Artificial intelligence (AI) and smart home automation are two very popular topics in the consumer marketplace today. Everyone wants to get their hands on a piece of AI and find useful applications for it in their own lives. So when Amazon developed the Echo—a smart speaker housed in a 9.25-inch cylinder with a seven-piece microphone array—people naturally got excited.
But behind closed doors, there are lots of whispers and questions about the future of the Echo. We’ve got plenty of other lookalikes coming out of the woodwork, as well as a new product that comes with a touchscreen display. But does it really satisfy a consumer pain point or desire? Or is it just another fad meant to bolster the Amazon bottom line? At this point, the answer is a little hazy.
Before digging in too deep, let’s make sure everyone is on the same page. You’ve seen images of the Echo speaker—Amazon certainly advertises enough—but what does it do?
In essence, the Echo speaker is the hardware that houses Alexa, Amazon’s voice control system (similar to Siri). The power of the device lies in its far-field microphones that can respond to voice commands all the way across a room, or even down the hallway under the right circumstances. But the big selling point is that it’s hands-free. Unlike smartphone AI assistants, the Echo can be activated simply be speaking.
The Amazon Echo isn’t alone, either. An entire industry is emerging in the AI home speaker niche, with Google Home emerging as the biggest competitor last year. Even Apple and now Samsung have thrown their hats in the ring. Clearly, major tech companies feel there’s potential for these devices to be highly successful products.
What’s supposed to make Amazon Echo so powerful is that the user can “download different “skills” and apps: apps—that allow the device to automate different tasks. In this sense, it’s like any other smart device in that it can be customized to the preferences of the user.
In fact, in most ways the Amazon Echo is a lot like preceding smart devices, which begs the question: What, if anything, separates it from the products we already own?
There’s no doubt that the Amazon Echo is a pretty attractive idea. The fact that you can place a small device in your home, speak commands, and have simple tasks automated is pretty cool. Its reminiscent of the first time Apple introduced the world to Siri. But the problem is that many users are wondering if there’s a point in having both Alexa and Siri.
Many users have been frustrated by the overall lack of utility the Echo device affords users. Alexander Aciman, a frustrated user and tech blogger, calls the Echo a glorified clock radio he’s not alone.
When it comes down to it, what does the Echo do differently than your smartphone or tablet that has a built-in AI assistant like Siri or Google Assistant You can even voice activate Siri on the iPhone, which means the “touchless” selling point of the Echo isn’t all that interesting. Add in that many people have something like an Xbox One or an Apple TV, which can do the exact same thing.
Then there are those companion apps, or “skills” on the Echo. Sure, there are a couple of useful ones, but the vast majority are pretty pointless. Just read through some of the official descriptions of the more than 10,000 skills the Echo now has and you’ll have trouble finding ones that are actually practical on a day-in and day-out basis. (Do you really need an app that generates elf names, or one that recreates bird sounds?)
The harsh reality is that, if you already own a smartphone or tablet, you really don’t need an Echo. It’s the same problem we’ve seen occur in the smartwatch space. There was a wave of excitement when the first smartwatches (and the eventually the Apple Watch) finally came out, but it quickly died out when people began asking, “Why do I need this?” Android Wear has all but run out of steam at this point.
For the Amazon Echo, as cynical as the thought may sound, it’s challenging to see the product as anything more than a device that Amazon has released to make it easier to consume and purchase more of their products without lifting a finger.
While perhaps the Amazon Echo, and other similar devices, has potential, it’s by no means a piece of revolutionary technology. “It is, indeed, the greatest clock radio ever made. Nothing more,” Aciman quips. But what frustrates Aciman, and other users, is the fact that even slightly complicated search queries seem to throw Alexa off.
“At moments like these I begin to feel that Alexa’s entire existence is so remarkably counterintuitive and sometimes even suspect she has been put on this planet to thwart me at every turn,” he says. “Unless, of course, I need to ask her what time it is, or if I want to hear Taylor Swift. On those tasks she always performs marvelously.”
If you’ve used the Echo in the past, then you’re laughing at how true this is. But is Amazon the one getting the last laugh? What they’ve proven is not that they can develop some masterful piece of technology that adds lots of value to society. Instead, they’ve shown that they’re proficient at marketing and know that sleek smart devices are attractive to consumers who want their very own slice of AI.
We’re not saying Amazon is some corrupt corporation that’s trying to dupe consumers, but they are a business with goals of growing revenues. The one things that is clear is that the Amazon Echo has successfully capitalized on people’s desire to own “the next big thing” and show it off to friends. Amazon is going to have to continue to innovate with AI beyond what can be down on smartphones, or else these devices are going to end up in boxes in the attic in a couple of years.