Alexa's future is pay-to-play, departing Amazon exec predicts

This just after Amazon started charging for Alexa's free home security Guard

It looks like Amazon has finally started to get serious about generative AI, and if the company's outgoing director of Alexa and Echo devices is right, that means Alexa is about to get way better - as long you're willing to pay for it. 

News from earlier this year that Amazon had added a bunch of third-party AI tools to AWS was followed today by the announcement that it was going to invest up to $4 billion in OpenAI rival Anthropic - as with Microsoft's billions poured into OpenAI. Add that to an interview over the weekend with outgoing Amazon executive Dave Limp about the future of Alexa and a pretty clear picture emerges: If Alexa is going to benefit from those investments costs must be passed along to consumers. 

"For the past couple years in the background, we've been using generative AI [for building Alexa features]," Limp told Bloomberg. Limp plans to leave at the end of this year, and unconfirmed reports indicate ex-Microsoft VP for devices Panos Panay has stepped into the role - Amazon has twice now declined to answer our questions on that topic. 

"What has become pretty clear, at least to me and the team, is that as you feed these models more data, they get larger, they get better," Limp added. "When you start using these a lot, the cost to train the model, and the cost for inference of the model in the cloud, is substantial." 

Right now, Alexa and other digital assistants like Siri and Google Assistant have limited utility - they're great kitchen timers, and can sometimes make a calendar event or add a reminder, but they can't hold a candle to the capabilities of generative AIs like ChatGPT and Bard.

Limp said he envisions a future Alexa that is able to add generative AI features to improve its capabilities, "but before we would start charging customers for this — and I believe we will — it has to be remarkable," he said. 

But "the Alexa customers know and love today will remain free" is what The Register was told when we inquired with Amazon about the future of Alexa. A spokesperson did tell us they agreed with Limp that such features would eventually be worth paying for, much like the premium versions of ChatGPT and other generative AIs.

"[Other generative AI companies] all seem to have found that customers are willing to pay for the service if they find enough value. As we evolve the capabilities, we hope to learn what customers find valuable—that's why we want to get this first set of capabilities into customers' hands," the Amazon spokesperson told us. 

In other words, prepare for Alexa's most useful services to recede behind a paywall

If this comes to pass, don't expect Amazon to stop at simply adding premium generative AI services to Alexa - if there's a way to squeeze more money out of customers, Bezos' brain child will find it. 

Case in point are reports over the weekend from Amazon customers enrolled in Alexa Guard were told their previously free services were being moved behind the paywall of a new service called Alexa Emergency Assist. 

Alexa Guard was the company's safety service that used Echo and Alexa-enabled devices to detect the sounds of breaking glass, smoke or carbon monoxide alarms or unusual activity in a house, as well as enabling automated activation of lights. While some features were behind Guard's $4.99/mo or $49/year paywall, alarm sound and glass breaking notifications and light automation were free. 

Under Alexa Emergency Assist, however, nothing is included for free except a single emergency contact and call announcements - those previously free notifications for broken glass or alarms are now a premium service. Home and away modes, as well as automated light activation, will still be available for free. 

Ring Protect users who made use of Guard are making out a bit better - anyone that linked their Ring account to their Amazon account prior to September 20 will get Alexa Emergency Assist free until October 31, 2024.

Anyone using Alexa Guard that chooses not to cancel their subscription by October 31 will be automatically enrolled in Alexa Emergency Assist, but will be able to lock in the $4.99/month price for a year. Then it's presumably time to pay

Anyone else that wants to try Alexa Emergency Assist who doesn't meet those criteria will have to pay $5.99/month or $59/year, but even that's just a temporary offer that expires on January 8, 2024 - after that the price will go up for everyone but Amazon Prime subscribers, who will still be able to get Alexa Emergency Assist at that price.

What will the price be for non-Prime subscribers after that? Amazon doesn't know, either. "We will confirm non-Prime customer pricing for Alexa Emergency Assist later this year," the company told us. 

As for praying Amazon doesn't further alter the terms of any other deals by locking more Alexa features behind a paywall, good luck with that. Amazon also recently announced the addition of ads to its Prime video streaming service. Instead there's just a new $2.99 fee to eliminate advertising for Prime subscribers, and the slow shrink of yet another service baseline. ®

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