Today Amazon surprised me, 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.
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. 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. 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 or computer 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.
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 radical, 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.