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July 07, 2017

Alexa: The End of a Great Relationship

“Alexa, you’re disappointing me,” I said.

“I’m not sure about that,” replied Alexa, my Amazon Echo.

I once described the device gushingly as a “wonderful listener”. I had great plans to make her the hub of the DIY home security system I’m designing. She used to play whatever music I asked for. She answered questions pretty well.

But the affair is over. Alexa doesn’t play nice with others anymore.

The Home Security Fail

Echo supports a website called IFTTT, which allows even non-nerds to program connections between devices and services. IFTTT is also supported by my home security camera, Arlo. Great, I thought, I can make them work together. There are already IFTTT scripts you can use so that you can tell Alexa to arm or disarm your security system. There are scripts to send email or texts when Arlo sees motion. But I couldn’t find a script to have Alexa tell me when the camera detects motion. “Aha,” I thought, “a product opportunity. I’ll write one.” (I’m retired; I would’ve just made it available free.)

Then I found out why there are no such scripts: Amazon does not support an IFTTT interface which lets you tell Echo to do things, only an interface so Alexa can tell other things what to do. In my experience a willingness to give suggestions but never take any on the part of one party does not lead to a good relationship. This is actually Amazon being selfish. Amazon-provided services, like the one they hope to make replace what’s left of the home telephone, can make Alexa speak up. But Amazon has apparently decided to keep this interface to themselves. They have a right to do that, but they make Alexa a lot less desirable as part of any system if she can’t be made to tell her owners what’s going on.

The Music Spat

“Alexa,” I said on Independence Day, “play ‘Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue’.” Every 4th since 9/11 Mary and I play this Toby Keith song loudly.

“Here is a sample from ‘Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” said Alexa and proceeded to play a 20 second snippet. Then she asked me if I wanted to sign up for an Amazon Music account.

I remembered that lately she has been picky about just playing music without specifying what service to get the music from. “Alexa, play ‘Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue’ from my iHeart Radio account.”

“Do you want me to set up a ‘Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue’ radio station on iHeart Radio?” she asked.

“When I said “no”, she just shut down and played nothing. So I tried again and said “yes”. She started to play music but not the song I asked for. She didn’t respond to some of my profanity.

I told her to play from Pandora. She said my Pandora account wasn’t linked (it used to be). I linked it. “Do you want me to set up a ‘Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue’ radio station on Pandora?” Still can’t get her to play our song.

This all used to work so I did some research. Turns out that Echo now supports two types of music service linking: music library and radio stations. You can only get specific songs and artists from music libraries. Music libraries supported are only Amazon Music and Spotify paid service. iHeart and Pandora are “station suppliers” when accessed through Echo; they play songs like the ones you requested (in their opinion) but not what you requested.

Sorry, my dear Alexa, that doesn’t work for me. I made a Bluetooth connection between Echo and my droid phone (not as easy as it should be). Played ‘Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue’ from my Google Music account, and made Alexa a Bluetooth speaker. Finally we heard our song. To be fair, this is very similar to Chromecasting (Google) my Amazon prime video to my TV.  Google doesn’t want to play nice with Amazon any more than vice versa. But it was Alexa I was infatuated with.

Alexa, you’re disappointing me.

See also:

Arlo: DIY Home Security

Alexa – Cover Your Ears

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