APPLE’S SIRI MAY not be the most capable voice assistant, or the most beloved. In the race to dominate the next generation of interfaces, though, Siri had one key advantage: a cushy home on hundreds of millions of iPhones. Now, however, Amazon has snuck Alexa onto iOS—making this look more and more like a blowout.
What makes Alexa on iOS so intriguing isn’t just that it’s there, but where. There was already an Alexa app, a rudimentary utility that let users fiddle with the settings on their Amazon Echoes. And there have been a handful of third-party paid apps that brought some Alexa voice functionality to the iPhone. Now, though, Alexa will live inside the main iOS Amazon app, one of the most popular downloads in the entire App Store.
That puts iPhone and iPad owners just two taps away—one to open the Amazon app, the next to activate the microphone—from a voice assistant that doesn’t just rival Siri, but surpasses it in significant ways. Alexa’s popularity should already be giving Apple fits. Now it’s coming from inside the phone.
With the Assist
People who are familiar with Siri but not other voice assistants might have the wrong impression. While Siri predated the rise of Alexa and Google Assistant, it hasn’t managed to keep up with their evolutions. Siri can be useful for short-burst needs, but it’s also slow, and limited, and frankly kind of dumb.
Alexa’s not perfect, but it’s at least got depth. Thanks to Amazon’s aggressive courtship of developers, Alexa has 10,000 “skills” onboard, which are like apps that you shout at instead of tapping. They encompass the standard (checking the weather), the silly (ordering a pizza), and the sublime (Jeopardy).
Nearly all of those skills will come to the iPhone as well, in addition to being able to summon up songs from Amazon Music, or to listen to books in your Kindle collection. Alexa can control your smart home, check the traffic, or give you a news briefing, all from within the Amazon app. And yes, you can order Trolls sticker books, too. (Google Assistant lives on iOS as well, as part of its Allo chat app, but it’s not voice-friendly, and no one uses Allo.)
“Frankly, I’m surprised Apple allowed it,” says Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey.
And not even as a separate app. Amazon’s shopping app, already a top destination, now becomes a Trojan Horse for Amazon’s most promising product in years. Stop in to check the daily deals, and get acquainted with the most fully formed voice assistant out there while you’re at it. Might as well order an Echo or Dot or Tap while you’re in there. The Fire Phone may have fizzled, but who needs it when you’re on the iPhone 7?
That’s the idea, anyway. And whether it works will determine Alexa’s fortunes more than it might first seem.
“Getting on smartphones has always been the biggest roadblock to Alexa becoming really useful as a personal assistant, because a personal assistant that can’t leave the house isn’t much good when you’re out and about,” says Jan Dawson, founder of Jackdaw Research.
Alexa does great at controlling your lights, but unless Amazon can learn more about how you spend the rest of your day, it’s going to have a hard time keeping up with Google’s ubiquity, or even Apple’s hardware dominance. Siri can’t do much now, but it’s just an overhaul away from presenting real performance competition.
Which gets to another roadblock Alexa will run into. It may be handier than Siri by a mile, but being even two taps makes it significantly less convenient.
“I’m not convinced that people will either want to open a shopping app to use a virtual assistant or, for that matter, want to open an app at all,” says Dawson.
After all, you can summon Siri with one button-push. With the rollout of Google Assistant, Pixel and Nexus owners can chat up Google Assistant without touching the screen at all.
Still, it seems like a fair fight. In one corner, it’s hit-or-miss Siri you can summon without breaking a sweat. In the other, the best voice assistant on the market—Jeopardy included—lurking in an app you find yourself in pretty often anyway.
Regardless of whether you use Alexa on iOS, the most remarkable thing is that you’ve now got the option. And if that inspires Siri to finally play some catch-up, well, all the better.