Alexa, Remind Me Of The First Time Your Product Category Failed

For the last few years, the Last Great Hope™ of the consumer electronics industry has been voice assistants. Alexas and Echos and Google Homes and Facebook Portals are all the rage. Over one hundred million Alexa devices have been sold, an impressive feat given that there are only about 120 Million households in the United States, and a similar number in Europe. Look to your left, look to your right, one of you lives in a house with an Internet connected voice assistant.

2018 saw a huge explosion of Internet connected voice assistants, in sometimes bizarre form factors. There’s a voice controlled microwave, which is great if you’ve ever wanted to defrost a chicken through the Internet. You can get hardware for developing your own voice assistant device. 2019 will be even bigger. Facebook is heavily advertising the Facebook Portal. If you haven’t yet deleted your Facebook account, you can put the Facebook Portal on your kitchen counter and make video calls with your family and friends through Facebook Messenger. With the Google Home Hub and a Nest doorbell camera, you too can be just like Stu Pickles from Rugrats.

This is not the first time the world has been enamored with Internet-connected assistants. This is not the first time the consumer electronics industry put all their hope into one product category. This has happened before, and all those devices failed spectacularly. These were the Internet appliances released between 1999 and 2001: the last great hurrah of the dot-com boom. They were dumb then, and they’re dumb now.

The Beginnings of the Internet Appliance

While the Internet has been around since September, it wasn’t until the early 90s that it became a thing. It wasn’t until 1994 that the Today show asked, ‘what is an Internet?‘, with Katie Couric saying, ‘It’s a big computer network that’s becoming really big right now.’

It’s in this environment that the computer became a device to connect to the Internet. The entire concept of personal computers as a device that would expand the capabilities of the human mind was thrown away, and became a device that you could use to send emails. If the 1980s promised computers that would do your taxes and organize record collections, the 1990s promised a device that would allow you to read the newspaper. Computers were not technology anymore, they were gadgets. The Internet was the killer app for personal computers in the home, and that meant an eager market for something that would connect to the Internet.

WebTV, the predecessor to Microsoft’s MSN TV. This was a dedicated web browser that connected to your 200 pound projection TV. Image credit

One of the first such devices was MSN TV, a set-top box that would put the Internet on your TV. This wasn’t a single device, but instead a family of devices produced by various manufacturers including Sony and Phillips. It was not a computer by any stretch of the imagination, but it would allow you to connect to the Internet. You could read anything on the Internet on your TV.

Truth be told, the idea of browsing the Internet on a CRT with NTSC resolution sounds painful, but websites didn’t always demand the resources of today’s AMP mobile pages. Just look at the Space Jam website from 1996. It’s remarkably readable on an old CRT TV. For some, WebTV was the first device that put Internet in the home. Most people just bought a computer, though, but the market was interesting enough that companies poured resources into dedicated devices designed only to browse the Internet.

The most famous of these devices was the 3Com Audrey, an exquisitely designed piece of hardware that was just as functional as a feature phone from half a decade later. The Audrey wasn’t designed for the home office, it was designed for the kitchen, ostensibly to look up recipes, much in the same way the Facebook Portal and Google Home Hub are being marketed today. What could you do with an Audrey? Well, you could browse the Internet. You could send email. There was a calendar and a clock. Unlike many other Internet appliances, there was a USB Ethernet adapter for the upper crust of society that had a broadband connection. Oh, you could also synchronize up to two Palm OS devices. The Audrey could be the central nervous system of the household, where you and your partner could share schedules and notes, and maybe even Graffitti doodles.

There were other devices that fit into the idea of, ‘a computer, but just for the Internet’. The Compaq iPaq was a terrible x86 computer with no expansion at all that only ran a Microsoft web browser. Gateway got into the fray. In 2000, you could walk into a Sears electronics department and find a handful of devices meant to connect to the Internet. No, they didn’t have floppy drives, and they didn’t have DVD drives. They all had terrible displays, and strangely most of them had wireless keyboards.

Why did these devices fail?

