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Amazon’s devices have built a reputation for coming into hot categories firmly positioned as value products. When the company strayed from that value positioning with the Fire Phone, it got burned. With the Amazon Echo, though, the company is moving into what is its first bona fide new category. The voice-activated speaker may be lacking in its first iteration, but it could grow to be powerful with software updates and compelling with some additional hardware.
Amazon Echo combines elements of a few products that have come before it. They include the Aether Cone — a smart speaker that can play songs based on requests — and particularly Ubi, a crowdfunded power outlet computer that responds to questions in a manner similar to Siri and Cortana. Like the Ubi, the Echo can tap into simple cloud services for reminders; it controls playlists through Amazon Music and a few other services. But Echo stays loyal to its company’s retail heritage by allowing you to build a shopping list that you can add to with a companion app.
Beyond that, though, there’s limited interaction with other [company]Amazon[/company] devices and services, a shortcoming that could be addressed with a simple update to its client or cloud intelligence. For example, Prime customers might want to know what movies are popular on Prime Instant Video right now. Or they might want to show their latest photos on that device with a call to Alexa. Of course, this kind of functionality benefits both customers and Amazon.
There’s other early ground that Ubi has staked out that could help make the case for the Echo as more than a stay-at-home version of the personal assistant on your phone. In addition to reaching out to other Amazon devices in the cloud, it could tap into other APIs and local playback devices. Amazon Echo offers immersive sound, but it should be able to send that sound to other rooms.
Like Ubi, Echo could also include sensors to monitor household conditions such as temperature and humidity, sending out alerts when measurements pass certain thresholds. But the real win would be to incorporate features that characterize a new wave of simple security systems such as the similarly cylindrical Canary or the more recently crowdfunded Point.
One challenge Amazon faces with Echo is moving beyond adding things to the wish list to actually buying them from the device. The devices’ promotional video points out how family members can cancel each other’s requests at will so authentication could be an issue. Of course, Amazon could implement voiceprint technology as its answer to Touch ID. The company has been stepping up its efforts in voice search, implementing it in Fire TV and in its iOS shopping app. It would be a coup for the company that popularized (and patented) one-click buying to move to no-click purchasing.
Products such as Echo show enough promise to prove out the case for a passive voice-activated agent in the home. But even though the home has room for far more devices than a pocket, such a product must have a broader set of capabilities than playing music on request and looking up internet trivia than can be handled by a smartphone. It must act on your behalf even when you — and your smartphone — can’t be at home. The result will be an Echo that resonates for far more people.