Amazon Echo Plus in India – first impressions


Got my first smart speaker, the Amazon Echo Plus yesterday and it seems to be nicely Indianised. It seems to be using the Raveena voice based on Indian English or a variant thereof from Amazon Polly (AWS’s text to speech service). The Alexa app itself is also pleasantly adapted for India with the appropriate command suggestions and services available.

Some of the India specific commands to try

I had pre-ordered the device and it was delivered within a day of the dispatch. The setup process was quite smooth and once done, I promptly went about installing a bunch of skills ranging from the utilitarian to the time pass ones.
As a music player, the sound quality is decent but nothing spectacular as many reviewers have noted. As for the music catalog, it seems to be using Saavn exclusively though it does Amazon music as one of the options in the app. Saavn itself has a decent catalog and Alexa has again been Indianised sufficiently to understand some Hindi song names. I  tried “Play the song ek main aur ek turn” and it actually started playing the song from Saavn though it did pronounce “main” the English way.

Alexa understands Hindi!

The flash briefing skill is quite handy to get a quick bulletin of your areas of interest once you have set it up with your desired sources. It can also give you cricket score updates without any skill installation as I tried out during today’s India – New Zealand match.


I installed the Uber and Ola skills to check the overall utility factor. While Alexa seems to be able to book an Uber including picking up your location, the payment mode defaults to cash which is a dealbreaker for me. Then there’s the Zomato skill I installed and tested. It seems to know your last 3-4 orders and you can reorder as well but didn’t go beyond browsing for the moment.

The alarms and timers work pretty well too and I conveniently set a sleep timer to stop playing the music while going to bed.

Then of course there’s the whole reason why I got the plus instead of the regular model which is the smart home hub built into the device. A solo Philips hue bulb is what I ordered next and setup today. It was again a pretty simple process with the Echo detecting the bulb in a few seconds. Controlling the bulb by voice is also quite easy right from switching it on and off to changing the colour and brightness. The app however has just the on/off switch and brightness control at the moment and as many reviewers have noted, the functionality of the smart devices using just the Echo Plus is considerably limited when compared to using the devices with their respective hubs. This is definitely one area of improvement and given the kind of coverage you see for smart homes on the Amazon Alexa pages, it should improve sooner rather than later.


Apart from all this you can also use the Echo as a Bluetooth speaker and pairing it with my iPhone was quite simple. That said, all the sounds from the phone start getting carried over to the speaker and this interrupts any song or speech playing on it directly. Due to this, I ended up keeping the phone disconnected unless I wanted to play something from my phone.

One thing I couldn’t find is the voice profiles option that lets Alexa identify the person speaking and customising the responses accordingly. Possibly a feature not yet rolled out to the Indian market as it seems to depend on the Amazon app that didn’t seem to have this option in my case.

A smart speaker is a family device but my wife is not very enthused by the idea while my 4 year old daughter would like to play with Alexa but hasn’t yet gotten out of her initial shyness phase to begin talking freely to her. It didn’t help that Alexa couldn’t answer many of her queries and also the fact that she was trying to get Alexa to identify the colours of the crayons she was holding in front of the device – a perfect case for Google Lens and Assistant.

This is of course just what I’ve been able to check out in the first 24 hours with the Echo Plus and I’m sure there’s lots more already available and also coming in the near future.

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Where Apple is aiming the puck

There weren’t too many surprises on the hardware front with the iPhone 7 release with the usual stream of supply chain leaks and rumours over the last few weeks leading up to the launch. The event pretty much reemphasized that the smartphone market, particularly the high end, has pretty much matured and Apple checked off the niggles over the entry level storage. Apple also broke a trend of sorts with the external design not changing considerably over the previous “s” year, another sign of a maturing market.

