Amazon’s Echo is bringing the eighties back, and not always in a good way (AMZN, GOOG, GOOGL, MSFT)

Back when I was a kid in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the best
way to get stuff done on a computer was with the Microsoft DOS command
— a text-based operating system for computers that
looks positive antiquated today.

It looked like this:

Microsoft DOS



This so-called “command line” interface has a surprising amount
of flexibility, letting you do just about anything on your
computer in just a few keystrokes. In fact, programmers in
particular often still use the command line to get work done.
Plus, you feel like a
super-cool hacker from “The Matrix”
when you successfully
navigate it.

But they also have a ridiculously steep learning curve, requiring
you to memorize a dictionary’s worth of commands to get anything
done. To move from folder to folder, for instance, you might type
“cd c:/users/matt/businessinsider/articles.” It’s far from
impossible, but it’s complex and intimidating.

The command line gave way to graphical user interfaces like
Microsoft Windows, which eventually evolved to include
touchscreens and the web browser. Now,
even Microsoft thinks that chat interfaces
like Amazon Echo,
Facebook Messenger bots, or its own Cortana are going to be the
next big thing.

DOS, part 2 

The promise of voice assistants and chatbots,
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in early 2016
, is that
instead of learning how to talk to computers on their
terms — like memorizing keyboard shortcuts, web addresses,
or long lists of DOS commands — we can finally make
computers understand plain speech, the same way humans have
communicated naturally for millennia. 

It’s a great idea. But so far, that hasn’t really materialized. I
recently got my hands on an Amazon Echo Dot, my first-ever voice
assistant, and I’m struck by how much it’s like those early days
of DOS. There are a very finite number of things Alexa
understands, and you basically have to memorize all of them to
get anything done.

Amazon Echo


AP/Jeff Chiu

That’s mostly fine for simple tasks like setting a timer, adding
things to a shopping list, or playing a song. But Amazon Alexa is
getting new “skills” all the time. Some of them are useful, some
of them are fun, some of them are just silly, but there are
literally thousands of them. And because there’s no screen,
there’s also no reminder of all the things that you’ve enabled
Alexa to do. 

I’m not the first one to notice this, either: “If it takes
you more time to work out what you can ask the AI assistant than
to drag the meeting to a new slot on your calendar, you’re doing
it wrong,” Andreessen Horowitz’s
Benedict Evans wrote in 2016

What happens next

So, sure, I can order an Uber with Alexa, or play 20 Questions.
But I literally have to have all of it memorized, and know the
exact right sequence of words. Thanks to an integration with
IFTTT, a service that lets you hook apps up to each other, I can
have Alexa ring my phone — but only if I remember the magic
words “Alexa, trigger Find my Phone.”

That effect seems to be having negative effects on the
growing Alexa ecosystem in general. A
study reported on by Recode
indicates that 69% of the
7,000-plus Alexa skills out there have zero or one customer
reviews, indicating that nobody is using them. And even if they
use those skills, the study says, they drop them after a week or
two. A lot of Alexa skills are created and then abandoned,
it seems. 

As with DOS in the ’80s, the current market for voice assistants
is immensely powerful. But also as with the earliest days of the
PC, it’s hard for anybody but the most dedicated power user to
get the absolute most out of these devices. 

BI Intelligence

This doesn’t mean that voice assistants are doomed — quite
the opposite, in fact. If this super-early version of the voice
assistant concept is performing as well as we know it is, it
actually proves that there’s something really big happening. If
some people like Alexa now, with these oddities, quirks, and
roadblocks, imagine how much they’ll like whatever the next
version looks like.

What that next version looks like, who knows.
Advances in artificial intelligence
mean that Alexa, Cortana,
and Google Assistant could get way better at knowing what you
mean and trigger the appropriate app automatically; Amazon is

said to be working on some kind of Echo device with a screen
indicating a new kind of interface.

It also means that there’s room for someone else to come in and
beat Alexa, despite Amazon’s early lead. And with Apple
still quietly revving up its voice assistant strategy to combat
the rise of the Amazon Echo
, maybe the Cupertino company can
come in, build the Windows to Amazon’s DOS, and spark a
repeat of the PC and smartphone revolutions that changed the

from SAI