Internet appliances like the Audrey and iPaq were all released around the turn of the millennium, in a narrow 18-month window bookended by the Democratic party calling for the deportation of a child back to Cuba and George Bush’s first great test of his diplomatic prowess (it was a success). Wired was a print-only publication about the Internet; HotWired and Wired News were the online imprints. Yes, the 90s were weird. Unimaginably weird. It’s easy to ascribe the failures of Internet appliances to the U-Haul of Herman Miller Aeron chairs we now call the dot-com bust, but the reasons, I believe, are much more subtle than that.

Behold! The December 2000 issue of Computer Shopper

First, the hardware. In the year 2000, it was possible to buy a standard desktop — one that would serve you well to surf the information superhighway — for about a thousand dollars. Spend about $1500, and you’ll get a computer with a DVD-ROM drive, an actual graphics card, a full 128 MB of RAM, and maybe even a copy of Microsoft Works. These were sold by the thousands by the likes of Dell and Gateway. Yes, the specs are laughable today, but this would have been a perfectly serviceable computer. If you were lucky, you might even be able to score one of those fancy flat monitors.

On the other hand, Internet appliances offered much, much less for what was still a significant amount of money. The 3Com Audrey shipped with an x86 chip manufactured by National Semiconductor running at a meager 200 MHz. It came with 32 Megabytes of RAM and a 640 x 480 display. For $500 — the initial price of the Audrey — you could buy a used laptop, and you could run Windows, instead of the QNX-based OS. Sure, there were some neat features found in the Audrey, like the ability to send ‘scribble’ emails to other Audreys, but no one really used that, because it required the receiver to also have an Audrey.

The Compaq iPaq appliance was likewise underpowered. ARM was just the forgotten chipset found in some old weird British computer, so it also came with an x86 chip from AMD, but the memory was topped out at 32 MB. Flash was limited to 16 MB and there was no real operating system to speak of. The OS in the iPaq was Microsoft’s MSN Companion 2.0, an even more limited version of Windows CE. You could run any browser you like, as long as it was Internet Explorer 4.0. No, you could not install RealPlayer, like you could with a used laptop. The initial price of the iPaq was $599, with a monthly fee of $21.95. The Gateway Touch Pad — an utterly ungooglable device released in November, 2000 — also cost $599. It featured a slow Transmeta Crusoe CPU, and could only browse AOL.  Five or six hundred dollars was the price of these Internet appliances, and just a few hundred more would get you a real computer. If you were looking at the used computer market, you could pick up a Bondi Blue iMac. Be sure to get the first hardware revision, because that was the one with the mezzanine slot.

Internet appliances failed because, for just a little bit more, you could get an entire computer. They were underpowered, and they really didn’t do that much. Yes, you could type out an email, but there’s no way you could ever download a trailer for a movie from Apple and watch it on one of these devices. There were, simply, better options. Internet appliances were the result of the consumer electronics industry trying anything to ship more product.

I think we’re repeating the same thing with voice assistants, but it’s even worse this time. Every Android phone comes with a Hey Google, and every iPhone comes with Siri. If you have a smartphone made in the last few years, you already have a voice assistant. If you can lean your phone against your coffee maker, you already have a Facebook Portal.

The current trend of Orwellian telescreens installed in every room in your house will die, just like Internet appliances did. All we need now is for Apple to re-create the iPod, and give the industry another thing to chase.

93 thoughts on “Alexa, Remind Me Of The First Time Your Product Category Failed

    1. Oh yeah, I’ve been waiting for the bottom to fall out on those things since I saw the first ad. Expect a teardown as soon as that bubble pops and the eBay prices really take a nosedive.

      1. @visserslatijn : There is a middle ground for home automation. Wherever the use is appropriate, I use motion-detector lights or wall switches. When I enter the sensor field, the light goes on; when I leave, and it turns off after a short interval. Cheaper, simpler to set up, and more reliable than any IoT device.

      2. Try it from a wheelchair with a switch on the back of a kitchen counter. That, in fact, is the very reason I’ve got three Echo dots and been adding smart outlets and bulbs for my wife.

  1. The point of the internet appliances was that regular people in the 90’s were practically computer-illiterate, so a device that simply turns on and shows you the TV guide or the AOL newsfeed would have been in demand had the situation remained the same.