There was also a lot of clarity in their positioning of the Apple Watch with the focus shifting to health and fitness, while reducing the emphasis on communication (at least for the time being). It is going to be a while before the Apple Watch is able to turn into a standalone device. The new models in tandem with WatchOS 3 do address some of the performance concerns with the first model, but we’re still some time away from an always on display.

Apple also doubled down on their strengths with the focus on platform exclusives, 3D Touch and pushing the envelope on the camera capabilities. They have also increased the feature gap between the regular and Plus model this year with the camera having a tangible difference in addition to the screen and battery size, along with the increased RAM.

There was of course the loss of the headphone jack that many had predicted and the switch to a non clickable home button. The former is something that many of the Android phone makers have tried to preempt, while the latter is something a majority of the non-iPhone owners are used to. As for the A10 chip, it was a validation of ARM’s big.LITTLE architecture that has been in use by the Android market for over 3 years. Big jumps in performance usually come through node shrinks, and with Moore’s law slowing Apple has its task cut out.

Here are a few thoughts on where things seem to be headed based on Apple’s moves this year:

  • They have pretty much set their sights on the pro camera market with the support for wider colour gamuts on the sensor and display. Plus (pun intended) there’s the dual camera lens bringing back a viable telephoto lens to the smartphone market (sort of – 56mm is closer to normal focal length). People who were hurt with Windows Phone and Nokia’s (Lumia 1020) demise have a proper alternative at last.
  • It’ll be a while before the longer focal length on the iPhone attains the quality of the wider one, but this is just the beginning and we can expect iterations to happen pretty quick now that the ball has been set rolling by the most focussed company. Also, you don’t have to look any farther than this comparison of the original iPhone camera to the iPhone 7 to see what can be done in 10 years.
  • Again, on the photography front, with the Plus introducing a second lens, we get closer to the “holy trinity” of prime lenses which typically refers to a wide-normal-telephoto combination of lenses to cover a majority of shooting options. Technically we’ve got the wide and normal lengths covered. Of course, the iPhone is not going to be replacing DSLRs for specialised purposes (birding, low light action) anytime soon, but you know where we’re headed.
  • This dual lens camera also enables the journey towards computer vision thanks to the depth of field perception. What is today a sort of gimmicky feature previously tried by Android phone makers can potentially be the stepping stone towards AR.
  • Those Intel fab rumours that have been around for the last couple of years might finally be coming true next year.
  • The currently gimmicky, but increasingly exhibited feature of 3D Touch is most likely a stepping stone to a future where the display lets you actually feel the textures of items shown. This would take interaction to the new level and iOS 10 has finally opened up the current haptic engine to developers. Just take a look at Apple’s patents to get a feel (yes) of where things are headed. Maybe it’ll arrive as soon as next year when people expect the 10th anniversary iPhone to have an all display front. Accessibility has been one of Apple’s strengths and they also support Braille displays with their iOS devices. This expertise might just help them overall bringing out the really 3D in the touch. As to what kind of stuff is possible, check out Disney Research (guess which companies share board members?).

So, where does this leave me personally? Well, I just replaced my iPhone 5s battery and it should last me another year quite easily given that the performance has all but improved with iOS 10 (I doubt anyone with a 3 year old Android phone can say the same thing). The iPhone 7 Plus camera is really tempting me to give up my DSLR entirely (I really love shooting with my Canon 50mm f/1.8 prime lens which on a cropped body like the 550D gives an 80mm equivalent focal length), it’s just the first iteration and I find the 5.5″ size too big. Apple Pay has also not launched in India either, so I’m not missing any major feature with the 5s barring the screen size and camera (I do use a Mi 4 as well, so the screen size is even less of an issue). Then there’s the next year’s iPhone of course.

When smart people get important things really wrong

Technology is but one of the tools to potentially solve a problem:

What’s hard is synthesis – learning to use technology as part of well-designed sociotechnical solutions. These solutions sometimes require profound advances in technology. But they virtually always require people to build complex, multifunctional teams that work with and learn from the people the technology is supposed to benefit.

