I vividly remember when the iPad came out and I commented that, with my smart phone and my laptop, I simply didn’t need this ‘in between’ device. How wrong I was. Since that time, I’ve found myself repeating this mantra when it came to wearable tech and bike computers, and Apple TV, and the list goes on.
So, I was fascinated when I heard lots of talk about a new device at SXSW a few weeks ago (yes, I’m going to keep name dropping SXSW because I’ve been now!). You may not have heard much about this device because it’s not available in Australia yet. In June last year, Amazon launched in the U.S. its Amazon Echo device, which is a wireless speaker and voice command device.
What’s that I hear you say? Well, they call it a ‘Smart Speaker’ but it turns out that this device has many capabilities, including voice interaction, music playback, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, setting alarms, making to do lists, checking weather and traffic reports, and other real-time information. It can also control, via voice commands, a range of smart devices.
You could describe her as, an in-home personal assistant with lots of smarts, and she responds to the ‘Wake Word’ Alexa, so she’s a bit like Siri… but better.
What does this mean in practical terms? With an Echo in your kitchen you can play your favourite Spotify playlist, book an Uber, order a Dominos pizza and set your alarm for that early run tomorrow morning. And it’s practical too. So, when you notice you’ve run out of beer on your next visit to your fridge you can ask Alexa to add beer to your shopping list which is being built on your smart phone for your next trip to the bottleo.
And Amazon has teamed up with the WeMo Light people and Philips, to allow you to even control the lights in your house.
So, what exactly are its capabilities?
Search: You can ask for movie theatre showtimes, local restaurant recommendations from Yelp, get traffic updates, sports scores or a reminder for what’s on your Google calendar for the day. You can also get news updates from NPR Business, Fox Sports Radio, TMZ, The Economist and ESPN via TuneIn, or answers to common questions that can be found on Wikipedia.
Storytime: Alexa will read your Kindle books or audiobooks from Audible aloud.
Shopping: Need to reorder shampoo? Since your Amazon Prime account is already synced with Amazon Echo, Alexa will restock what you need by looking at previously purchased items in your shopping history.
Music: Amazon has new partnerships with Spotify Premium, Pandora, TuneIn and iHeartRadio, so the device can pull in streams from those services to its speaker. If you’re not a subscriber to any of those platforms, Alexa can play you music from Prime Music, and what’s saved to your Amazon Music Library — a feature that’s included in your Prime membership.
The Australian’s tech journo Chris Griffith bought himself one for Christmas and described his experience:
“Like Apple’s Siri and Google Now personal assistants, Echo is a font of all knowledge. I can ask Alexa for the weather in Sydney today, and for the forecast for tomorrow. She reads them out. But to get full functionality, such as the list of Chinese restaurants close by, she needs a U.S.-based address at this time.
I could ask Echo what is the capital of Myanmar and the population of Indonesia and it gave me a run down on who Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten and Sir Donald Bradman are when I asked about them.
Echo could read news headlines on any subject or keyword I chose through Trove. It could tell me what the current travel time is to preset destinations such as ‘the office’. In the accompanying app, there are 10 pages of extra features you can add to Echo. For example, when I added the bartender feature, I could say: “Alexa, ask the bartender what is a ‘fluffy duck’, and she read back the ingredients and recipe.
I could ask Echo to translate phrases and words to other languages, and she would read back the translations. But I found Echo to be finicky about the way you phrased translation requests. Sometimes she wouldn’t understand them.
As expected, Echo is a whiz on U.S. politics, and can even give you a detailed rundown on the fortunes of U.S. parties and individual politicians on Twitter. She was reading out quite detailed analytics to me”.
Chris clearly liked the Christmas present he bought himself and there’s a lot of positive talk in the U.S about Echo.
Mashable even named it Tech Product of the Year last year.
Apparently, we’re about to see other connected home systems launch on the market soon. They include Apple’s long-awaited HomeKit and SmartThings. HomeKit compatible devices are starting to appear on the Australian market so we expect this new category will grow.
And, of course, Amazon will keep developing the Echo product. For example, at the moment you can only play music through the Echo speaker but you would imagine that very soon you will be also able to push, via Echo, streaming music to other speakers around your house.
But do we need yet another device?
Like the iPad I didn’t know I needed, I expect Echo will be the same.
So, as soon as they’re available in Australia, I’m grabbing one.
I can’t wait to meet Alexa. I think there’s room in my life for her.
Paul Cornwell is a Managing Director at BCM