Amazon put an echo of the future in my kitchen

The Amazon Echo, currently residing on our kitchen table...

The Amazon Echo, currently residing on our kitchen table…

Due to an apparently insatiable need to try new technology and a big incentive from Amazon for its Prime members, I decided months ago to sign up as an early adopter of the new Amazon Echo. It arrived Monday and it’s been a good experience overall so far.

Sure, not much time has passed, but as with any new device, I spent a lot of time focused on it the first couple of days to run it through its paces, much more than it will usually see out of me in a normal 24-hour period.

For those of you who don’t know, the Echo is…well, it’s tough to describe. I suppose you could call it a personal assistant of sorts. Although, since my wife asked it to do the dishes and it couldn’t, I guess she’s stuck with me for the manual household chores. (In a bit of Star Trek-nerd type fun from the programmers, when she asked it to make dinner, the device replied, “I’m not a replicator.”)

So, back to what Echo is. Maybe if Siri and Google Now got busy and had a kid, it would look and act like the Echo. It does a lot of what they do, albeit not always as well in some instances. Its search system relies on Bing instead of Google; one strike against it in my book. But it has features that make it handier than either of the iPhone and Android assistants. For example, the always-on microphones make for a much more real hands-free “hands-free experience” than you will get with most mobile phones. You can revel in the full Amazon sales pitch if you’re interested in more.

The usual subdued black box with screaming orange interior is nothing new to anyone who has ordered Amazon devices lately.

The usual subdued black box with screaming orange interior is nothing new to anyone who has ordered Amazon devices lately.

I found set up simple enough. The device requires a plug as it is not rechargeable. I’ve seen some reviewers complaining about that because it makes it less portable. But I see something like the Echo serving a family’s needs better in a kitchen or living room anyway, not being toted about as some sort of imaginary friend in a tube. Besides, having one less thing to worry about recharging in our house is a welcome relief.

Once plugged in, the Echo boots up and asks for a WiFi connection through an app you need to download to your Android or iOS device. The app then becomes your home away from home for Echo, for those times when it needs help to help you, or if you want to check on the history of what you and it have chatted about. (It’s also used to help train Echo to understand you — although that’s more about regional dialect than some sort of security.) You also access your shopping and to-do lists via the app, as well as give feedback to Amazon by answering the question, “This is what Echo heard you say…did it hear you correctly?”

Once it’s up and running, that’s it. It just sits there, waiting for your request. You can ask for the weather, or a news briefing, or to play some music from the Amazon Prime Music catalogue – to list just a few examples. I’ve seen some reviewers complain about the Echo as a terrible music speaker, but I actually thought it sounded pretty good. It’s certainly as good if not better than the small Bluetooth speakers we’ve used to amplify our mobile phones.

One other thing I saw a reviewer smack the Echo for was that, as he claims, sometimes the device just ignores you or doesn’t hear you. But if you read further into his review, it only happened to him when music was playing at a high volume. Well, imagine that, if there’s loud music in the room, you have to speak up to be heard! I’ve had no problem with the Echo ignoring me. It’s even heard me from the room next door if I raise my voice just a little, much as I would if I was talking to a person in the next room. My wife has had to learn to pause just a split second between saying the command word and then making her request. Stringing it all together into one quick sentence means the Echo may not hear the first word or two of the command and give you something you weren’t asking for.

As I noted, the Echo, which for us goes by the command name, “Alexa,” has been a guest in our home for less than a week, but so far it’s fitting in pretty well. By the way, you can change the assigned command word from Alexa to Amazon, but that sounds even weirder to me. Supposedly, Amazon plans to provide an option to change the name to something else eventually.

Below are some videos with notes shot during my first use. (These were some of the initial commands I said to the Echo, so that’s probably why I sound so stiff and formal. In the few days since I have learned to be more conversational with the device, as odd as that may sound.)

The box contains the Echo, power cord, remote control and magnetic holder for the remote.

