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Can Alexa replace your home phone?

With calling and messaging available on all Echo devices, plus hands-free video chat on the new Echo Show, Amazon's Alexa wants to be your in-home operator.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Do you use a landline to make calls in your home? If so, you're in the minority, at least according to recent polling by the National Center for Health Statistics. Their big finding? A growing majority of Americans -- more than 50 percent of us -- don't even own a home phone, and instead, choose to rely entirely on smartphones to make calls.

Enter Alexa, Amazon's vision for voice-activated everything. She's already gotten millions of us to bring an artificially intelligent helper into our homes, but her newest task -- replacing those disappearing landlines with voice-activated calls, messages, and video chats -- might be her most daunting yet. In an age when people loathe voicemail and reject more incoming calls than they answer, can Alexa really get us talking again?

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Let's talk about talking

I wake up, check my phone and find a direct message on Twitter from Ben Rubin, a CNET colleague out of New York. He wants my phone number so he can try calling me using one of Amazon's Echo devices. This is where we're at -- people sharing phone numbers on Twitter so that they can talk to each other using Alexa. Imagine reading that sentence back at the start of 2006, before Alexa, before Twitter, before the iPhone, before any of it.

That feels like forever ago. I can still remember the exact phone numbers of my childhood -- home, Mom's office, the neighbors, my friends -- but I couldn't tell you the last time I committed a number to memory. Some of us haven't even touched a landline in years.

These days, the phone call itself seems antiquated. Why talk when you can text? Why catch up with someone when you can like their Facebook post, instead? What good is a smartphone up against your ear?

In a sense, all of it stems from the transformative impact smartphones have had on modern culture. With the entire internet in our pockets and a steady stream of social engagement just a few taps away, we've never been more connected. The irony is that we've also never been more isolated. From cab drivers on Uber to love interests on Tinder, our phones let us interact with anyone we want without making us interface with them any more than we'd like. It's what an over-connected, over-stimulated populace calls convenience. Don't like talking to people? There are apps for that, thousands of them.

That's what Amazon's efforts are up against here. It wants Alexa's fleet of voice-activated smart speakers -- the Echo, the mini-sized Echo Dot, and the video-enabled Echo Show -- to serve as communications hubs for the modern smart home. The problem? Despite the mainstream appeal of Alexa's voice-first user interface, voice communications are largely seen as obsolete.

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Chris Monroe/CNET

A call and answer

Then again, that might just mean that there's opportunity for Amazon to make personal communication seem novel again. Alexa's voice controls can carry some of that load with the convenience of initiating a call or message using only your voice -- but there are some other, more subtle points of appeal, too.

With Alexa, you're essentially getting a closed, curated network of contacts you actually want to talk to. When your Echo rings, you know it'll be someone familiar, not a telemarketer or a bill collector (stick a fork in the feature if this ever changes). And despite forgetting about privacy at launch, Amazon now makes it easy to block someone from calling you right from the Alexa app.

The closed nature of that network cuts two ways, though. Just as strangers can't call you, you can't call them. That eliminates a lot of the home phone's core use cases, everything from calling a business to see if an item is in stock to calling your cable provider to argue about your bill. That isn't likely to change anytime soon.

And no, Alexa can't call 911, either. Easy access to emergency services is one of the big reasons why a lot of people still hang onto their landline (especially people with children), so it's hard to imagine them seeing Alexa as a legitimate replacement for the phone they've already got.

Still, Alexa calls have some nice, family-oriented selling points. One of the biggest: intercom functionality. Scatter a few Echo devices throughout your home and you'll be able to use one to call another -- a handy way for busy families to leave messages for each other, or to let the kids upstairs know that dinner is ready. My parents also appreciated that the Echo made it easy for both of them to talk to me at once, as opposed to their usual practice of passing the phone back and forth.

With the Echo Show, video calls are just a voice command away.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Is video the key?

Perhaps the biggest differentiator between Alexa and your home phone is that Alexa can place video calls. To do so, you'll need the Amazon Echo Show's camera and touchscreen, though you can also take a video call on your phone using the Alexa app.

Those video calls are the primary reason for splurging on an Echo Show instead of the standard Echo or the dirt-cheap Echo Dot. That might make it the right choice for fans of FaceTime and Skype who think that they'd put Alexa's voice-activated approach to good use, but a good percentage of those people will likely prefer to stick with the app they're already comfortable with.

To win those potential customers over, Amazon needs to convince them that the Echo Show is a more convenient alternative. The design might undercut that narrative. Though the 7-inch screen is plenty big for its purpose and the camera offers sufficient video quality, neither the camera nor the screen offer adjustable viewing angles. Unless you're sitting it somewhere like a desk, where it'll face you seated in front of it, the Echo Show's build makes for awkward video chats.

One feature worth mentioning here is Amazon's "Drop-In" feature, which lets Echo Show owners to share their device's camera feed with trusted contacts. When they want to do so, the Echo Show will ring just like any other incoming call, and the red light will come on to let you know that someone is watching. For the first 10 seconds, your contact will see a blurred feed, giving you some time to turn the camera off or reject the call outright. After that, they'll see everything (and again, this only works once you enable the feature for a given contact).

There's a creepy factor at play, perhaps, but I can see the appeal for anyone who wants to keep an eye on an aging relative. That plays right into Amazon's obvious efforts at appealing to seniors and their children, but I wouldn't expect it to move the needle too heavily in the Echo Show's favor.

Outlook

Can Alexa's calls and messages claim the territory vacated by vanishing home phones? Though some folks may ultimately enjoy the calling feature and use it regularly, it's hard to envision Amazon turning the larger tide. Imagine if a manufacturer introduced a home phone that would sync with the contacts in your smartphone and let you dial any of them up with a simple voice command. Would that be enough on its own to reverse dwindling demand for landlines, and get people living without one to buy back in? I have my doubts.

Still, Alexa is much, much more than a voice-activated home phone, and her other selling points are already well-established. People will still buy plenty of Echoes and Echo Dots and perhaps Echo Shows, too, even if they aren't buying them strictly as home phone replacements. Rather, those Echo devices will add an additional, convenience-oriented layer of communications into people's homes, thanks to the voice-activated family chats and handy intercom capabilities. 

That fits right in with Amazon's vision for voice-activated everything -- but will it get us all to start calling each other using Alexa? Call me skeptical.