Go Home Alexa, You’re Drunk

After pining for the Apple HomePod last year, but feeling like it was just a bit too expensive to justify purchasing at the time, I rejoiced when Apple announced they were bringing their music service to the Amazon Echo. I even wrote a blog post about the move.

My enthusiasm may have been a bit premature. I purchased one of the new Echo Plus units, with an Amazon gift card I had received, shortly after Christmas. After initially setting up the Apple Music skill, the smart speaker was pumping music for about a week when it just lost the ability one night. It wouldn’t play music from Apple or even Amazon, instead repeating the name of the track you had requested, pausing just a bit and then saying, “sorry, I’m having trouble playing the music.” Since the main reason I bought the device was to play music, this was a problem. In fact, I’d classify it as a severity 1 defect. I may use the home automation features of the Echo, at some point, but I can always turn a light on with my hands. I can make my own music as well, but you wouldn’t want to know how that usually turns out.

After the problem persisted, and after my attempts to reinstall the skill and reset the WiFi yielded no improvement, I took to the web for some research. I found someone on Twitter who originally essentially had the same issue and was now dealing with a much more compliant and capable Alexa. I asked him what he did to fix the problem. This was his response.

Well, needless to say, that didn’t change much, other than further deteriorating my faith in the device. I found some similar posts on the Amazon Echo forums and calling tech support didn’t seem to help anyone. After beating my head against the wall for almost a week and contemplating returning the device, Alexa suddenly became willing to play music again. This willingness lasted for a couple of weeks, then one fine day, Alexa again refused to discharge her duty. Thankfully, the next day, Alexa was back to her normal self again.

At this point, I’m pretty surprised that I’m not hearing more chatter about the inconsistency of Amazon’s platform. I’ve heard a lot about the potential privacy implications of a speaker that is always listening. However, I became a lot less concerned about that when I discovered the device had a microphone mute button placed prominently on top (although I still trust Apple much more than Amazon in the issue of privacy). The bigger concern for me is that I would consider Alexa to be flaky, at best, and that flakiness seems like it should be getting more attention.

Robert Rackley @rcrackley
Made with in North Carolina.
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