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How Amazon Echo could answer the call of greatness

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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.

Amazon Echo voice recognition

Amazon Echo voice recognition

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.

17 Responses to “How Amazon Echo could answer the call of greatness”

  1. orxababa

    For convenience. What if I want to move the Echo into the other room? Or take it to the basement to listen to music as I work out? Why does anyone want a portable Bluetooth speaker? The Echo could be both an appliance and a portable speaker to satisfy as many needs as possible. The always on feature could be disabled when it’s running on the rechargeable battery, and it could then be used simply to listen to music. I’m no engineer but that seems simple enough.

  2. Geoff Boyd

    No, I haven’t used it or seen it in the flesh so to speak and I am not complaining about the user experience which I am sure is up to date. Instead I am complaining about the physical form-factor and industrial design. From the video one can see the feeble attempts to hide the wire connection to the device and in the cutaway picture one can see the massive ceramic magnet loudspeaker drivers.

  3. Geoff Boyd

    In my opinion the Amazon Echo is a really ‘Pretotype’ design which no self-respecting head of industrial design would have let out of the Lab. I say this primarily because the ElectroAcoustic design is right out of the 1950’s using large and heavy ferrite magnets for the conventional loudspeaker drivers which probably account for 90% of the device’s space and weight. Not to mention the always on brick AC Adaptor – sometimes called a WallWart for good aesthetic reasons.

    All is revealed by the internal cutaway of the device shown in an earlier piece in Gigaom entitled “Amazon’s new Echo device marries Sonos with Siri”
    Janko Roettgers Nov. 6, 2014 – 9:17 AM PST. ( ). The electronics communications and computational technology of the device are clearly contemporary but to bring this product into the twenty-first century the designers would have to specify a truly wireless Li-Ion rechargeable battery powered device with sound reproduction using say flat panel loudspeakers which make first class lightweight di-pole omni-surround loudspeakers. This is not hard. Amazon should be ashamed that it let this device out of the Lab in this form-factor.

      • Geoff Boyd

        No, I haven’t used it or seen it in the flesh so to speak and I am not complaining about the user experience which I am sure is up to date. Instead I am complaining about the physical form-factor and industrial design. From the video one can see the feeble attempts to hide the wire connection to the device and in the cutaway picture one can see the massive ceramic magnet loudspeaker drivers,

        • Murray Judy

          I signed up the day of the announcement, but didn’t make the cut for the first round of invites. But based on the reviews and what I know about the device, I think you’re missing the point of Echo.

          First, this isn’t a mobile device and doesn’t need to be mobile in order to test the concepts. The weight of the speakers is more a plus than a negative as it keeps the device stable. Second, ac power is appropriate for a fixed always-on device. Wall warts simplify device safety approvals and reduce time-to-market. Third, the audio quality seems to be getting decent reviews, so it’s ‘good enough’. As an engineer, I’d say that Amazon made good hardware choices, not shameful ones.

          The purpose of this device is to test the software running in the AWS cloud. This is what I’m watching. A better hardware design isn’t needed for the first public release of Echo.

  4. Mine works pretty good for music and the Wi-Fi is fantastic. Although they have to change getting the Bluetooth to work, you have to start it on the internet connected to wifi. After it is connected you can turn off internet. Echo has a long way to go, but so far it is pretty good.

  5. glendahanekom

    I got mine yesterday and we are loving it. Being able to ask without having to stop what you’re doing (or wash your hands if they are dirty) is brilliant. It’s also less distracting to just ask and receive, no risk of quickly checking your email or facebook (and five hours later…..).

  6. Being one of the lucky 3000,i can say, it’s got a long way to go;but loving every min of it.
    I’m finding that it already has come a long way in just 4 days:Music server great, info finder not so great; using Can phrases gets it done;deviate and it’s “I don’t understand your question”. It’s the learning curve, stupid… For humans

  7. Since they made only 3000 units initially they are pissing their customers by throwing a bone and then never coming through. We all feel like we were offered an invite to the party but then were snubbed. This may turn out to be the worst marketing fumbles ever.

  8. Very interesting. This sort of device could really be a linchpin for smart homes, potentially serving as voice input, a tech hub (USB power, security, lighting, environmental detector, etc.), a second screen compliment (e.g., show me the recipe list for X), an audio device, Wi-Fi router, etc. Voice could just be one component of a multifaceted useful home device.