    But the industry had the problem of trying to ship the minimum viable product, because to access the internet you really needed a real computer. Rendering webpages was about as demanding as running a word processor, and to do it smoothly you needed some minimum amount of CPU and RAM, and a hard drive, and a graphics card… So they tried to make a “computer lite”, which cost too much and was in all senses completely useless.

    It was a device with a clear market function, but way before its time. Guess what we have today? Tablet computers, Chromebooks, iPhones – a computer lite – designed mainly to run a web browser. Even the apps are mostly just web applications wrapped to run locally.

    1. I work with young adults in the 19 to 27 year old age range. Most of them are computer-illiterate. All they can do is text, watch youtube videos, and search google. When it comes to the search, they will usually take the first result google returns and take it as fact. This is all done on a mobile device usually. They don’t know what it means when I say minimize or maximize a window on a pc.

  2. I think I would rather have my Echo(s) set up around the house so I can queue up music whenever I want to with a semi-decent speaker without having to reach for my phone. I almost can’t even stand being bothered to use a touch screen to advance the song queue anymore. I mean, as my wife and I are playing video games and listening to music we can have both hands busy with something and still skip a song we don’t want to listen to. Of course, that is really all I use my Echo(s) for. I would like to explore using them as intercom’s between my shop, woodshed, and house but I haven’t dedicated any time to figuring out how to make that work yet. Furthermore, your argument that getting the old smart devices was not a great bargain because a computer cost only a couple hundred more doesn’t make sense in the context of a virtual assistant now. Phones can cost upwards of $1000 plus at least $100 a month for service, whereas the Echo dot is $29.99 with no subscription, just WiFi access which pretty much everyone has as part of their cable/internet package. It seems much more reasonable now to buy a virtual assistant than it used to.

    1. To answer your prompt, Echos have two intercom type systems: Drop-in allows you to talk Echo-to-Echo, but it’s mostly a voice/video call setup. The other is ‘announce’, which distributes your message across the rest of your echos. “Announce it’s dinner time” will send the message to the other echos.

  3. “They were dumb then, and they’re dumb now.” Thank you, thank you, thank you. I no longer feel like a voice in the wilderness about this fad.

    I got a Lenovo Smart Display for my kitchen last fall when they were on sale for $100. It’s useful as a kitchen counter radio, but less so as a source for recipes for three reasons:

    1) It’s OK for finding generic recipes, less so for more out of the way fare, and nearly useless for finding a specific recipe.
    2) The things that I cook often involve long prep times, and after bringing up a recipe, it often times out by the time I get to the next step, so I have to look up the recipe all over again.
    3) There is no way to save or load your own recipe, so the cook is always starting from square 1.

    A tablet or convertible laptop is a far more effective solution, and isn’t tied by a power supply to a single location. Better yet, just print the damned recipe; if food splatters on to a piece of paper, you’re not out much.

        1. Maybe an array of replacement e-ink screens for readers? eBay shows they go for around $20-$25 each, and are roughly 6×4 inches.

          Not exactly a cheap project, but if my math is right you could do a 3×2 foot backsplash for under $1K. Considering that’s how much the 13 inch Paperlike Pro e-ink display costs, it sounds like a steal.

      1. Naah. Just print out all your favorite recipes and put them in a binder or use a paper clip. It’s cheaper and easier. Then you don’t to lug you laptop around the kitchen a laptop with a tiny screen and then worry if something liquid or food gums it up.

        High tech isn’t always a solution.

  4. You are wrong
    You may have the same ability on a phone but let me give an example
    I have a friend who has a very good Hi-fi, who has whole house speakers that sound very good, who with the tap if a button on the wall can get any of the music in his music library. Yet his wife an accomplished woman who I know can operate all this equipment with ease I have seen her call out to Alexa to play music. You miss the point A major one Ease of use. You miss the point of a lot of people who live alone and want to be able to access emergency service with a shout in case something happens even if it never does the security and peace of mind that brings You missed that, you missed a key point Humanity You say well economically they didn’t make sense but that is not why they failed. Web TV failed because you had to use it on your TV. You couldn’t type a letter and have the news, OnTV or Oprah on in the background. The Alexa and such are not going anywhere as long as you can yell at them: How do you spell “consensus” or “equipment” let alone perking up to remind you to take your pills or you have to leave to go somewhere which all can be done as you are taking on the phone.

