Meet Alexa, Amazon’s Assistant

I was lucky enough to get an invite for an Amazon Echo device, which arrived earlier today. Here are my initial impressions, after just a few hours playing with the device.

Setup

Surprisingly straightforward for a Wi-Fi device with only two buttons and no display. Out of the box, the Echo beacons out an open Wi-Fi network. Connect your phone to that when prompted by their setup website & follow the instructions. In moments it was on the Wi-Fi & the open network was gone (you do need your Wi-Fi password of course). 

Voice Recognition

At the end of the setup there are some example commands to try. Unlike Apple’s Siri, Alexa (the name of the assistant inside the Echo, or, rather inside the cloud app behind it) really does understand what you say. Even from across the room.

With no other user interface to speak of, Alexa really does succeed or fail on the strength of her ability to recognize voice commands. So far, she beats Siri hands down, and I think even beats Google’s Android voice recognition (which is already very good).

Functions

So far, my favourite function is the voice command access to Amazon Prime Music. “Alexa, play …” Has played the named artist, or album or playlist with only one failure, and not a recognition failure even then: the music was not uploaded into my Amazon Music account & apparently the artist is not available on Prime Music.

The weather and the Wikipedia lookups have been big hits with my three year old, but I can see the shopping and to do lists being more useful over time. As more features are added, I can see it being even more useful, especially integrations into home control systems or the ability to voice text through my connected smartphone without even lifting a finger. Things I haven’t tried yet include the news briefing and the alarms and timers.

Initial Conclusion  

For an initial version, Alexa already has a lot of things she understands (including a great response to a classic science fiction line). The beauty of the cloud app model, as I well know from Devicescape’s cloud based amenity Wi-Fi authentication capability, is that you can add features in the cloud & not even need to worry about pushing firmware updates. Since she is on my home network, the potential for her to become the voice command gateway for the home is huge. Just imagine “Alexa, dim the lights” or “Alexa, make it warmer in here.”

Ongoing Pebble Issues

Anybody following along here will know that I have been having intermittent connection issues, as well as bluetooth audio interference issues, with my Pebble smartwatch. But more than that, I have been having issues with their customer support. Not to mention having their Chief Evangelist accuse me of whining, and then block me on Twitter. Great way to treat your customers. Guess she doesn’t want to actually hear from real users. 

On October 17, I was given this answer by one of their support folks:

We well received your logs, and will review them thoroughly and have a reply by Tuesday. Thanks for your patience.

That was a Friday. By the next Friday, October 24, I had still heard nothing other than another canned response on a different case number because I submitted more logs through their app and it generates a new case each time suggesting I upgrade to iOS 8.1 (which I had already done, and which has made no difference).

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Apple Pay Experiences

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Monday of this week saw iOS 8.1 land on Apple devices, and perhaps the most expected feature in the update was Apple Pay; the new NFC based, Touch ID approved payment service that was going to revolutionize how we pay for things. Or not, because of course NFC based payments have existed in Android phones for a while now, and even in plastic credit cards (mostly outside the US, but my Wells Fargo Visa card has both a chip and touch pay capabilities).

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Pebble Issues

Pebble SteelAs one of the people who backed Pebble in their Kickstarter campaign, and somebody who subsequently upgraded to the Steel Pebble when it was launched, it saddens me to write this, but at this point I feel Pebble is going to find it hard to survive, and for two simple reasons: they don’t seem to care about software quality, nor their customers.

At a time when Google, Samsung and Apple are creating much more sophisticated smart watches, it would seem like a good idea for Pebble to keep its existing customers happy, and to take seriously any reports of problems. Instead, every problem I have reported has gone unaddressed (aside from some brush off suggestions that I un-pair/re-pair or restart the watch, reboot the phone etc). I would actually consider the hardware part to be fine, and despite not having all the bells & whistles of the others, it wins hands down on battery life (most of the time), and provides the essentials needed in a smart watch. But, the software is buggy, and the support experience is terrible, and without those aspects working well too, I don’t believe they will be able to compete.

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Square, Coin and Smart Bank Cards

I read a blog post today from the folks at Square talking about how the more secure smart card enabled bank cards are coming to the US soon. That reminded me of my initial reaction to Square when it was first being hyped: “oh great, another magnetic stripe reader; can’t the US please move to something better.”

I first encountered embedded chips in my bank cards back in the early 1990s, in France – that is over 20 years ago. While my UK cards today still have the magnetic stripe (so they work in the US!), they also have chips and contactless touch pay capabilities.

When companies like Square, and more recently Coin, create technologies that are dependent on magnetic stripe technology I am amazed. It sounds like Square will be in a position to get new readers to their existing business customers. I don’t see how Coin will even survive if the US really can make significant progress in switching to chip & PIN technology next year (although I do have two cards now from US banks with the technology in them).

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iPhone 6 Case

Waterfield Smart CaseAll my iPhones to date, starting with my 3GS, have lived inside a Smart Case from Waterfield Designs; my iPads have likewise lived in one of their Ultimate Sleeve cases. They are a local firm here in San Francisco, and I love their products and their service. 

