That’s the vision for Amazon’s voice assistant, according to the Alexa Voice Service Principal of Business Development, Mariel van Tatenhove. So far, this ambitious vision has some credibility; Alexa can be found in third-party speakers, cars, laptops, Xboxes, smart homes, hotels, and Android smartphones. Today, Alexa extends her reach in a significant way by coming to Apple iOS.
iPhone and iPad users, after updating their Alexa app, will have the option to “ask Alexa questions, listen to music, access skills and control smart devices — you know, the standard Alexa fare,” according to TechCrunch. But is Alexa as useful on iOS as she is on a native Amazon device? To find out, I updated my Alexa app and put it to the test.
The first thing I noticed was the inability to wake Alexa using voice. Unlike using an Echo, or using Siri for that matter, iOS users have to jump through a couple of hoops to activate Alexa, including opening the app, approving some permissions, and tapping the Alexa button. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Is tapping, tapping again, and saying “Alexa, what’s the weather?” easier or more convenient than tapping the weather app on the homescreen?
After downloading the update, I took a quick look at how the iOS version of Alexa performed. I was sure to ask the same types of questions I generally ask Alexa when using an Echo at home or in the Netrush office.
iOS Alexa tests
“Alexa, what’s the weather?” This query works great, and seeing the results on my screen was nice. However, unlike using the native iOS Weather app, I couldn’t see weather throughout the day, which felt like a missed opportunity.
“Alexa, play Tycho on Spotify.” Alexa couldn’t do this. “Spotify Music is not supported on this device.” Playing Spotify is one of the primary things I use Alexa for. And, considering Spotify has 140 million active users (which is more than Amazon has Prime subscribers), other Alexa users will surely feel the same.
“Alexa, play Tycho on Spotify in the bedroom.” Alexa was able to play Spotify on other Echo devices I have connected. I didn’t find this useful — if I’m within hearing distance from my Echo, it is within hearing distance from me, so I wouldn’t use my phone (tap, tap, speak) to talk to Alexa.
“Alexa, play Tycho.” Alexa was able to play songs by Tycho from Amazon Music. But what if I want to listen to music that’s not available on Amazon Music? When I asked “Alexa, play American Football,” Alexa couldn’t find songs by American Football on Amazon Music. For me (and those 140 million Spotify users), iOS Alexa misses the mark on playing music.
“Alexa, get directions home.” This is something Siri is pretty useful for on iOS. Alexa could tell me how long the drive would take, but couldn’t pull up directions.
“Alexa, play Jeopardy.” Yeah, this works.
“Alexa, buy snack bars.” She thought we were still playing Jeopardy. “Please respond in the form of a question.”
“Alexa, buy snack bars.” This time it worked. She showed me a few options, but the reviews showed zero stars.
“Alexa, turn on the lights.” She made a confirmation sound, implying my lights turned on at home.
“Alexa, turn off the lights.” Alexa couldn’t turn them back off. “I found a skill that might help with that.” I asked again, and then it worked.
Alexa for iOS is brand new, and we should expect the experience to improve over time. However, without Apple’s blessing, it will be difficult (or impossible) for Amazon to implement a fully integrated, useful, seamless Alexa experience on iOS devices. Despite the hangups, users who are fully integrated in the Amazon ecosystem (who use Prime, Audible, Amazon Music Unlimited, smart home devices, etc.) may find Alexa on iOS handy when away from home. On the other side of the same coin, Amazon shoppers who are considering purchasing an Echo may be convinced after test-driving the free, pocket-sized version of Alexa on their phone.