    1. We’ll see if all that convenience is really necessary or desired in time. Everyone I know who got one of those voice assistants has stopped using it completely, as happens with some pieces of consumer electronics. Some will still be out there in use, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this voice assistant thing is already dead in the water.

      Companies are already forcing it into all models of normal household appliances, which seems like an act of desperation caused by sagging sales of pure voice assistant machines. I’ve also seen some stats showing usage has been grinding down pretty severely, but I’m not totally sure on that and I think more time is needed to tell.

      I’m all for having the option of controlling a computer with your voice, but any computer with audio i/o already has the hardware and the potential to run the software. Why aren’t people running this on their regular computers if it’s so great? Why does it have to be a standalone device I have to buy from three particularly unscrupulous adtech/big data companies? That’s a pretty damn suspicious coincidence, isn’t it? And of course there’s no offline mode, even though such a thing is perfectly feasible. Imagine that. Facebook entering the fray kind of says it all. I don’t want to be within fifty feet of one of their abominations.

      Let’s be real. Voice assistants represent a data grab, a money grab, a fundamental privacy violation. They could have been implemented as a software-only solution in a privacy-respecting manner. They’re being pushed with promises of incredible usefulness and convenience, but outside of a few very unlikely-sounding hypothetical scenarios they’re just gimmicky and they get old quick. If it’s just a device that operates the lights and puts music on with a minimum expenditure of physical effort, there are better ways to accomplish these incredibly simple tasks without falling for this incredibly obvious data scam.

      1. There’s also the security issues that go beyond the parent company having access to your data and your searches. eg my daughter recently started getting some random persons google assistant messages and responses. Because the auth token isn’t unique it’s possible to access someone else’s account (not targeted just random).

    2. I don’t want these devices monitoring and recording my conversations with friends or when I’m talking to someone on the phone.

      Nor do I need them for safety. Because once outside they’re useless. And if you’re house bound it means you need a care giver at that point or live in a assisted living community.

      To me they are peeping toms and given the company who runs them has a penchant for listening to peoples conversations and sending them to strangers means there is no way I’d trust them. Nor would I even visit anyone who has one. Amazon does something with that data it collects and it’s not good.

      Taking your pills? There is something called a pill tray so you can keep track of your meds. It’s low tech, no intrusive and easy to use. The other things can be done with a day planner you can get at a 99cents store.
      .

  5. The DM3725 the Alexa is based on is just a Cortex A8.. You have the BT interface for all your BT stack and Alexa OS RCE and MITM needs..

    The other devices are just as bad.. I’d be surprised if they even have default AppArmor or SELinux or even GCC security…

      1. Well.. If I’m wrong I’m sure OS and compiler devs would love to know their secret for completely mitigating the different type of memory corruption and BT design flaws.. FYI Amazon didn’t make it’s own OS from scratch..

        1. They’re not hard to hack, the first gen echo was too easy. They had developer pins on the base, little soder and lead connections and usb talked with ease. I will say the updates seem to have updated the DNS connections to port 853 DoT so the servers and IP addresses are encrypted now. Most of the “testing” I’ve done has required physical access, soder and moding. For the most part while teaching Cyber security I showed my students how to link to the on board mics and wifi connection to power a mod chip for remote monitoring. Not much different than powering a raspberry pi and doing the same. The best part was one of my students added another lead so when you hit the mic button it powered the LED red and retained the mic connection but it retained the Alexa wake word. So anyone want to buy a used Echo or two… Were messing with home minis this year.

  6. Another way of looking at it is that just like music if you bring the same song out every decade or so with a slightly different tune, one day it’ll be a hit and make a fortune.

    We could say similar that Apple didn’t have a clue with the newton,
    Or writing special WAP webapges for cellphones will never catch on.
    Or using dumb terminals to talk to a central mainframe is not going to last.! :o)

    I was exposed to many “early” tablets. Typically running XP tablet edition which MS were banking on.
    I thought they were terrible and I still have no use for a tablet. But other people think they are brilliant and today tablets are outselling laptops/desktops combined (I believe, I may be wrong but I aint going to google it to be sure)

    Critical mass and price back 15-20years ago weren’t correct for the tablet market, much like “set top boxes”
    But yet every TV on sale today has a “set top box” built in and we (some) browse the “internet” on them. They are all smart TV’s.
    The article doesn’t seem to acknowledge that elephant in the room.

