When it comes to technology, first isn’t always best
Patience is preferable to bugs, with Alexa’s evil laugh just the latest in a line of annoying flaws
Tech loves early adopters. They shell out hundreds of pounds for anything new without pause, paying to act as beta testers. Having something before anyone else naturally has appeal, but being stingy and cynical, I would rather wait for the price to fall and the technology to prove itself. Yet I was tempted by the new Amazon Echo Dot: not only did this tiny circular puck start cheap at just £50, it was frequently discounted to under £40 — and I was desperate for a birthday present to give my husband.
What a mistake. There’s no question the technology behind Alexa and its hardware home is remarkable, but it frequently fails at basic tasks. Rarely does it understand my requests on the first try – and my Canadian accent is hardly a challenge – and it turns on at random, usually when the TV’s on in the next room. Thankfully, it doesn’t laugh maniacally, as some users have reported, but it’s still unnerving to hear a voice in an unoccupied kitchen: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.”
Most frustrating are its stupid decisions: I tried to play music by a singer called Dan Mangan and Alexa enabled a skill called the “Name Game”. I argue with this machine more than I do my husband, which just doesn’t feel right.
Echo defenders will protest that none of those problems are deal breakers; they’re
small bugs in an otherwise impressive technology. However, they show that the system isn’t anywhere near finished – Alexa and Echo are at best beta products, not fit for store shelves. Indeed, I’m just about ready to rehome the useless little puck into our junk drawer.
That doesn’t bother Amazon – it already has our money – but when my friends and family ask if they should invest in an Echo with Alexa, I tell them not to bother. There are plenty of ways to be frustrated for free, after all. The giant technology companies love early adopters because they act as evangelists for the product, but if the gadget is released underbaked, they’re not going to be helping sales.
Amazon may not need nor want my marketing assistance, as it reportedly sold millions of Alexa-haunted plastic over the all-important Christmas holiday season, but if it doesn’t improve the “skills” on offer, make the voice-assistant less angerinducing, and iron out bugs such as crazed laughter, many of those millions of people gifted an Echo may not bother to pay to replace it. After all, why would you splash out on upgrading a machine that bores, frustrates or terrifies?
Amazon is hardly the only tech firm to launch too early, and at least Alexa does sort of work. Google Glass, by contrast, was astonishingly terrible. The first time I used it, I was surprised – I thought I must be using it wrong. To be fair to Google, it stressed that Glass was merely the developer version, an early beta – but announcing it with skydivers certainly made the augmented reality headset’s arrival feel like a consumer launch. The idea of AR glasses is sound – particularly for specific industrial uses – but Google Glass was ahead of its time. That may sound like praise, but it isn’t: Google Glass quite possibly set back the entire augmented reality market by some way.
Another idea that was pushed too soon were chatbots – every single bot I tried a year ago did nothing other than kill my enthusiasm for the idea. I’m sure there are plenty of useful bots, but they were served up before they were done baking, and now I’ve got a bad taste in my mouth.
Smart developers and engineers need to learn to pace themselves and wait for technology to catch up with their ideas. Release too early, and we’ll be put off — something to keep in mind for everyone working on future tech, be it driverless cars, blockchain or virtual reality headsets. By all means, let us have a go and beta test, but please iron out the bugs before you ask us for our payment cards. Don’t kill a good idea with impatience.
Nicole Kobie is PC Pro’s Futures editor. She heard her husband screaming at Alexa while writing this column, so that present was clearly a winner.