The box has the Echo, power cord, remote control and magnetic holder for the remote.

I’ll write again when some more time has passed. By then maybe I’ll know if Amazon has created the first generation of “Computer” from Star Trek or “HAL” from 2001: A Space Odyssey!

Here’s an example of checking the weather…

And the news…

And, of course, as a Monty Python fan, I always test new assistants with a vital scientific question…   🙂

In the battle of streaming devices, the viewer wins

Through various deals I couldn’t refuse, I’ve ended up with three different streaming media players. A family member asked me to choose the “best one” and, honestly, I can’t really say for certain, but I’m leaning toward the Roku system. They all have pluses and minuses and it really comes down to what ecosystem you prefer to be in.

apple tvFirst, let me point out the one major player I don’t own is Apple TV, although I’ve been around when family members have used it. If you want something simple that you can hook up to a TV to sling the content from your iPhone or iPad to the big screen, it seems like a slick system. And, since Apple doesn’t play all that well with Google or Amazon, it may be your best choice for an iHousehold, although it is by far the most expensive option at around $100.

Second, let me note that I am probably biased in my criticism because as I mentioned, I landed all three devices with good deals that cut my final cost down. Certainly, if you pay the full price for anything you’re going to be a little more harsh in your analysis than if you find it at a great discount.

Now, for the reviews:

Roku LT ~ $55

Roku LTI’ve owned and used this Roku for several years now. It was the first streaming device I purchased and I’ve been happy with it since day one. It was the entry-level box but I’ve never found a reason to upgrade. It does what I want and the number of “channels” available is constantly increasing. I use it for a variety of streaming options, including: Amazon Prime Instant Video, Amazon Prime Music, Pandora, PBS, NASA TV, Google Play Movies and, finally HBO GO. (I say finally because for a long time, Comcast had its customer service head buried in the sand and wouldn’t let its paying subscribers use HBO GO.) There is now a stick version available and there are fancier models that do more, but for basic connect and go usability at a reasonable cost you can’t beat the Roku LT.

Google Chromecast ~ $35

Google ChromecastI purchased the Chromecast when I found it on sale, and recently bought a second one when I was able to get it for a significantly reduced price during a holiday promotion. Set up is reasonably simple, although it seems to be a little wonkier in finding and maintaining a wi-fi signal than the Roku. I use it for slinging stuff wirelessly from my phone and Chromebook up to the TV screen. That “stuff” generally involves HBO GO, Google Play Music, Google Play Movies, YouTube and Google+ Photos. The ability to cast my Android phone’s screen up to a TV is a huge plus, as well. (That will come in handy when I want to screencast my Google Glass to my phone and then cast my phone screen to a larger monitor when doing demonstrations.) I also have found the screensaver you can post to your TV via the Chromecast when not streaming something is great.

Amazon fireTV Stick ~ $39

fireTV stickI wrote a blog post about the fireTV stick when I first bought it so you can read more details there. I’ve used it a lot for Amazon Prime Video and a weather app. We’ve used it to view pictures and it will even play some games that you can download. I suspect I would use if more if it was on our main TV in the house and not a secondary one. But it’s very handy having it in the family room where the workout bike sits. It seems to hold a wi-fi signal very well, although in all fairness to the Chromecast, the fireTV stick resides a lot closer to the router than the Google CC does. If you’re not an Amazon Prime subscriber, however, I see no point in owning this device. The majority of benefits come from its ability to stream Prime movies and music.

My Recommendations

As I wrote early on in this post, what ecosystem you live in is probably going to be the best determiner for you when considering whether to go with Amazon or Google for your streaming sticks. If you dabble in all of them, I’d recommend a Roku device. You can access nearly everything that the Amazon and Google sticks can — and certainly the bulk of what you would want to stream in terms of videos and music. (I will give the nod to the Google CC if you have all-access music on Google Play. Casting that to an Amazon stick isn’t possible and on Roku it requires a third-party app that isn’t great.)