    1. “Another way of looking at it is that just like music if you bring the same song out every decade or so with a slightly different tune, one day it’ll be a hit and make a fortune.”

      Funny, I’ve missed the past 6 or 7 decade re-incarnations of “Does your chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight.” But I’m looking forward to Beyonces’ “Maresy Doats”.!

      B^)

      1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dr._Demento_20th_Anniversary_Collection
        It was released in 1991, so some 30 years later, does that make it a new hit or an old hit beign a compilation ?

        oh and:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBmW37ZJlso
        The Irish Rovers’ recording of Lonnie Donegan’s song from their 1968 album All Hung Up

        80’s kids tv?
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jwd4LZk9O1U

        But I see what you did there :o)
        Sadly there is no dubstep version.

  7. My first “internet” computer was a Packard Bell with a Pentium (no number after it) running Windows 3.11, a 2X CD ROM and a 56k modem. Insurance from a lightning strike allowed me to upgrade to a HP “multimedia” PC running Win 98.

    Most of the time I just used the library computers. Several allowed access to the floppy drive so you could save stuff vs printing them out.

    In 1998, when I started working for the company I still work for, we had one computer w/internat in the frost office. I worked wit the IT guys to get it connected to the network, and finally got it at my desk. It was still dialup, so if a second person got on the’net it became really slow. By 2000 we had a T1 line (remember those)

    It would be a number of years until i shelled out for DSL, and finally cable internet (mostly because I got my ‘net fix at work…).

    I remember the various ‘net appliances but since I had a computer since my first Sinclair TX-81, there was no real need for me to have one.

    1. Sorry to hear you don’t know how to use it properly. With some high-end speakers you have a voice activated home entertainment system. Where’s your phone? Who cares? Stay on the sofa, enjoy all the internet has to offer your ears in high quality

      1. Uh, its’n that basically the same thing he said? Does the addition of “high-end” speakers to a ~$30 gadget made for listening to compressed audio streams really change the end result?

        1. I wouldn’t say “smart radio” is too far off … but how cool is that? Alexa is my alarm clock and timer and reminder service. It’s my weather channel. It’s my music on demand server. It’s my quick trivia question go-to when I’m not sitting at a computer. Since we have three of the Echo Dots in different rooms (and a Fire TV stick to boot), it’s a house intercom system (also accessible to and from my phone when I’m out). Haven’t had too much luck with the “smart home” stuff yet (the light bulb I got will work for a while then become inaccessible and have to be re-set several times, and I haven’t found anything I want to use the “smart plug” that came with one of the Dots with yet).

          For about a hundred bucks total, it does a lot of stuff that I like and some stuff that I’ve come to count on.

          When I build my dream house, I’ll be re-evaluating WHICH system to use (Alexa v. Google Home), but there will definitely be one controlling smart thermostats, smart locks, connected appliances, etc. The 21st century is finally starting to look like it was supposedly going to look when I was a kid watching ’60s and ’70s sci-fi. Still a little light on the flying cars and vacations to the moon, but finally starting to progress in that direction, anyway.

          1. Just my 2 cents, hold off on ‘smart locks’ until they are actually smart, aswel as the voice assistants you connect with them, in their current state its just too easy to walk up to a front door and shout something along the lines of ‘hey alexa, open the front door’ and actually be successful. Voice assistants are not nearly good enough yet at differentiating voices and smart locks are a downright security hazard. Look into it a bit, you’ll be amazed how (for lack of a better term) piss-poor the security of most smart locks is, its really quite amazing these things are even allowed to be sold.

          2. Good advice. I’m not far enough down the path to have looked closely at the available lock hardware/interfaces. But when the time comes, I’ll be wanting something that’s secure while making my life easier, not something that feels futuristic but isn’t as good as the analog solution :D

      2. Yes, I too judge the worth of technology by how effectively it enables me to never get off the couch. If only we could use some kind of algorithm to interpret grunting through a mouthful of half-chewed chips so I wouldn’t have to actually go to all that trouble of pronouncing words.

