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Amazon is dangerously close to being the new king of messaging

It was about three or four years ago when my wife and I decided to finally get rid of our landline. We weren't really using it anymore — it was mostly an emergency backup, and a great way for solicitors to bug us. (That it occasionally made phantom 911 calls in the middle of the night was another impetus.)

This presented a problem, though. Our kids ride the bus home, and family members pick them up there. But what happens if for some reason nobody shows up at my house? The kids need a way to call their parents so they're not stuck home alone.

I had a brief flirtation with Google Hangouts for this. But it was clunky at best, and now is a nonstarter, since Hangouts is dying. And so this is how our eldest daughter got "her" first phone way earlier than I would have liked.

This is also why I'm ridiculously excited about Amazon's recent announcements. Let's start with the more important of the two.

Preorder Echo Show (opens in new tab)

But first ... a word on your contacts

When you first set up Alexa calling you have to give the app access to your contacts. Don't do that without some hesitation. You're giving Amazon the ability to see every person in your contact list. Same goes for anyone who has you in their contact list.

That in and of itself isn't evil, but it's poor implementation. I have at least one person in my Alexa contacts now who I had to look up. They'd emailed me for an Android Central thing back in 2012. And now I have their phone number and the ability to call their Amazon devices wherever they may be? That's ridiculous.

Amazon must (and I'm sure will) add granular controls as to who is allowed to contact you through Alexa calling. And it needs to do it ASAP.

Alexa calling

Alexa calling changes everything

If you have young kids or aging parents, Alexa calling and an Echo Dot is a no-brainer.

What I really needed was a way for my kids to be able to call their parents without needing a phone. The new calling (and messaging) feature in the Alexa app makes this a reality.

Alexa messaging

Setup was super simple. You'll need the Alexa app, (available for Android and on iOS — and of course on Amazon's Fire tablets) and you'll need to give it access to your contacts. Once you do that it'll match the peeps in your phone with the peeps who own an Echo or have the Alexa app installed. (There's a pitfall here, but we'll get to that in a second.)

And that's it. Once that's done you can call anyone in your Alexa contacts. And when you do so it'll ring their mobile devices and any Echo devices. If you don't want to have a live call, you can just leave a voice message, or send a basic text message through the Alexa app.

Don't mistake these for regular phone calls and SMS messages — they're not. But that matters less and less these days. So long as the meaning gets through, who cares what the mechanism is?

And my kids aren't the only ones who are going to take advantage of this. My grandparents are 90 and still ridiculously awesome. (One's on an iPhone, and the other on Android. Along the same lines as my wife and I, now that I think about it.) But smartphones at 90 aren't necessarily as easy as smartphones at 40. Simpler is better, especially if an emergency happens. And is there really anything more simple than a $50 Echo Dot that can call me in mere seconds?

For young kids and aging relatives, this is a game-changer.

Amazon Echo Show

Echo Show — we'll see ... and it will, too

The other major announcement from Amazon was Echo Show — an Echo with a touchscreen and a camera. That's a big deal, too, for a few reasons.

All this connected stuff at home is great. But we've yet to see a proper visual hub that could finally tie it all together. Sure, there are DIY smart mirrors, and Apple TV and Android TV have the potential to serve as display hubs. But none of that has really happened yet.

A home hub display and cross-platform video calls will be a BIG deal for a lot of people.

And none of them has the Skills that Alexa has. That is, Alexa is the endpoint for thousands and thousands of APIs for so many services. A visual hub makes so much sense here.

It's also a big deal for video calls. While Apple's FaceTime has always been excellent for this, it's limited to someone having an Apple device nearby. Same for any other video chat service. Mobile devices are, by definition, mobile. But video calls on a home hub mean it's always there, and always available, for everyone.

I'm less bullish on the "Drop-in" calls — wherein someone — after you've granted them access — can literally drop in on you with a video call, basically saving them the trouble of accepting the call themselves. (They'll still have the option to reject it, though.) But I'll just have to wait and see how well that actually works.

And Echo Show will do more traditional things like watch videos and play music and order things from Amazon. And surely that's just the beginning.

While having a camera in the living room isn't a novelty anymore, I get that folks will still be hesitant to let Amazon (or any other company traditionally outside of the security space) have a look at what's going on so easily. But I also think the ease of communication will trump that fear.