If you’re heavily invested in the walled Apple garden, of course, then you’ll probably want to take a closer look at Apple TV. But for the rest of us “free-range streamers,” start with the Roku, then add a Google Chromecast or an Amazon fireTV stick depending on whether you’re a more frequent visitor to the Google or Amazon universe. I’d argue that with the costs ranging from only $35 to $55 — if you pay full price — you can’t really go all that wrong with any of them.

Or be like me — buy all three and establish a beachhead for the day when you finally convince your spouse you don’t need to pay for 500 cable channels when we only watch half a dozen of them. I’ve heard HBO is looking at offering a standalone subscription service, which means my wife and I could catch Game of Thrones without paying a monthly cable bill. I can’t wait…

winter comcast meme

Set your TV on Fire with Amazon’s new stick

Amazon FireTV Stick boxI pre-ordered the new Amazon fireTV stick when it first became available and it arrived about two weeks ahead of schedule. I took the opportunity to use my Google Glass to produce an unboxing, setup and operational overview video. It’s presented here in three parts so people can choose to watch only sections they are most interested in or all three if they so wish, as I shot them assuming you would move from one chapter to the next.

One of the key things to keep in mind is that this device is really going to shine only if you are an Amazon Prime member. What is the point of having a device that can stream hundreds of thousands of movies, TV shows and music tracks at your command unless you have that library available to you?

Amazon FireTV Stick box contents

As you’ll note in the first video, the contents of the box include the stick, a power cable, a power block and an HDMI extender dongle. Note that unlike Google’s Chromecast (which I also own), Amazon strongly recommends that you use the power block to power your fireTV stick instead of using the USB power port on the back of your TV.

In the first video, I unbox the fireTV stick and give an overview of the box contents and offer some commentary about the device compared to a Google Chromecast:

In the second video, I show part of the set up of the fireTV stick:

In the third video, I get into the final installation and set up, as well as sharing the Amazon cartoon that runs when you first install and then some of my initial operations of the fireTV stick:

Note that at the end of the third video, I mentioned I was going to check out the smartphone app. I did and it worked very well as a remote and for voice searches. I just didn’t think it was compelling enough to shoot a video about.

A few other things are worth mentioning here that did not come up while I was shooting the videos because I found them buried deeper in the personal settings area of the menus. I mention them here because I was excited to find them and I don’t think they are all that obvious when you first look into the fireTV stick’s capabilities.

Amazon Fire TV Stick screenshotThe first is that the stick lets you use a selection of built-in photos as a screen saver or — even better — you can select albums you have in your Amazon Cloud Drive and pull your own pictures up to act as the screen saver.

Amazon FireTV Stick screenshot

The second thing is that the fireTV stick will serve as a Miracast device so that if you have a smartphone capable of using this technology, you can mirror your phone’s screen to your TV to share it with an audience. That has some great potential for holiday gatherings when you want to share a collection of photos or videos with the family all at once instead of waiting while they pass your phone around.

Because I just started using the fireTV stick today, I can’t offer any long-term, objective reviews of how it works or how it will hold up after a period of constant use. But my initial impressions are positive. The price is $39, compared with $35 for the Google Chromecast — so the choice may very well come down to which of the two universes you are more deeply embedded in. For various reasons, I have one foot in both the Amazon and Google universes, and both feet are at levels deep enough to be in over my ankles. So, for the cost, having the flexibility of providing both operating systems in my house made it well worth the investment, and I’d probably say that even if I had not received the fireTV stick half off by pre-ordering.

No matter what you decide to do though, never lose sight of the fact that for less than $50, you have a technological device your great-grandparents could have never imagined becoming commonplace plugged into the back of a TV that our parents and grandparents probably never imagined would be in every home. “Mind-blowing” might not even cover it.

