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After a busy 2017, Alexa is still on top -- and still evolving

Smart assistants had a huge year -- and none more so than Alexa. Here's a recap of the last 12 months and a look at where it might be headed next.

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Amazon's voice-activated virtual assistant Alexa has been one of the most captivating stories in tech since her arrival back at the end of 2014 -- and 2017 was her busiest year yet.

It all started at CES, where Alexa seemed to be everywhere you looked. Amazon didn't have an official presence at the show, but that hardly seemed to matter. We counted dozens of different Alexa announcements from a wide assortment of eager partners scattered throughout the sprawl, and by the end of the week, Alexa's presence was enough to dwarf both Siri and the Google Assistant on our smart home scoreboard.

Along with six new Echo devices from Amazon, 2017 brought us a huge variety of third-party Alexa gadgets, too.

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It wasn't just the smart home, though. Ford announced that it was integrating Alexa into its cars. Huawei announced it was bringing the Alexa-equipped Mate 9 phone to the US. Dish Network showed off Alexa's ability to channel surf, foreshadowing more formalized entertainment controls that would arrive later in the year. Brand after brand seemed to see Alexa as a rising tide, and everyone wanted a boat in the harbor.

That set the table for a year of rapid expansion. If 2016 proved that Alexa was more than just a flash in the pan, 2017 showed that Amazon was determined to act accordingly. Along with a flurry of new features, Amazon introduced six brand-new Alexa gadgets this year: the Echo Look selfie camera, the touchscreen-equipped Echo Show, the second-gen Amazon Echo, the Zigbee-enhanced Echo Plus, the Echo Connect home phone replacement and the alarm clock-esque Echo Spot. Amazon also made sure to release gadgets and accessories to complement Alexa, starting with Echo Buttons and the Cloud Cam. The message to the competition is clear: Catch us if you can.

On the software side, Alexa stayed busy learning all sorts of new tricks. It learned how to use smart locks and how to control color-changing bulbs. It learned how to trigger multiple devices with a single command using routines. The battery-powered Amazon Tap bypassed its own button and learned to listen for your command. Alexa calling and messaging became a thing, along with Alexa notifications. Long-awaited, multi-room music playback finally made its debut. Matching Google, Alexa learned to distinguish between different voices (though, as we learned, it's possible to fool her).

The good with the bad

That's not to say that everything was a hit. Despite topping 10,000 skills back in February, it still isn't clear that the user base actually cares all that much (if you're an Alexa user, ask yourself how many different skills you can name, then compare that with the number of smartphone apps that come to mind). It's similarly unclear if Alexa's calling and messaging feature is as much of a gamechanger as Amazon might have hoped. We also questioned (and still question) the utility of the touchscreen on the Echo Show and the Echo Spot, and want to see Amazon put more of an emphasis on justifying it with a more robust and content-rich visual interface in 2018.

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Calling, messaging, and intercom functionality came to Amazon's Echo devices in 2017 -- complete with questions about privacy.

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What's clear is that Amazon has put itself in a position to throw a whole lot of ideas at us, then see which ones stick. That was sufficient in 2017 as we waited for the competition to catch up -- I'm less convinced that it's a winning strategy moving forward, with competitors potentially just a killer feature or two away from making Alexa look like yesterday's news.

Alexa met her fair share of controversy in 2017, too. Most of it centered around questions of privacy. In March, following some intriguing back and forth with law enforcement, Amazon ultimately handed over the microphone recordings of a murder suspect's Amazon Echo, but only after the suspect granted his approval. In May, the makers of the Alexa-enabled touchscreen intercom system Nucleus alleged that Amazon had "probably copied us" when it made the Echo Show. Then in the summer, users realized that there was no way to block incoming callers on their Echo devices -- Amazon issued a mea culpa and patched the issue a month later.

We also saw the first signs of monetization for Alexa's library of skills this year, with brands starting to find ways of injecting ads into your Alexa skills, or charging subscription fees for premium features. That might be an unfortunate inevitability as smart speakers become more and more ubiquitous, but it should still be interesting to see exactly how it plays out. There's the potential for a lot of money to be made, but the real fight is to win over new customers -- and no smart speaker is going to want to be known as "the one with ads."

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

'Alexa, what's next?'

In sum (and to put it lightly), Alexa's been an awfully busy beat this past year. In 2018, expect the beat to go on.

To start, we're sure to see another flood of fresh Alexa announcements at CES -- though I'll be curious to see if Alexa is as dominating a presence as it was last time around. Google has successfully diversified its smart speaker lineup with Mini and Max versions of the Google Home, and Apple's HomePod is next on deck after getting postponed past the holidays. Both the Google Assistant and Apple HomeKit could suck a little more oxygen out of the room this year as a result.

Premium-sounding competitors like the Google Home Max (above, center) could spur Amazon into releasing a high-fidelity speaker of its own.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Google looks to be the biggest threat to Alexa's top-dog status, and the most likely to eat into Amazon's dominant share of the smart speaker market in 2018. With notably better sound than we've tested from any of Amazon's Alexa devices to date, the Google Home Max seems poised to win over audiophiles, and the company was wise to match the low-cost appeal of the ultra-popular Echo Dot with the Google Home Mini. We're also starting to see an emergence of third-party Google Assistant devices, similar to the explosion of third-party Alexa gadgets in 2017. Potentially, that means that the Google Assistant might be about to find her way into a whole lot of new homes.

As a result, don't be surprised if Amazon stays aggressive in 2018 in order to defend Alexa's lead. A more premium-sounding Alexa speaker that offers high-fidelity audio on par with the HomePod and the Google Home Max seems like a smart bet -- though we've also heard rumors that Amazon may be working on wearable Alexa glasses. I also wonder if we'll see any new Alexa accessories in 2018 -- perhaps even Amazon's own line of Alexa-compatible, budget-priced smart home gadgets.

Even more interesting than the hardware fight might be the continuing behind-the-scenes squabbling between Amazon and Google. It started back in September, when Google stripped YouTube away from the Echo Show after taking umbrage with the way Amazon was displaying videos on the device. YouTube support was restored just in time for Black Friday after Amazon made some tweaks to its device software, but the detente didn't last long. In December, just two weeks later, Google announced that it would once again be pulling YouTube support from Amazon devices -- this time citing the fact that the online retailer doesn't sell Google hardware and doesn't stream Prime Video on Google devices.

Google tells CNET that it hopes to resolve these disagreements soon, and Amazon has since started selling Google's Chromecast streamers as an apparent olive branch. But YouTube is still scheduled to disappear from the Echo Show on January 1, and you won't find it on the just-released Echo Spot, either. That's a bigger blow than Amazon would like to admit -- I'll be watching to see how the situation plays out as it spills over into 2018.

Whatever happens, Alexa is still evolving -- and it doesn't show any signs of slowing. Still, with six new devices and such an abundance of new skills, features, partners and integrations, it's hard to imagine Amazon outpacing itself in 2018 -- and I'd be remiss not to point out that, in spite of all of the new hardware, Amazon's bestseller is still the $30 Echo Dot. Alexa is still a juggernaut in the smart speaker space, but it isn't untouchable, and the competition is starting to get pretty compelling.

2018, here we come.