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Amazon Alexa on a phone: What's the big deal?

Amazon's voice assistant has arrived on phones, which is... cool? Redundant? Here's how it might help you, and how it won't.

Sarah Tew
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Alexa on your phone won't exactly be like an Echo in your pocket.

CNET

Imagine if Siri and Google Now had an app store filled with 7,000 extra tricks you could teach them for free. That's the promise of Amazon's cloud-based Alexa assistant on a phone, which has debuted in the Amazon shopping app for the iPhone and iPad, and on Huawei Mate 9 phones in the US, through a specialized app.

The integration brings up a whole lot of questions, like how useful will Alexa be in a phone that already has a Siri (iPhones) or Google Now (Android phones) assistant onboard? And what won't Alexa be able to give you on a phone that it can on that speaker in your living room?

Alexa, which initially appeared on the Amazon Echo speaker, made it possible for families and roommates to ask for music, headlines and Amazon services in a shared space like the living room or kitchen. Since then, Alexa has gained control over thousands of apps and services, which anyone with Alexa-based hardware -- like the Echo, Echo Dot or Tap and even a lamp or a smart refrigerator -- can trigger with a voice command. Alexa has become especially important for controlling various smart-home devices -- but until now, that only worked when you were within shouting range.

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But what about when you're out? This is where Alexa on a phone comes into play. We take a look at what Alexa on a phone can and can't do for you.

Alexa on phones won't always listen

We haven't had a chance to try Alexa on the Mate 9 (which already has Google Voice Search/Google Now), but we have a pretty good idea of how it will function.

First off, don't expect an Echo in your pocket. The Mate 9 doesn't have Amazon's far-field beam-forming microphones, so it won't be able to hear you whisper "Alexa" from across the room. Even if it could, you'll need to boot up the Huawei Alexa app first: Unlike the Mate 9's built-in Google Now functionality, Alexa won't be always listening.

Similarly, the Amazon shopping app for iPhone and iPad lets you control Alexa's skill set with your voice.

When you have the app running, Alexa on a phone will give you access to her world of skills without having to buy an Alexa-enabled device. It will also give you voice control over your smart-home devices even when you're away from home, which is something you can't get on at-home devices. Yes, you could just as easily open that Philips Hue app on your phone to turn on the lights with a few taps. But with Alexa on there too, you can ask her to turn on the heat and the kitchen light, and open the garage door before you even pull into the drive.

(Of course, without a phone to test out real-life scenarios, the question of how well the system works is up in the air for now, but we'll get a fuller idea of the Mate 9's Alexa setup soon.)

What Alexa can do that Google and Siri can't

  • Access most of Alexa's skills if you don't have an Amazon Echo, Dot, Tap or other Alexa-enabled device.
  • Remotely control your smart-home devices hands-free. (Exceptions: Siri can remotely control HomeKit devices if you also have an Apple TV; Most Android phones can control the Nest thermostat and trigger IFTTT recipes using Google Now commands.)
  • Call an Uber or Lyft to a specific address with your voice (e.g. "Alexa get me a Lyft to pick me up from 235 2nd Street").
  • Stream songs from Spotify/Pandora with a voice command. (You can with Google Assistant -- which is coming to current Android phones, if you also have Google Home.)
  • Vocally launch IFTTT scenarios.
  • Play Jeopardy mode wherever you are.
  • Directly launch a skill rather than opening an app first and launching with a tap (e.g. "Alexa, start 7-Minute Workout"; "Alexa, ask Twitter what's happening").
  • Order items through Amazon (you can do this on your independent Amazon app, but not with Google or Siri).

Alexa skills that your phone assistant can already do with voice control

Alexa is getting into everything from fridges and lamps to phones.

Chris Monroe/CNET
  • State the weather
  • Read out headline news
  • Read audio books through Audible
  • Add items to a shopping list
  • Voice-launch apps

Surprisingly, Alexa on phones won't be able to set a timer or alarm.

Note that Alexa will let you control multiple compatible devices with your voice, but if you have an iPhone and HomeKit-compatible devices, you can do the same in one fell swoop as long as you've set up Scenes.

Things Alexa can't do on your phone that it can do in your home

  • Know where you are -- Alexa on phones is cloud-based and doesn't hook into phone services like GPS (Amazon acknowledges this).
  • Call an Uber or Lyft to your current location without specifying (because it doesn't know where you are -- it'll send a car to your default address even if you aren't there).
  • Set a timer or alarm (Huawei is working on this in the future).
  • Play Amazon Prime Music: Amazon says this is a licensing issue. ("It's something we know customers want, and we're working on it," Amazon told CNET.)
  • Connect to TuneIn Radio (Huawei is working on this, too).
  • Be easily accessible to the whole family (versus a phone, which belongs to one person).

Same old sticking points

Many of Alexa's skills are tied to specific hardware and services you might need to have in order to use, like Spotify or Philips Hue lights, so you won't be able to use every skill right off the bat.

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For now, Alexa will coexist with Google Now, but I'd be surprised to see it come to the iPhone.

Chris Monroe/CNET

In many other cases, you need to remember the right invocation words to launch a particular skill. For example, "Alexa, ask Garageio to open my garage door" versus "Alexa, open the garage door." So Alexa on a phone is ultimately as useful to you as the number of services you have accounts for, or the number of services you can remember.

What would make Alexa awesome on phones (and what Google and Apple do better)

As a platform attracting plenty of app and device makers, Alexa has some clear advantages over Google and Siri's mobile assistants, mostly because more devices currently work with Alexa than they do Google and Siri -- and with fewer caveats that also require you to own specific hardware like an Apple TV or Google Home. That said, Alexa will complement, not replace, the voice powers your phone already has.

Siri and Google Voice Search/Google Now are tied to the phone services where Alexa isn't yet, which gives them two distinct advantages: 1) They know where you are (geolocation), and 2) they're either always-on when the phone's unlocked, or launch with a quick gesture or tap (like Siri's long-press of the home button).

Amazon's Alexa assistant will find a stronger foothold if it can do those things and also make it onto more phones before Google and Apple fully elbow into Alexa's smart home territory and push Amazon out.

Read next: Amazon Alexa smart home dominance is fragile without global launch

Editors' note: This story originally posted January 21, 2017 and was updated March 22 at 6 a.m. PT.