When Amazon's done, it may very well have shoehorned its digital assistant Alexa into your sink, your sofa and your walls. For now, Amazon will settle for connecting Alexa to as many electronic and Wi-Fi-enabled objects as it can.
Amazon's push toward Alexa dominance took another step forward Thursday, when the online retail giant added Alexa for the first time to its own Fire tablets.
Alexa -- which responds to voice commands to, for example, report the weather, set a timer or buy more soap -- will be included in the new Fire HD 8, which was unveiled Thursday, as well as the current Fire HD 8, Fire HD 10 and $50 Fire tablet. All these models will gain Alexa through a software update this fall.
Alexa's move into the Fire tablets points to Amazon's ambitions to expand the digital assistant's reach, using it to coax more customers to buy Amazon devices and to shop on Amazon.com. Already available in Amazon's Echo smart speaker and Fire TV streaming box, Alexa can control dozens of smart-home products including lightbulbs and door locks. Last week, a Lenovo executive told CNET that the PC maker has held talks with Amazon on potentially bringing Alexa to its computers and other devices.
Also, bringing Alexa to Amazon's tablet line could help Amazon keep up its rapidly growing sales in the otherwise lagging tablet market. While Apple, the No. 1 tablet maker, struggles to boost revenue from its higher-priced iPads, Amazon has succeeded in selling its cheaper devices. Unit sales of Amazon tablets have more than doubled since last fall, thanks to the low-priced Fire tablet, Amazon said Thursday. The company declined to provide specific numbers.
Amazon isn't alone in trying to add a chatty companion to ever more gadgets, with Microsoft's Cortana, Apple's Siri and Google Assistant all in the mix. Cortana made the jump from the phone to Windows 10 PCs last year, and Siri will do the same on Macs with a software update planned for this fall. Google plans to release an Echo competitor called Google Home, putting more pressure on Amazon to make Alexa the leading voice assistant, and fast.
Unlike with the Echo, which awakens to answer your questions when you simply say "Alexa," users will need to press on a Fire tablet's home button to address the voice assistant. Alexa could be used on these tablets to operate smart-home objects -- much as it can on the Echo -- but it will have new features targeted more toward the ways people use tablets.
"From a tablet perspective, we suspect it's more around entertainment," Kevin Keith, general manager for Fire Tablets, said in an interview.
For instance, Alexa could be used to open apps and games. Also, in several cases Alexa will augment voice responses with visual cards, such as album art when asked to play music on Pandora and the weekly forecast when asked about the weather.
Since Alexa may be used in different ways on the Echo speaker and Fire tablets, Keith said he didn't expect lower-priced tablets will eat into Echo sales, saying one experience is hands-free and from a distance, and the other is hands-on and nearby.
"I see them being complementary, not cannibalistic," he said.