An imperfect, huge head start

Messaging through Amazon Alexa is a big deal. But it's far from perfect and definitely has room to improve. A few thoughts off the top of my head:

  • Again, the contacts thing is ridiculous. That never should have happened.
  • So technically my kids are calling my through my own account, but whatever. It just works.
  • But having more than one person in the home is a little clunky, even with the Amazon Household stuff (opens in new tab). You have to tell Alexa to change accounts. Google has that beat with voice recognition for multiple accounts on Google Home.
  • (That also means anyone who has access to an Echo device can listen to your messages. So keep things SFW, folks. Or not.)
  • Know what else I want? Some sort of web or (even better) native computer support for when I'm sitting here working.
  • The Alexa app is still not great, if you're looking to actually use it as a messaging app. In fact, it's bad for that.
  • And Amazon needs to give more assurances that your messages are secure.

The simple fact of the matter, though, is this: While Apple beat everyone to the mobile assistant game with Siri, and Google Assistant is very good and growing all the time, neither has reach ubiquitous status, leaving Amazon to fill in the large gaps left by anything that's not traditionally mobile.

Google Home has helped with that, but there's no denying Echo has a huge lead. Microsoft is even farther behind with its Cortana speaker, and anything similar from Apple is still in the rumor status. Will Echo Show extend Amazon's head start? There's almost no way it can't at this point.

For now, it's still Amazon's game to lose. And with Alexa calling and soon with Echo Show, it's making nothing but winning moves.

See the entire Echo family at Amazon (opens in new tab)

