It's pretty rare that a new product truly surprises us. But today Amazon did just that, introducing Echo, a talking, listening piece of electronic furniture. It's like having the internet on your kitchen table, cracking jokes and settling bets, and it's the most innovative device Amazon's made in years.
Echo, ostensibly a speaker, is a deceptively boring-looking little tube, as though Amazon's designers took an old Kindle and rolled it into a cylinder, plugging its unremarkable guts with intelligent software that talks to you. You say Echo's "wake word" to wake it up—beginning what Amazon hopes will be a life-long (or at least, model life-long) friendship. Want to know the news? Echo streams it. Need someone to settle a bet? Echo calls up whatever information you need. Need something added to your shopping list? Echo—and Amazon—would be happy to oblige.
It is the conversational internet. A tangible, touchable piece of pseudo-furniture that filters data through a very smart-looking piece of voice recognition. The web strung across your living room—or better yet, kitchen. There's more potential in this little lightsaber handle than we know quite what to do with.
A True Assistant
The easiest way to describe Echo is by comparing it (her?) to its peers. It's like Siri, but furniture. It's like Cortana, except in your living room. It's like the voice recognition speaker Aether, or any number of other voice-controlled devices you can put in your home, except it does more. And it's made by Amazon.
Echo has plenty of peers, but all of them are bundled with other devices. Siri and Cortana live on your phone. Google's voice recognition is on your phone and computer. The genius of Echo is that it's a more nimble, leaner version of a technology that's been caged up inside of other devices for years. As Apple and Microsoft have struggled to engage consumers in the idea of voice recognition for your phone or your computer or your game console, Amazon snuck a device that puts essentially the same software front and center for no other purpose than to chat with you. Oh, and play you some tunes while it's at it.
Amazon has another advantage: It's an alternative path, a kind of dark horse compared to three products that are so similar, and similarly bound to compete with each other for market share. And importantly, it'll be cheap as hell for Amazon Prime members: Only $100, compared to a few hundred bucks (at least) for a phone that grants you Siri or Cortana access. In that sense, there's no other product on the market that can do what Echo does: Put dedicated, seemingly reliable, truly hands-free voice recognition in your home for a hundred bucks.
The IQ Test Awaits
Of course, none of this means that Echo will necessarily be a blockbuster success. As Tim Carmody pointed out on Twitter, the open question is still the quality of the artificial intelligence that forms that connective tissue of any of these systems. In fact, Echo may be a kind of litmus test for Amazon. A $100 device that rolls out slowly (you have to request an invite) will let the company cull data from across a broad range of users in a huge range of environments. And down the line—say, when Amazon decides to put Echo on the next Fire phone—its software will be battle-tested.
So Amazon has reversed the product pipeline of its competitors. Apple and Microsoft and Google put their AI on your phones or computers and have let it sit, improving it incrementally but never changing where and how we interact with it. Amazon is putting that software on your kitchen table—and in an app—and maybe someday, if it's good enough, it will be absorbed into an operating system.
For Amazon's hardware team, this is an important moment. Kindle's new Voyage e-reader was awesome, but crazily expensive, and its other dependable e-reader options haven't broken any molds. Meanwhile, all its other successes and failures have involved following in the footsteps of other companies: Fire phone was a flop. Fire TV was well-received but limited by its price, and Fire TV Stick has a powerful direct competitor in the form of Chromecast. With Echo, the hardware team has hit on a design paradigm that's pretty much terra incognita, and they've made it inexpensive and accessible for just about everyone.
If it sucks, Echo could easily become yet another product on a long, decades-old list of failed AI. If it works, it will be world wide web floating through your house, the internet made tangible and speakable and liveable. Either way, Amazon's trying something brand new. And that's an exciting change of pace.