I missed something important about Amazon’s newest Alexa-powered touchscreen smart speaker

Amazon echo show
The Amazon Echo Show is a smart speaker with a screen, so you can do neat things like see the lyrics while a song is playing. Matt Weinberger/Business Insider

Last week, I reviewed the Amazon Echo Show — the first Alexa-powered smart speakers to sport a touchscreen.

At the time, I said it was a nifty bit of technology, and video calls were nice, but I wasn’t sure who it was for, exactly. After all, anybody who would want an Echo Show probably already has a smartphone or tablet, making it less special and less useful.

On further reflection, and using the Echo Show a little more, I think I missed something my first time around — the bigger picture behind the Echo Show, and why it’s way more important than I gave it credit for.

Like every other Amazon Echo smart speaker, the Echo Show is controlled almost entirely with your voice. The Echo Show takes this a step further, with a touchscreen that gives you more options for interacting with Alexa: ask the Echo Show to buy you batteries, and the screen lights up with a few options from Amazon to flip through.

This sounds obvious, but it’s the first step towards a bold new future of computing.

PC revolution

When this whole “personal computing” thing kicked off, we started using keyboards and mice to tell PCs what we wanted to do. The rise of smartphones and tablets made the input virtual and touch-based, but the basic idea is pretty much the same. Sure, voice systems like Apple’s Siri exist, but they’re secondary modes of input to just flicking the phone open and doing whatever.

The Echo Show is the other way around. Voice is the primary input, making the touchscreen secondary.

Amazon Echo
The original Amazon Echo, which answers questions with just your voice. Dave Smith/Tech Insider

This is tremendously important, in the grand scheme of things. Everybody from Microsoft to Facebook to Apple has said that the next wave of computing is making computers conform to our needs, rather than changing our habits to better use machines.

In a way, the entire Amazon Echo line has been a grand experiment in this regard: by reducing a computer down to something that you can only talk to, it’s found some early success. And the people who love Alexa, really love Alexa. That’s because for a lot of people, voice is just a completely natural way to get things done.

So when you combine that fundamental voice experience with the touchscreen — which, itself, was enough of a revolution in usability to kickstart the smartphone boom that got us where we are today — you have a new computer that’s ready for how people will use computers in the future, ignoring the status quo of today.

The next generation

Amazon has already started to play with other future-looking input methods, too. The forthcoming Amazon Echo Look, another Alexa-powered device, has a built-in camera that uses AI to judge your outfit. Again, this sounds small. But if you’ve ever used apps like Google Photos, you’ve seen how modern services can take your photos and work magic with them. If you believe people like Mark Zuckerberg, the camera could be as important for input as the keyboard.

There are still more steps to be taken. Alexa itself isn’t as good at search, navigation, or answering daily questions as rivals like the Google Assistant. Furthermore, the market for voice assistants is growing fast, but so is competition, with every company in Silicon Valley seemingly prepping their own rivals. And, unsurprisingly, not everybody is ok with putting an always-on microphone in your house.

Amazon Echo Show
If you say ‘Alexa, turn the screen off,’ this is what you get. Mea culpa. Matt Weinberger/Business Insider

In a really big way, though, the Echo Show isn’t anything like the computers, tablets, or smartphones we have today. Over the next few years, though, expect to see more devices like it — for kids, especially, voice and touchscreens are going to be the default ways people think to interact with technology. So you’d better get used to it, as I have.

On a final note, I technically missed two things. In my original review, I said you couldn’t dim the rather bright screen, making it a lousy alarm clock. Turns out, the magic words are “Alexa, turn off the screen,” which doesn’t actually turn it off, but does dim it considerably. So it’s fine to put it on your nightstand, after all. Now you know.

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