The customer service war is won on the front lines

tobruk02In any battle, the generals in charge of the plan are important and the front-line officers are the ones who execute that plan successfully or not — but when it comes right down to it, the front-line grunts are the ones who actually get the job done.

It’s time the business world learned that it’s the front line that matters, too. I’ve had three recent customer-service experiences that help highlight what I’m getting at.

First, I had an interaction with Amazon after I found out my Amazon Prime membership was increasing by $20 when it renews later this year. I’m not revolting against the change. I’m not a big fan of higher prices, of course, but I understand that after several years, a company may need to adjust them. But I did look online to see if I could take advantage of renewing my subscription early or possibly buying multiple years to lock in a lower price. Unfortunately, there were no such options online so I decided to write to Amazon.com. I asked them about early renewals and suggested they offer multi-year discount packages because they would probably sell a lot of them to people like me. In no time at all, I had an email from an employee telling me that they completely understand what I want to do but neither option is available through their customer service system. They did offer to refund me $20 if I write back to them after my renewal date finally comes up, to help me out for one year, at least. That’s awesome and I greatly appreciate it. But why isn’t something like that available online, since Amazon is an entirely online company, or at least available to their front-line troops to help boost customer satisfaction?

Second, I had a run-in with Apple over their iMessage system, which I tolerated as an iPhone user and now despise as an Android convert. Apparently, when you migrate your number from an iPhone to a Droid, Apple’s system has difficulty breaking up with you and glitches abound. Anyone with an iPhone who tries texting your number will see that an iMessage was sent, but it never actually gets delivered. (iMessage, apparently, is much like the Eagle’s Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave!)hotel calif

After completing my online research to find I’m far from alone with this nuisance and attempting a few fixes myself without getting anywhere, I entered into an online chat with an Apple Care employee. They were very friendly, understanding and as helpful as they were allowed to be. Apparently, they did all they could at their level, and suspected something else needed to be done, but it wasn’t a task they were allowed to complete. So they had to “elevate” my problem and arrange a time for another customer service representative to call me. This second employee and I connected by phone the next morning and they took about 5 minutes to run a system check on their end and do a forced cleaning to try to break my phone number away from their system. I’m not sure it’s worked 100 percent, but things do seem better overall. The problem is, why couldn’t that front-line employee push a couple of buttons and wait a few minutes with me while their system processed the cleaning? They knew what I needed and probably how to do it, but instead they had to “elevate” my problem. What too many companies don’t understand is that elevating a customer problem generally just elevates a customer’s frustration, as well.

My third customer-service runaround in the past week has been with SiriusXM Radio. Their online administration system was so screwy that I finally sent them an email complaining about it and noting that they’re worse than Comcast – and that’s a pretty harsh statement! I finally ended up on the phone with one of their employees, as well. The only good news in this case is that although the front-line access via the Internet was useless, the front-line person on the phone was able to do everything I needed. In a nutshell, I was looking at canceling a couple of subscriptions and changing the terms of another. After listening to why I was making the changes to my account, the customer service rep made some suggestions on how I could cancel just one subscription, keep the second one active and change the third. It all ended with me feeling that I got a deal that was good enough to keep me satisfied and keep Sirius from losing more than one annual subscription. I initially wished I could have just dealt with it all online, but the woman on the phone did such a good job that it made me realize there is value in human interaction when it comes to customer service.

I always do my best to never take out my frustrations on customer service representatives, whether in an online chat or on a phone call. These are people trying to do their jobs and often when they can’t it’s because of some policy their company has in place to contain their employees rather than empower them.

But the customer service war — just like any other battle — is won on the front lines. So if you have an opportunity in business to empower those grunts then please do so, even if it means telling a few generals that they just aren’t as important as they might like to believe.

customer service meme

Want customers? Just make your sh*t work

Ari & Jessi at MIS

Me and Jessi Wortley Adler at MIS

How do you make a customer’s experience with your business so great that they want to keep you a part of their life and even promote you to their friends and family? Make the customer experience about what the customer needs instead of about what you think the customer wants.