Source: The worst thing I read this year, and what it taught me… or Can we design sociotechnical systems that don’t suck? | … My heart’s in Accra

Thoughts on the Sep 2015 Apple event

Looks like Apple is revamping their event calendar and spacing out the events a bit more reasonable with one at the start and one towards the end. It was also a pretty busy event with ton of new launches and quite a few items that were skipped altogether – most notably the Mac OS X update. Of course the gist most of the announcements made in the event were known beforehand, but there were some surprises nonetheless.

The long rumoured iPad Pro finally made its debut and pretty much validated the strategy that Microsoft had pioneered with their Surface Pro series – you need a screen larger than 10″, split screen multitasking and a keyboard to make tablets more productive. And then of course there was the Apple Pencil which was again expected given the need for precision & flexibility when drawing. The 2 biggest takeaways was first, Microsoft demoing Office in the session that pretty much sums up the vastly different approach taken in the Satya Nadella era, and second the near doubling of quoted performance of the iPad Pro over the Air 2. This definitely makes the writing clearer on the wall for Intel, as the iPad Air 2 was nearly half as fast as the Core M processors and this should bring the performance in the same ballpark. In fact, in the last few years, Apple has probably been the biggest factor behind Intel’s innovations given the dearth of competition from AMD.

The fact that there was no other iPad update, unless you count the passing mention of the iPad mini 4, shows the speed at which the tablet market has matured and reached a good enough state. Arguably, the iPad 2 was at a good enough state in terms of hardware power and is still being supported with iOS 9. The iPad Pro is Apple’s attempt to grow the tablet market beyond home users and into the enterprise segment. That will definitely take a good deal of time given that most enterprises are Microsoft strongholds and the cost factor will prevent them from outright replacing PCs. Also, whatever the demos may want you to believe, most enterprise workers do not get to do such fancy stuff with their devices.

Health seems to have become the main usage focus for the Apple Watch given the proportion of time given for fitness and health related aspects. This is also probably one of the scenarios where the performance of the Watch will not be constrained as a first generation hardware. The partnership with Hermes also emphasised the luxury status of the Watch, and unless the pricing changes over the years (unusual for new launches), price will remain one of the major roadblocks to its adoption. The second generation of the Watch is likely to improve the internals significantly, and we are likely to have a white iPhone moment in the future with a round Apple Watch.

Then there was the Apple TV that at last gave us a glimpse of Steve Jobs famous “I finally cracked it” quote. Technology was definitely not one of the factors that had held back the Apple TV from being launched in the last couple of years, as the real battle is with the content providers rather than any of the other apps. In fact, it will probably be a while before people outside the US or some of the typical Apple strongholds will get much in form of regional content on the Apple TV. There was also no mention of HomeKit in the entire session, and this likely means that while the hardware is probably present in the new TV, the ecosystem has some way to go. The Apple TV also affirms the A8s new role as the venerable A5s long term replacement given that the iPod Touch and iPad Mini 4 upgrade to A8.

Last but not the least, the iPhone 6s\6s+ updates were also along expected lines and oddly enough relegated to the end of the show. Force Touch or rather 3D Touch definitely opens up a new dimension of interaction, but the real innovation will be when we have touchscreens that are able to simulate the feel of different surfaces. The camera improvements were also pretty much mandatory given the older 8 MP sensors inability to shoot 4K videos. The unusual part of the new devices was the increase in weight of both models by almost 10% and an almost imperceptible increase in size. Then there were a bunch of touted features that have been seen before in other phones on the Android and Windows side of the fence like moving photos (HTC Zoe) and using the display as a flash (LG).

Overall, the product launches rounded off a very busy year for Apple, but there was a sense of deja vu with many of the showcased features which other companies have previously demonstrated to about 80% of their potential. It is however, the last 20% of spit, polish and sweat that typically separates the Apple experiences from the rest.