Alexa is becoming the anti-Windows | ZDNet


For years, Microsoft's end-user product introductions have been anchored in facilitating users' "flow". The term, popularized by psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihaly and referenced in dozens of publications on improving productivity and removing distraction, describes a mental state of optimal performance where one is engaged with a task to the point where the rest of the world dissolves away from one's consciousness. "Flow" is the name of the default theme in Windows 11.

Our civilization would be unrecognizable without the creations of those who have been so fervently engaged. Even for those who rarely or don't attain the flow ideal, personal computing has been driven by creation since its earliest days. Microsoft's corporate mission is to "empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more."

But even the most creative and productive among us can spend only so long in a flow-aspirant state. The mobile revolution marked a seismic shift from productivity-focused computing to lifestyle-focused computing more profound than the shift to ubiquitous presence and connectivity. It's one that Apple has sought to continue addressing by devising a device type for every context and one that Google has hinted at its pursuit of by continuing to preview its work in AI, quantum computing, and natural interfaces.

But there's a mammoth opportunity beyond even that of lifestyle computing. At Alexa Live, for the first time, Amazon provided a sense of the potential for "ambient computing." A term once confined to gadgets such as light orbs that changed color in response to changing information such as stock price changes, ambient computing provides an ideally proactive atmospheric layer of services. Ambient computing still demands attention, just not sustained attention. Much as Google changed the ground rules for internet search by focusing its page on getting you to the requested information as quickly as possible, a fully-realized Alexa ecosystem flips the script on getting things done.

In a telling demo of how far Alexa can grow from its origins as a deejay and newscaster on the first smart speakers, Amazon showed off a demo of how shoppers in an Alexa-equipped vehicle could signal to Whole Foods that their vehicles were approaching for a pick-up order. Once drivers reach a curbside pickup spot, they can use Alexa to tell the supermarket what spot they're parked in so that a clerk could load up the car with their order.

Indeed, even this futuristic scenario reigns in the automation opportunity. Matching a license plate or short-range radio tag to a particular spot -- both trivial -- would allow the driver to avoid having to notify the supermarket. Furthermore, deploying a robot to deliver the groceries is a small potato AI task compared to the kinds of delivery tasks Amazon is already pursuing with its rolling Scout robots.

Yes, the demo takes place within the enclave of the Amazon ecosystem. But consider two other parts of the Alexa Live update. Much as it has with AWS and Sidewalk, Amazon is turning Alexa into an IT service with adoption ramping up in hospitality and healthcare. Options even include a white-label offering that responds to different wake words, such as "Hi, Verizon" on the carrier's Alexa-powered smart display, and can have even different personalities. In addition, Amazon holds that there will be many winners in ambient computing; it has not only taken a lead role in Matter, the cross-platform connectivity effort founded by itself, Apple, and Google but had been working with Microsoft on interoperability with Cortana prior to Microsoft all but burying that voice agent. The bottom line is that Alexa is on a path to become far more ubiquitous in practice, not just in device support.

As AI projects such as GPT-3 have shown, computers are starting to get better at becoming outsourced agents versus tools. The endgame promises to change the nature of the PC and other devices dramatically. However, that's a long way off and, today, Amazon and Microsoft share common rivals in Apple and Google, and Microsoft has been the odd company out in the agent wars. For as long as we're developing our own slide decks and taking our own groceries to our cars, Microsoft's and Amazon's pursuit of engaged and ambient productivity could make for some intriguing partnership opportunities despite their aggressive competition in cloud computing. 

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