Alongside the unveiling of a new touchscreen-equipped speaker called the Echo Show, Amazon on Tuesday announced that users of its existing Echo and Echo Dot speakers, as well as its Alexa app, will now be able to call one another over the internet.
Amazon says the Alexa calling and messaging service is rolling out to the Echo, Echo Dot, and Alexa app for iOS and Android on Tuesday. According to Amazon, it will let Echo, Echo Dot, and Alexa app users make as many calls as they’d like, at no charge.
When an Echo receives a call over the service, it will chime, and its outer ring will light up green. You can then tell the company’s Alexa digital assistant to answer or ignore it. For sending calls and messages, you simply tell Alexa to call a contact. If nobody picks up, you can leave a message. If you’d prefer to just send a message without making a call in the first place, you can do that too.
All of this is known as a VoIP service, similar to Microsoft’s Skype. That means it will require an internet connection to work.
The big catch is that the service only works between people who use the Echo, Echo Dot, and Alexa app. Any combination between those will work — Echo to Echo, Echo Dot to Alexa app, Alexa app to Alexa app, etc. — but you can’t contact a friend’s phone number directly from an Echo just yet (third-party “skills” notwithstanding.)
Amazon says you’ll import your phone number upon setting up the service, however, and that you’ll be able to see which of your Echo-using contacts has the calling feature enabled within the Alexa app.
As far as privacy goes, Amazon says it won’t store or have access to the content of any voice calls made over the service. Similar to other VoIP services, though, it will store your voice messages in the cloud; an Amazon rep says that’s done to help its voice message transcription service and “make the product better.”
The voice calling feature had been rumoured for months, but it stands to make the Echo more useful for those who’ve invested in the product. Previous studies have found that most Echo owners mainly use the smart speakers for simpler tasks, as digital assistants like Alexa are still at a nascent stage in their development.
Having a native calling feature gives the Echo a noteworthy leg up for now, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Google Home follow suit in the future.