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Alexa, we’re still trying to figure out what to do with you


FILE — An Amazon Echo Show, in San Francisco, June 12, 2017. Many people use digital assistants for the basics, like the weather forecast or music— a long way from the digital home envisioned by their makers. (Christie Hemm Klok/The New York Times)

These days, you can find virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Assistant in all sorts of things, from smart speakers and smartphones to washing machines and bathroom mirrors.

The challenge isn’t finding these digitized helpers, it is finding people who use them to do much more than they could with the old clock/radio in the bedroom.

A management consulting firm recently looked at heavy users of virtual assistants, defined as people who use one more than three times a day. The firm, called Activate, found that the majority of these users turned to virtual assistants to play music, get

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These days, you can find virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Assistant in all sorts of things, from smart speakers and smartphones to washing machines and bathroom mirrors.

The challenge isn’t finding these digitized helpers, it is finding people who use them to do much more than they could with the old clock/radio in the bedroom.

A management consulting firm recently looked at heavy users of virtual assistants, defined as people who use one more than three times a day. The firm, called Activate, found that the majority of these users turned to virtual assistants to play music, get the weather, set a timer or ask questions.

Activate also found that the majority of Alexa users had never used more than the basic apps that come with the device, although Amazon said its data suggested that 4 out of 5 registered Alexa customers have used at least one of the more than 30,000 “skills” — third-party apps that tap into Alexa’s voice controls to accomplish tasks — it makes available.

But while some hard-core fans are indeed tapping into advanced features of virtual assistants, like controlling the lights in their homes, for the most part, “people are still using these speakers for very routine tasks,” said Michael J. Wolf, founder of Activate.

Tech companies want to control an indispensable “platform” — a crucial piece of technology other services or devices must rely upon.

Some believe virtual assistant technology can be that sort of platform, and the company with the most useful assistant will gain an advantage for their other services — like internet search or online shopping.

With those stakes in mind, tech giants have been scrambling to make their assistants omnipresent. Since smart speakers are the main way for people to deal with virtual assistants, Amazon and Google stoked holiday sales with heavy discounts, dropping the price of their entry-level models to $30, from $50.

Amazon would say only that it sold “tens of millions” of Alexa devices during the recent holiday season, millions more than the same period last year. Analysts estimate that Echo accounts for more than 70 percent of sales in the smart speaker category, with Google a distant second.