  • I'm confused.... How does this benefit your kids if they somehow become stranded at the bus? Wouldn't they need an active internet connection in order to utilize this? How would they have that stuck at a bus stop with no cellular device?
  • They'd, uh, come inside the house like normal?
  • But if the bus stop is not near someone's home they have access to?
  • The point of buses is to have stop proximal to peoples' abodes. You are thinking of exceptions rather than the rule.
  • It may be near people's homes, but that doesn't mean the kids know the people who own those homes.
  • Kids bus stops are near their homes. How hard is that to comprehend.
  • If the stop was near their home then they wouldn't need to request a pick up then. Thus no need for the device.
  • I think maybe we're focusing on the wrong thing here. ... I don't want my kids being stuck at home by themselves. But I want a way for them to call me. This would have been PERFECT a couple years ago. (Now my eldest has a phone.)
  • That really needs to get rewritten then, because it looks like pretty much everyone's assuming that the issue is the kids getting stuck alone at the bus stop/locked out of the house.
  • This has been on three other websites and not a single person has latched onto this — probably because I mentioned this was all spurred by us getting rid of our landline, which traditionally has been found inside a house. But OK. I add three or four more words. And all these comments.
  • If they're at home, couldn't a tablet (which they probably already have) with BBM calling or WhatsApp calling (seeing as they are both cross platform, its not restricted to an iPhone {iMessage}) work just as easily? And without having to buy another $200.00+ device? Especially for those of us who live outside of the US where Alexa doesn't work as expected (who knows if Echo Show will even work outside of the US?).
  • They could. And like I said, I tried that with Hangouts. It didn't work very well, if only because said device had to be (a) not lost under a bed somewhere and (b) charged. Kids have a habit of using things and not putting them back. A $50 Echo Dot, on the other hand, is always plugged in, and always on, and super easy. (And also not another $200.)
  • 20 years ago kids didn't have cell phones at the bus stop so why would that be an issue now? What I think Phil is trying to say is now parents are trying to ditch their land line because they're never getting used... But like my family, have older kids that can stay home alone although we are not about to buy them a cell phone yet... So when they're at home how do you give them the ability to contact their parents without a land line or cell phone? Currently we are also using hangouts for this. But this new option with the Echo sounds like it might be a good alternative. Wonder what Google has in mind for the Home? Integration with Google Voice maybe? Most people are not going spend $200 on an Echo just to chat with their kids at home... That's just a silly statement. But having this calling ability just might give them one more reason to justify purchasing one.
  • EXACTLY!!! And an Echo Dot is just $50. That's much easier to swallow.
  • This is one reason its hard for m to leave Apple. My son has a iPad and we have a Mac as well. He knows how to make phone calls from both of these over FaceTime. Every time I think about ditching my iPhone and switch over to Android I start figuring out how my son can call me and then I remember how much of a mess Hangouts is and I just ditch the idea. When it comes to making calls from all your devices Apple Really is in the lead.
  • True. I was taking the video calling aspect and completely glossed over the typical calling aspect. In that regard, then yes, a $50 Echo Dot would suffice.
  • But it's the exceptions that you need to know about. Alexa will give you a simple binary result: either they are home or they are not. A phone, on the other hand, can broadcast exactly where they are. So, in a crisis, your kid can call you and say, "Help! I'm stuck and I can't get home." Can't do that with Alexa. Or if they don't make it home by 3:00, you can find out where they are and even contact them or track them. Can't do that with Alexa. I just don't get the appeal of these devices.
  • What I think a lot of people are missing is that you can make the call from the Alexa app on your phone OR an Echo device, and it will ring to the recipient's Echo devices AND the Alexa app on their phone. So if the recipient is not at home they still can get the call on their cell phone. This is exactly what I have been looking for for my 79 year old mother who lives alone. I bought her an Echo Dot for her birthday. Probably the best 50 bucks I've ever spent! Now if she falls as long as she is conscious and within voice range of the Dot she can call me or my sisters for help and we get the call on our Echo devices AND our phones (one of my sisters doesn't own an Echo yet- she still can get the call through the app on her phone). Through the "Ask My Buddy" skill she can also ring and message five of her emergency contacts who live nearby with one command. Game changer indeed.
  • "Once you do that it'll match the peeps in your phone with the peeps who own an Echo" So you have to have an Echo for the calling functionality to work through the Alexa app? You can't just download the app and use the calling if you dont already own an Echo then?
  • Ahhhhh. I'll clarify that. Echo or the Alexa app.
  • no you just need the Alexa App and then you can call anyone with the Alexa App or the Echo
  • I understand that.. but wouldn't they need a cellular device.. and again I ask some sort of connection to the internet to make the calls. The echos don't have data plans do they?
  • They Echo is connected to my home Wifi ... Just like it's always been.
  • Ok but what about on the kids end when they're stuck at the bus stop... I'm kind of missing what their gateway to the data connection needed for them to make the Alexa call is.. if I'm understanding correctly you don't want them to have cellular devices so I just don't see how they can complete a call not having any sort of network connection.
  • Ahhh ok I just read your "come in the house" comment. Lol when you said normally a relative picks them up from the bus stop and you like this for if no one shows up, for some reason I assumed it was a decent distance away from the home. And I was just wondering how in the hell can they make a call stranded at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere with no internet connection. I understand now lol.
  • Yah that confused me too.
  • Great article and the way it is written. . Don't change Phil. You know the first thing I thought about when I read this ? HELP - I HAVE FALLEN AND I CANNOT GET UP !!! Yep. This does have immediate value... Now I'll have to go back and read the rest of the article...
  • "Alexa, I've fallen and I can't get up!"
    *bling* "I'm sorry, your Echo Dot has lost its connection."