        Or if only my media center had some kind of remote control that worked locally and didn’t spy on me and report to a FAANG company. Maybe using infra-red technology… Also don’t act like it’s a real problem to not have your phone on your person / know where it is. Everybody always has a phone in reach, it’s almost the defining characteristic of our species at this point. Nobody needs a voice assistant. The phone already has one even, in case our lethargic stupor is severe enough that we can’t even swipe on a screen to select Despacito from our playlist and bluetooth it to some speakers.

        Also an Alexa hooked up to some external speakers isn’t exactly hi-fi heaven, but whatever.

        1. I lose track of my phone about once a day, and the “Find device” app is indispensable. Yesterday, I couldn’t find it, used the app, heard it ringing and found the phone under my cat. Found phone; lost cat.

        2. Funny you should mention Despacito. I laughed my ass off when I heard this story about Google Assistant being unable to find it: https://goo.gl/PBSigs

          I had similar issues with trying to get a Lenovo Smart Display to play YouTube videos by Spanish musician Anna Alcaide. No matter how I pronounced her name, it always served up Al-Qa’eda propaganda videos. Frustrations like this are why I stopped speaking to these devices.

  8. “While the Internet has been around since September, it wasn’t until the early 90s that it became a thing.”
    You know, time might seem a slog sometimes, but I think the internet has been around for more than 5 months. Not to mention the time travel involved in this sentence.

    That it the joke flew way above my head.

  9. What a poor article that just reflects a moody writer trying to lay shade everywhere based on poorly thought through ideas. Yes, my phone also can handle voice commands but when i want to listen to CONTENT in my HOUSE without lifting a finger at much better sound quality (i’m talking Sonos integration, but even the $29.99 3rd gen ‘dot’ projects pretty good music throughout my house for the next 10 years for the price of a single pizza delivery. Without lifting my ugly head or hands from the couch, through integration with Amazon music and my Spotify account as well as TuneIn and many other services, I (and physically handicapped/elderly/lazy) people can be entertained all day with no further expense, through nice sounding speakers. I don’t need my phone with me and the sound quality is much better. plus, I have my Phillips colored lights throughout the house adjusting on the fly to my verbal commands and my home security system on/off without so much as lifting my neck.

    This author is comparing $29.99 investment with computer/phone purchases? I think this author has some dumb axe to grind. This person here LOVES his voice assistant-powered speakers at home (one high end Sonos for big stereo, about 4 ‘dots’ around to control my SmartHome). Cost me next to nothing, and the tech can be upgraded thru software for years to come. If this author wants to carry around his phone with 1/4″ buzzy speakers and think he’s the Smart One I’d like to beg to differ.

    Dumb article. What’s wrong with you people?

    1. Why do you need to give facebook/google/amazon servers an audio pipe to your house to do this? A voice recognition algo could be designed to work locally on hardware everyone already owns. It’s pretty obvious why a certain very specific kind of company juuuust happens to be the ones developing these “assistants.” It’s not for your convenience to never have to move again.

      1. When I say “Hey Google, play Star Trek”, the Google Assistant knows that “play Star Trek” is a thing and “play start wreck” is not. It knows that lots of TV series and movies are called “Star Trek”. It knows which of those I was most recently watching, and which streaming service it’s available on. And it plays the next episode on the TV that’s in the same room as me. You might think that having to say “Play Star Trek: The Next Generation season 3 episode 6 from Netflix on the living room TV” (and hoping it’s parseable without Google’s terabytes of cultural metadata) is acceptable, but most people don’t.

        1. Or maybe you’d get directed to this, and learn of an obscure Finnish Star Trek parody as a surprise:
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Wreck

          I still don’t see why we have to fork over our valuable data to FAANG companies to put on a record or a movie. This seems like an invented problem. Obviously they’re trying to contrive a way to charge us for the privilege of having our data stolen. That data is worth money and it’s an asset that we create. There is no universe in which we need to install adtech in our house to browse our media library or turn on the lights.

