Amazon’s voice assistant appears to be a winner at CES with more than several companies using the Alexa platform in new products.
LAS VEGAS — A key battleground coming into focus at CES this year is the fight to control the connected home.
If the two days of media events before the show are any indication, Amazon.com, with its Alexa voice-activated digital assistant, has a big head start in that race.
The tasks Alexa can be asked to complete, from toggling light switches and door locks to placing online orders, is growing.
This week, that domain extended to Whirlpool appliances, a refrigerator from LG, a speaker from Lenovo, an autonomous vacuum from Samsung, and ADT’s home security systems, to name a few.
Connecting and managing Internet-connected appliances and other gadgets, the so-called “smart home,” has been an obsession of the consumer-technology industry for more than a decade. Often, smart-home concepts arrived at CES in the form of ill-conceived prototypes that found little use.
But Amazon’s technology and the slate of companies imitating it are bringing that ambition closer to reality.
For Amazon, which flopped in a prior effort to break into consumer hardware with its Fire-branded phones, Alexa puts it front-and-center in one of the hottest corners of the technology world.
Alexa is Amazon’s Trojan horse into the world of technology platforms, Gartner analyst Mark Hung said, making the Seattle company “a very innovative player, to the point where now really every major technology company is starting to emulate the strategy.”
Ever since the personal computer invaded the workplace, electronics makers and software companies have searched for the technology that would rule the home.
Apple’s brain trust envisioned the Mac computer as a hub for families. Sony and Microsoft tried to rule the living room with multipurpose video-game consoles. TV builders pitched their Internet-connected set-top boxes, and the smartphone revolution spurred bets that handheld devices would control the home.
Those efforts didn’t gain much traction.
Enter Amazon’s Echo, the voice-activated cylinder powered by Alexa, software designed to learn from the speech input of its users.
The Echo speaker, released in 2014, became a hit last year, with the company claiming sales of “millions” of Echo-branded devices during the 2016 holiday season alone.
Integral to the success of Alexa, though, is its place on hardware not built by Amazon.
Alexa, much like Microsoft’s Windows, is as a platform that invites other companies to implant its intelligence into their products and connect their devices to Alexa’s off-the-shelf voice command skills.
Amazon is building the operating system of the home, Ben Thompson, a technology commentator and former Microsoft and Apple employee, said Wednesday.
Other companies are hardly ceding the field. Google’s Home voice-activated speaker, which functions much like Amazon’s Echo, hit the market in November. This week, Hyundai announced the device would be able to start its cars, unlock doors, and handle other applications in its connected-car interface.
Samsung, the South Korean conglomerate that builds smartphones, appliances, and home electronics, is marketing its own smart home interface.
Microsoft last month announced that Cortana, the company’s own virtual assistant, would be available for appliance makers to embed later this year.
Even Comcast, the cable giant, is getting into the game. The company Wednesday announced a software dashboard for its routers that shows which smart devices are connected to the network, and offers basic tools to set limits on their use.
The smart home still comes with a set of hurdles, from the complexity of securing those devices from bad actors to ensuring that devices built by rival companies can talk to each other in the first place.
Still, Amazon is building a potentially significant lead as the market develops, Thompson said.
It’s easy to switch among phone operating systems when replacing a smartphone every couple of years. Home appliances, more expensive than software and most computing gadgets, are a different story.
“Everyone who buys something that works well with Alexa is much less likely to switch,” Thompson said.
Samsung doesn’t duck and cover
Samsung wasn’t about to hide that it’s had, um, a difficult run in the past few months. Just take your seat on any flight and you’ll hear the warning about Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7, a phone that had an explosive presence on technology trends in 2016.
It was a “challenging year,” Samsung executive Tim Baxter said in his opening lines at the company’s news conference at CES on Wednesday. Reports of the Note 7 catching on fire started in September. Samsung allowed exchanges, but the replacement models caught on fire as well.
The phone was recalled in October, and Samsung pushed an update to all remaining Note 7s in December that basically disabled them.
“We continue our intensive efforts internally and with third-party experts to understand what happened and make sure it will not happen again,” said Baxter, president and chief operating officer of Samsung Electronics America.
Samsung will release findings soon on the root cause of the defect, he said.
With that out of the way, Samsung went on to announce a laundry list of new products and features, including one that actually involved laundry: a unit with two washers and two dryers that fit together in a close-to-standard size set of machines.
The idea is you can do more loads at once. The washer and dryer each have room for a regular load and a load of delicates at the same time.
— Rachel Lerman
Toyota drives far into future
Toyota showed off a futuristic concept car, the Concept-i, that includes software designed to learn from its driver and, if needed, drive itself.
The car, which looks a bit like a Prius mixed with a golf ball and some futuristic curved glass panels, won’t hit the road any time soon, though the company says tests of its capabilities will take place in the next few years in Japan.
The idea behind the car is to envision what an infusion of artificial intelligence-like software, named Yui in the Concept-i, and automated driving might mean.
The car is designed to give information to its occupant on a variety of surfaces, from the dashboard, to windshield, windows, seats, and door panels.
CES has grown into an automotive show in recent years, mirroring a shift in the auto industry from horsepower to fuel efficiency, in-car entertainment systems and self-driving vehicles.
Fiat Chrysler on Tuesday unveiled its own concept car, the Portal, an electric, semiautonomous concept aimed at millennials.
— Matt Day