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Amazon is building an Alexa army

Pitching the power of its voice-controlled cloud interface to home tech dealers in Dallas, Amazon is on the march to get Alexa into as many homes as possible.

Smart Home

Crestron. Lutron. Control4. Savant. These high-end home automation service providers may not sound familiar, but they're the names that typically dominate the headlines coming out of the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association's yearly tech expo for luxury AV gear and the dealers who provide it.

This year, Amazon joined their ranks.

"What are we doing here?" asked Amazon's smart home director Charlie Kindel as he kicked off his keynote address to the CEDIA membership. The answer was simple. "We want to partner with all of you."

Charlie Kindel, Amazon's smart home director.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Kindel is one of the minds behind Amazon Alexa, its cloud-based, voice-activated computing service. Kindel put it another way, though, describing how developers at Amazon often start by writing a press release for the product they want to develop, complete with a crisp vision statement at the top. For the Kindle (Kindel insists Amazon spells it wrong), it was "any book, anywhere in the world, in a minute or less."

For Alexa, the vision was "a Star Trek computer for the home," but Kindel took it even further. "At Amazon, we think we're on the cusp of the next major disruption in computing. We think that disruption is around voice."

"On the cusp" might be putting lightly. Since debuting in 2014, the Amazon Echo smart speaker, the first point of access for Alexa, has been one of the online retailer's clearest successes. Apart from "off the charts" sales figures, Kindel was quick to cite usage statistics. "Not only are customers buying this product, but they're using it regularly," he said. "Customers who use Alexa for the smart home use it an average of sixteen times a day."

The average Amazon rating? 4.4 out of 5 stars across more than 40,000 reviews.

The goal now, Kindel said, is to get Alexa into every room of every home. To that end, Amazon just this week launched Alexa in the UK and in Germany, and introduced a new version of the Amazon Echo Dot, a pint-sized version of the Amazon Echo that customers can use with their existing audio systems, complete with new software that keeps multiple units from answering your commands at once. The new Dot costs just $50, and comes in six- or even twelve-packs.

That takes care of the every room part, but to get into every home, Amazon needs help. It needs tech dealers like the ones at CEDIA to come on board and start pitching Alexa to their customers.

That's why Amazon is so focused on making Alexa accessible to third-party developers. Whether they're creating their own Alexa "skill" that users can enable to give the voice assistant new capabilities, or incorporating Alexa into their own devices through Amazon's free Alexa Voice Service licensing program, these third parties are bringing their customers with them as they jump on board with the virtual assistant.

In other words, Amazon is building its Alexa army. Kindel started by introducing executives from Lutron and Crestron, each company boasting an Alexa integration of its own, along with tech startup Nucleus, which sells a slick-looking smart home video intercom device with Alexa built right in.

The message? There's value in making Alexa a part of your sales pitch, even if the margins for selling and installing Alexa's plug-and-play hardware look pretty slim on paper.

"We think that CEDIA also wants to be on the forefront of the next big thing, and we want to partner with you," Kindel reiterated. "This is an inflection point that we can all look back on ten, twenty years from now."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Updated 9/16/16 at 4:30 EST to correct Mr. Kindel's job title.

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