When I pre-ordered my 6, the site I visited next was theirs to get an estimate of when they would have my favourite case ready for the new phone.

But there was no Smart Case listed for the iPhone 6. I reached out to them on Twitter, and it seems it will not be there for a while. They do have a number of other options, but none really appealed to me in the way the Smart Case had (and I have had 3 of them now spanning 5 years of use, so they have become familiar).

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AT&T’s “GeorgeA” Was Right

Of all the people I spoke to earlier in the week about the sudden change in the estimated delivery date for my iPhone 6 from delivering on 9/19 when I ordered it to delivering 10/13-10/31 when I checked the online status, only GeorgeA from the @ATTCustomerCare Twitter team suggested that the reason the order could not be canceled was that it really was still scheduled to ship in time for September 19 and it was the new estimate that was incorrect.

Today’s status on AT&T’s site has changed from estimating delivery in the second half of October, to shipped and expected to arrive tomorrow:

Shipped

It amazes me that their e-commerce systems can’t keep track of things a little better, but it would almost have been better to just say they didn’t have a delivery date available than to estimate delivery over a month after the order date. I’ve heard of under promising and over delivering, but that’s taking it to an extreme!

Thank You GeorgeA

I would like to say a big thank you to GeorgeA both for spending the time earlier in the week explaining what he saw and what he thought it meant, and for being the only AT&T employee I spoke to on Tuesday who could work out that the error actually meant.

Latest From AT&T on iPhone 6 Delivery

After creating a new Twitter account specially to communicate with @ATTCustomerCare (since they were ignoring/blocking my regular account), I finally found somebody who reached out and called me.

He too hit the problem that the order cannot be canceled, and he tweeted the error message to me:

Error Message

That is a little cryptic, but WMS apparently means “Warehouse Management System” and he also added the comment “It’s suppose to go out on 9/19″ followed by “Remember it’s a system that is calculating that but since you ordered day one I don’t forsee a problem.” That is certainly what the original date showed on the order, and I live in hope that the earlier comments I received yesterday were wrong and in fact it is the estimated delivery window in the status message that is inaccurate.

Meanwhile, I am going to compare the cost of T-Mobile for our five lines and see how that would work out.

AT&T Bait & Switch Update

After getting no reply from @ATTCustomerCare, but seeing them tell several people it is possible to cancel a pre-order, I thought I would call the regular customer service. After sitting on hold for almost an hour (being repeatedly told how much they value me as a customer), I spoke to somebody who tried to cancel the order several different ways. No dice.

She then transferred me to Premier support, which left me on hold for a bit longer. At the end of that, I was told that the order could not be canceled once it has been submitted (I would have thought it would be harder to cancel one that had not been submitted, but not in the world of AT&T). Almost 90 minutes on the phone & still no progress whatsoever.

Pending Shipment

This is what my order status currently shows:

Order Status

Apparently, they will be preparing it for shipment for the next month or so. And in that time there is nothing I can do.

Refuse Delivery

The helpful advice I got was that I could simply refuse delivery of the phone when it arrives. Really? The best solution to canceling an order that won’t ship for several weeks is to have it ship to me, and then tell the delivery firm to return it?

I also learned that this glitch (the word he used) is something they know about and they are trying to fix.

Meanwhile, my line is not eligible for upgrade, so there is nothing I can do to source a phone elsewhere.

Twitter Support

The lack of responses on Twitter is puzzling too. So I created a new Twitter account and sent a question about my upgrade from that account. Sure enough, I got a response within a few minutes. Is it possible that despite “following” me (and being followed by me), they have somehow decided to block my regular Twitter account? If so, what does that tell me about how they feel about my business. Perhaps I should just cancel the service and move to T-Mobile.

Mac OS X (Mavericks) Wi-Fi Disconnecting

For a while now one of the Mac Books on our home network has been very quick to disconnect from the Wi-Fi network when the link is idle (and, by quick, I mean just a few seconds with no traffic is enough to make it drop the connection).

To make it even more annoying, the Wi-Fi network comes from a relatively new (1 generation ago) Apple Airport Extreme router, so there really should not be any compatibility issues between the laptop and the router. But, it almost never happens anywhere else.

In the console app, I see this line every time it happens:

kernel[0]: AirPort: Link Down on en1. Reason 4 (Disassociated due to inactivity).

This morning it dropped the Wi-Fi within a few seconds of me hanging up on a Google hangouts video call.

The difference I see between the working laptop and the one that is dropping, is that the working one has the security for the network as “WPA2 Personal” (which is correct), but the one that drops had the security set to “WPA/WPA2 Personal” – the more relaxed mode that supports the older WPA encryption as well.

So, I deleted the entry from the Mac’s list of networks and added it back, but selected the “WPA2 Personal” option and it seems to have fixed the issue (I did need to turn the Wi-Fi off and back on to make this stick which shouldn’t really have been necessary).

If you have been seeing this, try it. If your router is set to allow both versions of WPA as well, you might want to change that to be just WPA2 as well (not sure whether that is needed, or if just changing the Mac setting would work – my home router was already set to be just WPA2).