I started thinking about this after I attended the Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR race at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday. The subject moved to the front burner of my brain again after I heard about Steve Jobs resigning as CEO of Apple.

What do a race car track and a technology company have in common? They have fans — not just of the product they are selling but of themselves. They, and a couple of other companies that come to mind, have figured out what their customers want but also give customers what they need, which turns them into fans.

Let’s start with MIS. I’m not a big fan of NASCAR races and I had heard tales of long traffic backups getting into and out of MIS over the years. So, when I landed a couple of tickets for my wife and I to attend the Pure Michigan 400, I was more excited for her because she is a big NASCAR fan. I, on the other hand, was anxious about surviving the event and figured I’d probably just suck it up and enjoy the day for Jessi’s sake.

Now, granted, I called in a favor and was able to get access to areas not all fans get to visit. But my initial experience at the MIS website for visitor information and traveling in and out of the facility were the same for me as they would be for any customer. And that’s where MIS really shines. For example, the track has worked closely with government officials to improve ingress and egress with dramatic changes to traffic patterns. This has resulted, according to track officials, in dropping the time required to exit the track area from between five and seven hours down to about an hour and a half.

MIS logoAt their website, you can find all kinds of information, including a fan guide and 3D map of the facility. The Grand Stand Gate Policy on what fans can bring with them also is a big selling point. In most places these days, fans are treated like security risks, with the ability to carry anything with you to an event being severely curtailed. Instead, MIS understands that fans are going to spend hours there and they are going to have stuff with them. You can bring coolers, bags and equipment in with you. Sure, there are size restrictions, but they are quite generous. I especially liked the picture MIS put in its guest guide of what a fan carrying everything allowed would look like, to give you a better perspective on how to stay within the rules.

My point here is that MIS has figured out what fans want — to see a NASCAR race in Michigan. But they’ve also figured out what they need — the ability to get home at a reasonable hour, the ability to carry food, drink and other paraphernalia with them throughout their visit, and the need to feel like they are understood and appreciated.

Apple logo

Apple products come to mind when I think about this sort of customer experience, too. Sure, thanks to Steve Jobs we’ve seen the company grow over the years and become a leader in cutting-edge design and performance. But in addition to figuring out what people want, they’ve also figured out what we need. We need computers, tablets and smartphones that make life easier, not more complicated. Perhaps the best explanation of why someone can so easily become a fan of Apple I’ve ever heard is, “Their sh*t just works.”

That’s all we want as customers and we don’t want to have to struggle with your product or you.

I mentioned earlier that a couple of other companies come to mind when I think about this concept. When I sat down with pen and paper (yes, I still use those!) to force myself to think of top companies or products that I use and would recommend, Amazon.com and Evernote got jotted down immediately.

Amazon logoAmazon.com is still one of the easiest places to go if you want to search for and buy a product. The last time I was on that site to buy something, it took less than 10 minutes from the time one of my kids said, “Hey, it’s on sale!” to receiving an email telling me my order had been received and was being processed. My shopping experience was easy, even though I was paying with a combination of a credit card and rewards points. I got what I wanted — a good price on a product. But Amazon.com also gave me what I needed — simplicity and speed.

Evernote logoEvernote is a fantastic product for keeping all those notes, receipts and other forms of minutiae with you and synchronized across multiple devices. It’s one of my favorite companies because they give me what I want — a way to easily keep track of the many scattered bits of information in my life across the many technology platforms that I use. But they also give me what I need — an easy user interface, speed, and a continually improving product that keeps pace with what I want (sometimes before I even know I want it).

So the next time you have a brainstorming meeting about what you and your colleagues can do to bring in more customers or keep the ones you have happy and coming back, consider the basic desires everyone has. We want to be appreciated and understood. We want  a rewarding experience and we don’t want a big hassle on our hands to get it.

In short, whether you produce widgets or provide a professional service, just make your sh*t work.