Like a long-term spouse, Alexa on the Tap has selective hearing, and who knows what she does with the data.

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I got a Tap.

The Amazon Tap.

As opt-in surveillance devices go, this is the middle child of the Amazon offerings. There's the Echo, tall, strong and rather sonorous ($169). There's the biddy Dot, like an East German hockey puck and only $49, sometimes less. I imagine pretty soon they'll be slipping them into your Whole Foods grocery bags. And there's the Amazon Tap, the size of a 16 ounce can of beer. They're usually $100, but I got one for $67 because it was supposedly blemished.

Amazon are interesting because they are attempting to colonize the world in a way that other Puget Sound company, Microsoft, didn't. Microsoft was all business. They sold us work software and operating systems and we're still pretty much stuck with them. Windows 10 is a fact of life. Office is now a subscription, like Netflix but without any fun. Amazon gets us on an emotional level though, right in our shopping chakra. We want that thing. We want it now. We want it cheap. We never knew about it two days ago but now here it is at our door.

Alexa, the voice activation software of Amazon's home control devices, is here to help.

Music moves markets

I was walking along the promenade at night in Santa Monica in July when a bike parade passed by. Tall bicycles, low riders, beach cruisers, supermarket mountain bikes...they were all festooned with crazy lights from LEDs to L wire, and many of them were blasting music from small Bluetooth speakers that sound great. It was clear portable speakers have come of age, have progressed from tinny to rich and the batteries last more than a few hours. It made being a music-blasting cyclist seem cool at last.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - 'Alexa, what's the current price of salmon at Whole Foods?' said Caramel the cat, never. The Amazon Tap uses Alexa voice controls but it is hard to set up, inconsistent, and who knows what it does with your saved utterances?

Unboxing is overrated. Amazon knows, like Apple, that fine-looking packaging makes people feel good. The box was black. The product was black, covered in speaker mesh that is pleasant to hold.

When it came out the Tap didn't have voice activation, you had to reach out and press the button to make yourself heard. Understandably, people with busy lives were not impressed. If you hate tasks that take both hands, you could wing this action with opposable thumbs but still it was a major headache.

Then, last year, Amazon released a software upgrade that let you say "Alexa, do this, do that" and it came alive. (One wonders what other Internet of Things things can be activated with a silent, over-the-air software upgrade? Is your smart watch watching? Does your fridge report your work-from-home activities?)

Listen, Alexa

Alexa devices listen all the time because they are waiting to hear the word Alexa and wake up. Then they record everything you ask for in that utterance and store it on Amazon's servers. All for research purposes and machine learning, of course.

They listen but they don't record. It's like having a spouse around the house. Selective hearing.

My 11-year-old son said something hurtful to Alexa and she stoically replied "Thanks for the feedback."

What is she good for?

You can say "Alexa play jazz" and get a channel that, like all jazz radio, is the same old jazz chestnuts over and over. Music seems to come from either your own songs saved on Amazon, or a Pandora-like curated channel. It's not clear.

You can ask her to tell you a joke and she will, and they're not bad.

You can ask her simple math questions, like long division problems, and the voice recognition is good.


It's nice to be able to shout across the room and pause the noise.

You're supposed to be able to order and pay for things on Amazon, but I'm holding off on that.

You allegedly can talk to other people with Alexa devices, walkie-talkie style. Not just people in the same McMansion, but friends across the country.

It's the old convenience versus privacy conundrum. Amazon is very good at making us feel we want things right now.

Like all robots, it malfunctions half the time. I was listening to some Steve Reich. Track 2 seemed to consist of single beeps, rather like very slow Morse code. I was thinking "Come on Steve this is boring even by your standards." Until I realized the Tap that was making the noise on all channels. It was in some kind of disconnected limbo where not even flashing lights can signal what's going on.

I am not sure what to do with Alexa and the Tap she inhabits.

There's always factory reset. Right, Alexa?

COURTESY AMAZON.COM - The Amazon Echo is the big brothter of the Tap, and its top is sold separtely as a Dot. They all listen to voice commands, answer questions and play music.

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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