Amazon Alexa on the latest HTC U11 smartphone is showing us the voice assistant’s mobile future. The Verge has an excellent review by Dan Seifert on the Alexa features that work–and don’t work–alongside Google Assistant and HTC’s own Sense Companion assistant. Yes, three voice assistants, one phone. That can lead to some confusion, but the more important development for Amazon is its Alexa debut as an always-listening voice assistant on mobile.
Other phones and apps have let you access Alexa on the go already, but they required opening an app and pushing a button before issuing your voice command.
That’s not necessary with the U11 — you can just say “Alexa” and Amazon’s popular assistant will spring to life, ready to hear your request. It’s the first phone that provides a similar hands-free Alexa experience to you get with an Echo or Echo Dot in your home.
What Alexa Can Do on Mobile
According to Seifert, Alexa can do many of the same things through the HTC U11 as it does from the Echo in your home. You can control smart home devices, play flash briefings, access Amazon Music, use your favorite skills and add items to your shopping or todo lists. When you leave home, you don’t need to leave your Alexa capabilities behind.
What Alexa Can’t Do on Mobile
However there are a few things Alexa cannot do on the U11. First and foremost, Alexa cannot unlock your phone. If the phone is locked, the invocation will wake up the screen but you will still have to unlock your device. By contrast, Google Assistant recognizes your voice and unlocks the phone.
Second, Alexa can’t make calls, open apps, send text messages or do many other things we take for granted when using Google Assistant and Siri. You can see from both the article and Twitter that Dan was not too impressed with the Alexa implementation. He writes, “I’ve tested the U11’s Alexa assistant over the past week, the practical use of it doesn’t live up to its promises.” He was a little more blunt in his Tweet this morning.
I’m a big fan of Alexa in my home, but it’s kinda useless on my phone: https://t.co/Djp7wMcNaE
— me, an idiot (@dcseifert) July 17, 2017
Alexa is Just Getting Started on Mobile
Seifert was not entirely negative in his review. He recognized that Alexa is just getting started.
The U11’s Alexa integration is a good start — it mostly works as you’d expect it to — but it still needs some tuning to be great.
That seems about right. Alexa was built and is optimized for in-home use cases. It wasn’t designed to control a smartphone. Google Assistant and Siri shine brightest in the task-oriented use cases on smartphones. Sending texts, making calls, opening apps, searching for information are core feature sets. The smartphone voice assistants by contrast have been slower to build out relevant use cases for in-home use.
Alexa has a way to go to catch up, but HTC shows it is making progress on two fronts. First, it illustrates that Alexa is popular enough that smartphone OEMs are taking it seriously as a feature to integrate and promote even when it competes with other on-device virtual assistants. Second, the U11 shows that Alexa can be made available on smartphones in much the same way as voice assistants native to Android and iOS.
Alexa Will Have Persistent Problems on Mobile
Despite this progress, Alexa will have continued challenges matching Google Assistant and Siri on mobile. The deep OS integration is a tremendous advantage for device control and app integration. Google and Apple would face the same challenge trying to operate on an Echo Show using Alexa as its OS. That is a big reason why both companies have launched their own smart speakers and will likely introduce more products to match Amazon’s Alexa-focused product portfolio.
The Fire Phone from Amazon didn’t make it nor did Windows phone and the world has settled into a mobile OS duopoly. Alexa will be forever limited on smartphones without deep mobile OS integration. That doesn’t mean it will fail on mobile. It just means that it won’t be the only voice assistant on mobile anytime soon. Regardless, the HTC U11 reflects both user interest in Alexa access on mobile and points to a mobile Alexa future.