  • There is already a skill for this. Ask My Buddy will contact people through Alexa. But, yes, you can now do that directly through Alexa calling too.
  • Ok.. here's​ the rub - I like the contacts thing - just NOT the 'whole' contacts thing. If this is going to be a new style of messaging app - it needs to look at your contacts. What about the option to manually add contacts to each account (default zero) - have keywords (personalized) for accessing different 'contacts' levels - and also have the ability to recognize different individuals and their accounts - then I think I'll be good with it. ???
  • Simple is usually best. For - emergencies - simply say "Alexa - dial 911" - and have this supported even if that person does not have an account on that device... Or something similar to that effect...
  • I say hurry up Google. I have two Home units. Would really rather not have to add Amazon stuff too.
  • 👍
  • Like Nique0201 above, I slightly misunderstood the potential use-case Phil was describing. Phil mentioned that he had to get his daughter a mobile phone way earlier than he wanted, but now I see that he was referring to her using it at home in place of a landline -- NOT when she's "mobile". The thing is, I also got my daughter a mobile phone earlier than I expected, but in her case it's to receive emergency calls or messages *after school when she's NOT at home*. (In case I'm going to be late picking her up.) I assumed Phil was talking about something similar, and I was failing to see how an Echo would help in that situation!
  • Welp, sorry for the confusion then. No phones allowed at elementary school here, though. But I just wanted them to have a way to get ahold of us once they got home in case no body was there.
  • If your elementary school expects your kid to get on a bus, then you need to convince them that they need a phone. They can turn it off while in the classroom, or even hand it to the teacher and get it back at EOD. That's a much better solution all around. Give them an old, cheap phone and put all kinds of restrictions on it, but make sure location tracking is enabled and your number is one click away. If they don't make it home, Alexa cannot help you.
  • I got my kids phones earlier than I wanted to, but that was before Alexa and other technologies were out there. I would do the same thing again regardless of what home-based device I could buy. I want to know where my kids are, not just that they made it home. The gap between school and home is what I'm concerned about.
  • Yeah, I looked hard for non-phone solutions for my kid, but all such devices have major limitations; really, that whole space is trying to solve a problem that a plain old cellphone already handles beautifully. T-Mobile solved the other problem -- money -- for me by having a "3rd line free" promotion. I bought my daughter an open-box Nokia 435 Windows phone. Lower malware risk (for a novice user) than Android, and I'm not about to pay the Apple tax for a 2nd-grader. Lack of apps is actually a plus here...and she has devices at home for that anyway.
  • A feature that no one asked for, implemented extremely poorly, all because Amazon wanted to put a video phone in your living room. How about intercom features? How about being able to associate lights to a specific device, so I could just say "lights on/off" instead of having to tell visitors a long list of group names? Synchronized playback? Cross-controlling devices? Sad to see how much Amazon dropped the ball this month.
  • The calling and messaging features are a much bigger deal than the Echo Show video. As Phil's experience confirms, Alexa is bringing the phone back into the home. The issues were probably due to a rush to market to get out in front of Microsoft's announcements around Skype calling and Cortana. Amazon is as focused on positioning vis a vie competitors as much as features for consumers. Analysis here: The Alexa app interface is not well designed and the config features are sorely lacking, but the core Alexa on Echo experience for calling and messaging is excellent. I agree that this will be a standard that consumers soon expect.
  • "it's limited to someone having an Apple device nearby. Same for any other video chat service" isn't this true about Alexa calling as well? Isn't it reliant on someone having an Echo Show device in their home?
  • Nope. Calling works on any Echo or phone with the Alexa app. ... Everything I showed in the video, really.
  • Yes, but that quote was taken from your paragraph on video. In that context, then yes, it is reliant on someone having an Echo Show. I don't see how video calling would work on a device without a screen???
  • Wow! This may be the biggest overstatement of usefulness I've ever read. If your kid has a phone (and if they are being bused and picked up by neighbors) then they'd better have a phone, then this is an unnecessary $200+. You can download free apps that let you track exactly where your kids phone is at all times, including when they are at home. Far more useful than a stationary device that requires your home wifi. So, let's say your kid doesn't make it home when you expect them to be home. Where are they? Alexa won't be able to tell you that. I will never understand the need for Echo and/or Google Home when your phone or tablet can do everything they can do...and much, much more. Not to mention that i would never want an always-on microphone listening to my private family conversations. Don't get me started on a camera. These devices will be hacked and panic will ensue.
  • Man I don't know how kids survived before cell phones when we only had "stationary" land lines. Getting on and off the bus without a cell phone must have been terrifying.
  • Yeah I have to agree with most of your points. I can see this Alexa echo calling and messaging functions useful for someone who's confined to home say for health issues. But if you're a mobile adult is it really useful? And like u I have serious privacy concerns with these devices. I'll stick to my mobile and tablet for these functions.
  • Seriously, I don't know a single person that uses any Amazon message system. And with a voice and video phone in my pocket I'm not shouting out to some device in the corner to call anybody. What the hell is Phil smoking, and who's check is he cashing?
  • The Amazon message system was just released, so it is a little early to judge how successful it is going to be. However, I know one of my coworkers kids has already ordered him an Amazon Show for Father's Day - they currently have an Echo they really enjoy.
  • What about using an extra android cell phone and Google duo voice call? It works over wifi and you can enter only the people you want to call.
  • But what about the kids at the bus stop
  • I stopped at the contact warning message. I guess I have to delete the Alexa app from my phone because there is no way to bypass the messaging and calling setup. Slime move Amazon.