The background to this is that I have a few Amazon Alexa’s spread around the house, nine at the last count, from the lounge to the garage! They started off as a cheap way to have multi-room music, but they now control lights, TVs and even a clock.
Well… I’m currently re-reading In the Beginning… Was the Command Line the essay by Neal Stephenson. Which although dated remains a fantastic reflection on the role of tools in our lives, how they’re chosen and how professionals chose them compared to the enthusiastic amateur.
There is passage at the centre of the essay about the GUI and how it forces clarity, and precision. His argument being that the graphical user interface forces the opposite. The GUI is a representation of the machine that often leads us astray. Anyone who has suffered from an Apple “no message error” knows this too well.
The result has been that for the last 20 years, we have a GUI and a terminal window. Even on OSX, the terminal is still there giving clarity where needed.
The Alexa is too like returning to the world before the terminal window. Understanding what is going on via the speech interface is a nightmare. It’s like playing 20 questions with HAL in 2001. Every question seems to be interpreted in exactly the way you didn’t want it to be.
In fact, Science Fiction is a good place to start. In Star Trek, they can talk to their computers, they do it all the time. However, look at the bridge. When they want to know what is going on, they have a dashboard; they even have physical controls. Obvious…
This obvious solution is extended to Alexa by an application interface. Of course, there is one but it’s a nightmare. A wonderful world where everything is a list. This is a consumer device where the interface looks like SAP; and just like SAP is a series of lists. No hierarchy, no structure, just lists. Home management by accountants!
There are even some functions that you can’t do on the web and need an application on your phone. This application also suffers from the worse of interfaces with zero clarify about what is going on. That anyone at Amazon considers this a good interface amazes me. I assume that anyone on the development team who uses it has two light switches and one Alexa because that is all that they can fit on screen at any one time.
However, it works and is reliable. So, I thought that it was time to add an Echo show to my desk. A good opportunity, or so I thought, to have a good custom interface and to understand what’s going on in the mind of Alexa! I thought that I was buying a dashboard for my Alexa system. I was finally going to see the bridge.
No chance with the Show, which has a screen good enough to watch TV, but must be the worst interface they’ve created so far. It has very limited functionality, you can’t edit devices or groups of them. You can’t even easily see on screen what you have.
Try asking the Show for the weather for the next week. It shows four days and then scrolls to reveal the last three. Why? There is more than enough space. It doesn’t show any more detail then the temperatures and an icon. Why?
How this was created and shipped amazes me. That they shipped it in this limited state without an App store and better ability to customise probably shows that Amazon is getting over its Alexa period and may be moving onto something else already.