  10. i would agree, that your smart phone can do all the “cool” “fancy” stuff an “internet appliance” can do. Certainly, my desktop computer can do all of them better and faster with a large 4k display. However, how many cell phones do you own for your personal use? How many “personal’ computers do you own. The answer is typically, 1. Yet, most of us have a desktop PC, sometimes a laptop, a cell phone (that is used more like a redundant mobile internet portal), and don’t forget the tablet that I too was confident would never fit into that space.While I “own” many with just a family of 3, I have MY pc, MY laptop, MY tablet, and MY phone.

    When it comes to “Internet Appliances”, I have 4 Alexa’s. We started in the living room, to control a few lights. Then “the boy’s room” for intercom. Next in my bedroom, for alarms and music streaming. Finally, in the kitchen, for improved access to intercom and streaming music in the kitchen. Forget about use-cases for the elderly or disabled, these devices are the interim step on the way to a “smarter home”. A home where I don’t need redundant appliances, just listening devices in each room. A central hub application, maybe running on a desktop pc, could receive audio inputs, process, and output the requested content.

    The moral of this story is, I will bet you a dollar this functionality is here to stay.

  11. I wonder how long before adverts come to these products. “Alexa, dim the lights”, “coming right up after this break…” followed by a “targeted ad” for something you’ve already bought because it noticed you were looking for one yesterday.

    No thanks.

    1. Reminds me of Phillip K. Dick’s Ubik, where every appliance and object in the guy’s apartment was coin-operated and you had to pay like a quarter and a dime in order to open the front door and leave.

  12. One thing was overlooked here – one of the “Web TV” appliances (though likely not that brand) was a perfectly good PC lacking only a hard drive and a bootleg copy of Windows to make it all go, and sold for $200 (I think) in the late 90s. Word got out on the nascent internet and they evaporated off the shelves in a heartbeat – faster than I could get to Circuit City (yes) to get one.

    I have an Alexa (which, unfortunately you can only rename to “Computer”, because I’d love to call it “Number One”) and it’s fun – basically a voice activated radio/internet lookup, but the ancient X-10s carry the freight of lights etc. simply because connecting IoT devices relies on the WiFi system and the other brings its own digits (and has a battery backup).

  13. Your article lists examples of failing products from the dot com boom. How many units sold? What was the Phoenix that rose? The personal computer.

    The Verge reported that Assistant devices are in a quarter of US households, and 40 percent own multiples. The Verge two weeks ago reported that Amazon has more than 100M Alexa devices in the field. That’s not an example of a failing product category.

    That’s not to say that there won’t be assistant products that don’t make the cut – look at Portal, Cortana, HomePod. There are examples of specific products that banked too hard on one feature and flopped.

  14. Lets consider the idea of using your phone as a home assistant. With every phone, I’m pretty sure you need to hit a button to activate the voice assistant. Using voice activation on a phone alone would seem to be a recipe for disaster. There is the power draw of listening continuously, the acoustic challenges of the various environments, and the problems on knowing when it is the user vs someone else using the voice assistant on their phone to contend with.

    Even if a phone used geo-fencing and/or connection to a particular wifi network to tell someone is home so there won’t be errant voice commands from other users and a charger is close at hand, the acoustics can still be an issue. And there is the issue of multiple people trying to use an individual phone acting as a voice assistant. Get everyone in the house phones? We are now back to unintended triggering.

    It just doesn’t make sense especially when these devices are so cheap. Using them for shopping will be a fad. But there are valid use cases for acting as a radio or for some level of home automation.
    One only needs to look to sci-fi to see a vision of how these things can be integrated into everyday life while being at least somewhat practical. My wife uses one to get the weather, news, and traffic as she is getting ready for the day. And the degree of control she has means she gets all the information in one place with the same benefits as time shifting video (I’d say they are even better but that’s a long explanation).

    Some aspects of these things are a fad but there is enough of a use case I don’t think they will die because of the fad aspects. Instead, I think it will be privacy that is the main issue that kills either individual lines of these, or the entire ecosystem.

    1. There are certainly phones which allow you to use their voice assistant while “off” (which of course, just means the screen isn’t lit up).

      As far as I recall, at least one of the Nexus phones had a dedicated subprocessor dedicated to listening to voice prompts even if the rest of the phone was sleeping.

