Amazon’s new Echo is a cloud-based home assistant that is novel, fun, and frustrating in equal measure. It’s mainly useful today as a voice-controlled streaming music player, but being cloud-based means it will improve over time. It marks Amazon’s push into the smart-home segment and offers a glimpse of how voice control will enable tomorrow’s smart homes.
Alexa, you’ve got a long way to go
Amazon launched Echo in November 2014 in the US for $199, or $99 for Amazon Prime members, with limited availability. It is a voice-controlled, Internet-connected home assistant packaged in a black metal cylinder about the size of a Pringles can containing high-quality speakers, microphones, and Internet connectivity via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The Echo wakes when you say the word “Alexa,” and then tries to help with your question or command. For example. I had this exchange with Echo:
Me: “Alexa, where are you?”
Alexa (in a soothing female voice): “I’m here, and my head is in the cloud.”
With Echo, Amazon has taken virtual assistants – which are well entrenched in smartphones in the form of Apple’s Siri, Google Now, and Microsoft’s Cortana – to a new form factor designed for homes. The device also makes it clear that Amazon is serious about the smart-home segment, joining other heavyweights such as Google, which acquired smart-thermostat maker Nest for $3.2bn; Samsung, which acquired connected-home startup SmartThings for $200m; and AT&T, which has invested heavily in its new Digital Life home-automation services.
After using the Echo at home for close to a week, I’d describe it as a novel and fun product that is an excellent voice-controlled streaming music player, but a limited and frustrating virtual assistant.
Here’s my take on its strengths:
Easy setup: Just plug it in and launch the companion app to connect it to Wi-Fi, and it works.
Great hardware: Echo is a sleek device with high-quality speakers and microphones that can hear and understand your commands from across the room.
Convenience of voice control: Echo’s voice control works well and can be more convenient and efficient than using a screen or other input method.
Excellent streaming music player: Tell Echo to play something, and it usually does, if it’s available on Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, or TuneIn.
Good price: At $99 for Prime members, Echo is good value just as a voice-controlled streaming music player, and its other features might improve over time. The pricing seems in line with Amazon’s strategy of keen prices for devices, with the expectation of driving revenues for Amazon services.
And its weaknesses:
Flawed virtual assistant: Echo answers basic questions but struggles with many things that a simple Internet search should answer – overall, in my usage to date, Echo has failed to answer more questions than it has answered.
Lack of integration: This is a common problem with smart-home devices, and Echo is no exception. It’s mainly a stand-alone device and service that’s not even well integrated with Amazon.com – for example, Echo adds things to your shopping list on the Echo app, not on your Amazon account – much less other devices and applications.
Privacy concerns: Echo is a powerful listening device connected to the Internet, so I naturally asked it about security:
Me: “Alexa, do you record everything you hear?”
Alexa: “Sorry, I didn’t understand the question I heard.”
Me: “Alexa, are you secure?”
Echo: “Sorry, I can’t find the answer to the question I heard.”
Me: “Alexa, can you be hacked?”
Echo: “Hmmm, I’m not sure what you meant by that question.”
But there is a button on top of Echo that turns off its microphones, and of course you can always unplug it, though both options rather limit its functionality.
Amazon needs to ensure bulletproof security for the Echo, while dramatically improving its integration with other devices and applications, and its capabilities as a virtual assistant.
However even with all its flaws, Echo – along with an increasing number of other devices – offers a glimpse of how powerful and compelling voice control can be in the home, given that it works anywhere and doesn’t require a screen, keyboard, or other input device. This suggests that over time voice control will become the most convenient, efficient, and cost-effective way to control a host of devices in the home, if privacy and security challenges can be solved.
If these barriers can be removed, we’ll all have to think what to call our homes, and what to ask them.
“AT&T Digital Life opens platform to third-party devices, putting it on track for mass market,” TE0004-001010 (January 2015)
Security Implications of the Internet of Things, IT0022-000277 (December 2014)
Connected home: Samsung buys SmartThings, TE0001-000873 (August 2014)
Google heats up the smart home market with Nest acquisition, IT002-000295 (January 2014)
Mike Roberts, Practice Leader, North & South America