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Former insider on the challenges facing Amazon’s AI voice assistant – GeekWire


Dave Limp, head of Amazon’s Devices & Services division, in 2019. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Amazon created the initial technical scaffolding for Alexa quickly, jumping out to an early lead in the market for smart speakers and voice assistants in the home. But nearly a decade later, Alexa is still under construction.

Tigger (Charlie) Kindel led Alexa product management before building the Alexa smart home team.

That’s the perspective from Tigger (Charlie) Kindel, a Seattle tech industry veteran who worked at Amazon from 2013 to 2018, leading Alexa product management before building the Alexa smart-home technology team.

Kindel is now a consultant and startup advisor in areas including space exploration. But he’s still an avid Alexa user who follows the industry closely and is rooting for his former team.

“The fundamentals are still broken,” Kindel said. “They haven’t been able to focus on fixing a lot of the things that we built early on, that we knew were scaffolding, because we were moving really fast. And we were shipping prototypes. And those prototypes are now the fundamentals of how Alexa works, and they’re fragile.”

We contacted Kindel this week to get his perspective as Amazon resets its strategy for Alexa and Echo. The company is making widespread layoffs on its Devices & Services team amid reports that the division is losing as much as $10 billion a year.

Listen below, and keep reading for edited highlights and key takeaways.

Alexa’s underpinnings haven’t evolved. “I left Amazon in 2018. And as far as I can tell, the fundamentals of how Alexa works have not gotten any better. It’s a much broader ecosystem and a much broader set of capabilities and devices. There was a time when Jeff [Bezos] said he wanted to have every square on the chessboard filled out. And that certainly happened. But they’re just barely touching the chessboard.”

Amazon tried to do too much with Alexa, for too long. “It’s a deliberate strategy. And I think for a time it was the right strategy. But for the last couple of years, it wasn’t. … You’re not only trying to ship new features, but engineer and fix all the stuff and keep the lights on for all the stuff you’ve already launched. You’re in the throes of bringing on tons of new people constantly. And it just wears the organization down when it gets to that scale.”

The industry’s overall progress on voice interaction has stalled. “If you look at Google Assistant or Siri, they suffer from the same thing. I think it’s a fundamental technology thing. Maybe we deluded ourselves back in 2015-2016 that we were going to solve those last problems really quickly. They haven’t been solved. It’s still not a great experience for a lot of customers.”

Resetting and refocusing the Alexa team is the right move. “I would reduce the size of the organization significantly, I would take a step back. And I’d say we’re going to spend a period of time going back to the basics, and making sure that the existing customers that we have using the product are truly delighted. And through that we will find those things that we can monetize, and be able to figure out how to fund this moving forward.”

Voice interfaces remain promising long-term. “As a civilization, we’re going to continue to get closer and closer to computers being able to interact with us in the same way we interact with each other. It’s going to continue to happen. And there’s going to be some breakthroughs. … I’m a surprised over the last couple of years, there haven’t been any ‘big bang’ things that have come out of any of the tech giants in this regard, but they’ll come. I’m optimistic.”

Amazon CEO Andy Jassy addressed a question about Alexa from journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin at the New York Times DealBook Summit on Wednesday morning. Jassy said there has been some “misreporting” on this topic in the last few weeks, adding that Alexa is “driving a lot of e-commerce shopping.”

“If we were trying to build the best smart speaker, that will be a different investment than what we’re trying to do, which is to build the world’s best personal AI or assistant,” Jassy said.

He added, “That’s a much more expansive investment. And we really believe in that vision. And we like the traction and where we are. But it’s not a couple-year vision, it’s a multi-year vision, as a lot of the big bets that we make are.”

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