

Alexa Integration Into Amazon App Ups The Ante

The surprising thing about Alexa’s arrival on iOS is that Apple didn’t appear to put up a fight. Apple’s own voice-activated assistant—the baked-in Siri—always had one advantage over its competitors … it was on hundreds of millions of iPhones.

Native integration gives Siri the natural edge. Echo owners could install the Alexa app on their iPhone but it was a very basic experience that was based around the physical device settings as opposed to actual interaction through the smartphone. Siri was the voice of iOS, end of story. However, adding Alexa to the Amazon app moves the goalposts quite significantly.

Amazon’s iOS app is one of the most popular installs in the App Store.

In what could be a turning point in the fight to get more people to go voice-first, Amazon managed to not only get its voice-activated personal assistant onto iPhones but also give device owners the option to use Alexa to answer questions, play music or buy stuff … in an app that they probably open on a regular basis. And if you are using Alexa, why bother with Siri?

See also: Amazon’s Alexa Is Now The Ghost In The Machine

The problem with Siri is that she is apparently not that good.

As an Android owner, I have little experience with Apple’s voice assistant but a quick straw poll of my colleague revealed a range of negative responses when asked how often they use Siri. Wired reported that Siri “can be useful for short-burst needs, but it’s also slow and limited and frankly kind of dumb.”

Alexa is not perfect by any means. She has the capacity to frustrate me when I ask seemingly simple questions, does not always respond straight away and has a rather disturbing habit of just bursting into life without warning. On the plus side, she hasn’t turned into a camera yet … unlike my microwave (which is a story for another day).

At the time of writing, most of Alexa’s 10,000 published skills will be available to iPhone owners.

According to the Amazon website, people just need to tap a microphone icon in the iOS app to wake Alexa up before asking questions, activate smart home devices, play Jeopardy or even listen to books from a Kindle. And let’s not forget the main purpose you are in the Amazon app in the first place … shopping.

“Getting on smartphones has always been the biggest roadblock to Alexa becoming really useful as a personal assistant, because a personal assistant that can’t leave the house isn’t much good when you’re out and about,” said tech advisory company Jackdaw Research’s founder Jan Dawson, in an interview with Wired.

Voice-First Is The Way Forward

The stealthy integration onto an extremely popular brand of smartphones could be the first steps towards Alexa not only being the voice of the Echo but the voice of, well, voice. Wired likened Amazon’s strategy to a Trojan Horse, stating that the shopping app now becomes a one-stop shop (no pun intended) for everything else that you need to know.

On the surface, it is hard to disagree with this assessment. Amazon has spent the last few months ramping up Alexa integration into a range of products and platforms that will (eventually) form a voice-activated ecosystem that is both intuitive and easy to use.

And that is kind of the point. Voice-first is a natural path for companies to follow, especially for those of us that are tired of actually having to tap on a device to get the information we want. Alexa’s arrival on the iPhone just confirms that speaking out loud is an easy option.

Sun Tzu said that one hundred victories in one hundred battles was not a fair measurement of skill, rather the skill lay in subduing the enemy without fighting. As the leading tech brands focus more on voice, Amazon has—once again—proved that its ongoing strategy is the one to pay attention to.

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  • BBaz

    Click bait or perhaps just a serious case of Alexa dreaming. As a heavy user of Siri this article misses it’s own point – voice is the future and it’s here but it has to be easy and fast. A case in point (of missing your own point): I’m never going to take the time to open / unlock my iPhone, pull up the Amazon app, then find the microphone button, and then ask Alexa to shut off the lights. Most would just go with Google if they’re that Siri-adverse. Alexa is too little and too late and too complicated on an iPhone or iPad.

    p.s. “The key to vanquishing to an opponent” one word too many in English.

    • David Bolton

      Thanks for pointing out the typo, that has been fixed.

      The point of the article was not to diminish Siri (or to be “click bait”) but the arrival of Alexa in the Amazon app. Nobody who uses Siri on a “heavy” basis is going to switch to Alexa just to turn off the lights. I assume that you do not have an actual Echo which means that you probably use Apple-based voice user interfaces. I disagree that Alexa is too complicated to use on an iPad or iPhone and I am confused as to what you mean by “go with Google” … voice is the future and Siri/Apple users should be aware that there are better options.