Amazon unveiled the Echo Show Tuesday, a $US229 smart speaker powered by the Alexa virtual assistant with a 7-inch touchscreen, making it the first Amazon Echo of its kind.
Like the original-model Amazon Echo and its offshoots, the Echo Show is primarily controlled by voice, letting you ask simple questions and check your schedule. Its killer feature is voice and video chatting, though that feature will be limited to calling other Alexa devices at launch.
At first blush, it seems a little weird: Wasn’t the whole point of the Amazon Echo, and Alexa in general, to make it so that you don’t have to look at screens to get stuff done? People praise Alexa for letting them control their music and check the weather without having to look away from their tasks. In that way, Echo Show could be seen as a step back.
This is a misguided line of thinking. What you’re really seeing here is Amazon’s slow, but very steady, march to conquer every room in your home. It’s insanely ambitious. But so far, it’s working, and it’s positioning Amazon to dominate whatever comes after the smartphone’s eventual death.
Room by room
The original Echo started out in the living room. At its 2014 launch, it was pitched as a smart speaker for Amazon Prime Music that, oh, by the way, could also help you buy stuff on Amazon, alongside some other simple tasks. Over time, smart home integrations and its famed “skill” library of voice apps made it the center of the digital home.
And so, Amazon started expanding Alexa elsewhere. The battery-powered Echo Tap opened it up for use wherever a power outlet wasn’t close by, and the $US50 Echo Dot lets you plug Alexa into your living room’s existing speaker system or simply use it as a cheap way to get in on the whole Alexa phenomenon.
In April, that strategy went even further with the launch of Echo Look, the first Echo with a camera, sold as an artificial intelligence-powered personal fashion photographer that can even judge your outfit. Now, Alexa is in the bedroom with you, as creepy-slash-cool as that sounds.
Amazon’s Fire TV devices put Alexa right in your TV, wherever in the house that is. And thanks to partnerships with the likes of Ford and GE, other companies will build Alexa into their own stuff, too, meaning Alexa in the car and Alexa in your office desk lamp. Amazon Alexa is relentless, and it’s growing.
Now, with Echo Show, it’s Alexa in your kitchen and your dining room table. Alexa’s slow creeping infiltration of its biggest users’ lives is almost complete.
It’s all connected
Look at it this way: The reason your smartphone is so great is because it combines a camera, GPS sensors, a touchscreen, and audio outputs, all into something that fits into the palm of your hand. That mixture of input and output makes apps like Snapchat, Uber, or Pokémon Go uniquely possible, in a way the PC could never accomplish.
Now, Alexa is doing the same thing — every new Alexa gadget in your home is another new sensor. An individual Echo is a handy gadget; multiple Alexa devices are a full-fledged new system, adding a layer of intelligence to your home. It’s a little creepy, having microphones everywhere. But remember that camera phones sparked a privacy panic too.
The Echo Show is a big part of that: While voice is a really important piece of that bigger Alexa puzzle, there are some things that are simply made easier by a screen. For instance, the Echo Show integrates with smart home cameras like the Ring or the Arlo, meaning you can call up your security system with your voice. And if you, say, set a reminder from your bedroom, you can view your agenda on the Echo Show in the kitchen. It’s all one big complementary system.
And looking to the future… well, the Echo Look has a camera. The Echo Show has a screen. There’s not much technological difference between an Echo Look and a Canary or Nest Cam camera. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to see Amazon getting into the home security system game on its own. It’s a way to build out the ways Alexa takes in information, and outputs it back to the user.
In other words, having the screen as a display option available to Alexa opens the door to making the whole world of Alexa a lot more powerful. While it’s easy to think of Alexa as a novel voice assistant, it’s time to start thinking of it as Amazon’s own operating system.
Which is good, because Amazon, like fellow voice assistant competitor Microsoft, totally missed the boat on smartphones. Now, as ubiquitous voice systems like Alexa look to conquer the next phase of computing, Amazon is betting that it can win before most other players are even in the game.