  15. How many of those were given away? Although he didn’t want it, my son got a free google box with a phone. More eWaste. I don’t see the appeal of google or amazon listening to everything you say.

  16. How come no one mentioned the Tandy 1000? It was my first computer, originally bought by my sister for keeping tax records for their small sole proprietor business. They paid $1000 ( hence the name Tandy 1000) before there was an internet to connect to. I bought it used from her for $300 in the mid 90s.. it had a huge floppy disc and it now fails me what the heck that was even for. When talk about getting on the internet began, my sister assured me it was not “strong enough” to connect. Well by golly, she was wrong and off I went. At the time, If you plugged it into your phone Jack ( remember those?????) you could scan thru “bulletin boards”. You could read all sorts of criptic messages between members of various ” groups”. Like Ranchers, and AgNet, and God only knows what other misnomer organizations there were.
    It reminded me of the early 60s when I got my hands on my older brothers C.B. or was it HAM , radio. I pressed the button and hollered out into space, “KDI4040, can anyone read me”? It was such a hoot to have some trucker come back to me with, ” Go ahead KDI4040″ Dumbfounded, I ran from the room. So much for progress. Let me go now as I try to scan years worth of faded documents into NEAT. Anyone got some “microfish”?

  17. I remember my husband running a BBS. I dont see the “Echos” of the world going away anytime soon. Evolution exists in technology, it will evolve for the better. Enjoy my current smart home.

  18. I mostly agree with the premise of this article. Voice assistants are like AI and flying cars, in that none of them ever deliver on their promises, but that doesn’t stop us from dreaming of the day they will. I was surprised by all the adulation given to Siri, and even more surprised when Amazon thought the Echo would be profitable, so needless to say, I’ve been shocked by it’s success.

    Having said that, I received one recently and I do like using it with smart home devices (btw, why weren’t manufacturers concentrating on simple smart home devices in 2000, rather than expensive smart appliances that offered so little? I’m sure I wasn’t the only one asking this back then.) Of course there are other, possibly better, ways to do what an Echo will do, but are they as simple and inexpensive to implement? My hacking days are long over, but that doesn’t mean I no longer want to benefit from technology.

    The bottom line is that, yea, voice assistants are overrated and oversold, but I disagree that they’ll fail and go away. As we always have, we’ll continue striving to make connections and it would somewhat shock me if a voice assistant didn’t have a spot in the middle of these connections, just because they can make things simple. For example, I could clap my hands to turn off the lights, or reach for a remote, but why would I, when I can simply ask Alexa to do it for me.

  19. While i agree with the gist of the article, i too see enough reason for these bespoke voice assistant devices to exist, it all comes down to people wanting to be lazy, they will still want to be lazy a few years from now (if the past is any indication, they will want to be even more lazy) so voice assistants are here to stay, and since the average consumer couldn’t give less of a f*ck who has their ‘private’ data, bespoke voice assistant devices sold by the biggest data hoarders of the world will stay around.

    Personally im not really seeing future voice assistants vanishing into obscurity, instead im genuinely a bit worried that they wont, it already blows my mind how much people share with the world trough social media, and how new generations of people somehow are going backwards when it comes to some basic understanding of electronics, or even mere software, imagine a few years from now when people wont even remember how to use a touch screen hehe.

    1. I’d probably be astonished by the amount of personal info I’ve given out in my HaD comments over the past 10 years or so…
      FAANG probably has all of it correlated in their databases along with other sources they gleaned…

  20. The reason older generations of products failed was because of cost, and the lack of the internet being fully developed and available to so many people. These newer devices aren’t going anywhere. They are cheap and reliable. You can buy a Google Home Mini for like $30, and it allows you to do so many things. Those internet portals we used to have in our home didn’t go anywhere. They are still here–just transformed into something called a smartphone. Speaking to your voice assistant seems fairly intuitive and I have wired up almost my whole home with cheap wifi lightbulbs and switches. In fact, the total cost so far would come out less than one of those IPaq’s you wrote about. That’s the real difference here: people can afford this stuff now. While more people have them, more attention stays on them and that means more potential money being pumped into a market.

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