Forget the Fire Phone and the Fire TV set-top box; for me, the newly announced Amazon Echo speaker is the company’s most interesting product in years.
The unique, Wi-Fi powered speaker unit takes inspiration from the likes of Siri, Cortana and Google Now, pulls it all together, in a listening, talking and music-playing standalone device and I’m going to buy one.
For $199 (or $99 to Prime subscribers), it’ll answer my questions, it’ll search for information on request, it’ll prompt me with reminders, it’ll start my Spotify playlists on demand and it’ll give me news bulletins when it hears the all-important ‘wake word.’
I won’t ever have to touch it, or even be that close to it, if Amazon’s far field voice recognition technology works as advertised. It’ll be there when I want it and will be mostly unnoticeable when I don’t.
I’m overdoing it with the praise a bit, I know, but in truth I wasn’t sure what to make of the merits of the Echo until I saw Amazon’s family-centric introductory video. It may be good marketing, but that sold me.
As you can see, the Echo will offer that bit of help with a recipe when you’ve got your hands full in the kitchen, serve up a quick answer to a question that’s lingering on the tip of your tongue, allow you to add items to a shopping list when you’re running low, bring easy access to playlists and a quick weather update before you leave the house. This is all without pressing a button or diverting your attention to gawp at a mobile screen.
Sure, you can do all of this with “OK Google,” but if my phone is nearby, I might as well just pick it up and find the information myself. I have an iPhone and I never, ever use Siri to find movie showtimes or football scores, do you?
Also, I don’t know anyone who feels comfortable talking to Siri in public and wouldn’t feel like a complete wally doing so. So, with that in mind, the comfort of the home setting makes so much more sense to me.
And, think of the possibilities for the Echo as a hub for the connected home? Future generations could easily be instructed to lock the doors and windows, set the home alarm, turn on the oven, dim the lights, control the temperature, record TV shows and more.
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Of course, this stylish, 9-inch cylinder is not without its naysayers. No sooner had the product woken up the tech world on a sleepy Thursday evening, there were multiple sources giving it the usual ‘it only exists to sell you stuff’ line.
While that’s not untrue – the shopping list feature is bound to come into play if Amazon widens its grocery experiment – I’ve always felt Amazon gets a raw deal in this respect.
Of course, gadgets carrying the Fire OS have Amazon’s storefronts at the centre of the experience, but it’s important to remember that’s the only reason Amazon entered the hardware business in the first place.
The company makes some nice gear, but Amazon is not in this for the tech, which it often takes a loss on. Also, gadgets like the Kindle Fire are perfectly functional and come with free access to tons of content through Prime and Kindle, without compelling users to buy absolutely anything. The same goes for the Echo.
Meanwhile, Apple often received praise for its business savvy for the way it keeps users hostage in the walled garden of the App Store, iTunes, iBooks and more. Google has tried to do the same thing with the Play Store, without nearly as much success. What’s the difference?
There's privacy aspect to consider, also. Not everyone will want an ‘always on’ device listening into our every utterance, in order to catch the ‘wake word’ and collating all of that data in the cloud on Amazon’s servers.
Those concerns are very real, as has been evidenced with the backlash against the voice-controlled Kinect sensor, “OK Google” on Android and everything else in the post-Snowden world.
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However, the way things are heading in terms of the smart home and the internet of things, means this is an issue where users are going to have to draw a decisive line in the sand anyway. You’ll either accept your data sitting in the cloud, or you won’t use these services.
To abstain from devices like the Echo is also to opt out of one vision for the future of technology, the sci-fi reality often fantasised about. And that’s totally ok. It will not be for everyone, especially those with a heightened sense of concern for their personal data.
However, rather than criticise Amazon for its retail-centric approach or push conspiracy theories over what it plans to do with your shopping list data, in this case I think Amazon should be applauded for thinking outside the box with an innovative piece of tech that none of us saw coming.
Heck, it sure beats moaning about the Fire Phone…
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