When Amazon released the Echo in late 2014, people didn’t quite know what to make of it. It looks like a speaker, but it listens to your voice, talks back, and can play songs, radio broadcasts, or podcasts on demand. It can also do some other, seemingly unrelated tasks, like telling jokes, checking your calendar, and buying stuff on Amazon.com. Smarter than a stereo but dumber than a virtual assistant like Siri, it seemed like a novelty gadget, albeit a fun and somewhat useful one.
It’s looking less like a novelty now—and more like part of a grand plan by Amazon to take over your living room.
On Thursday, Amazon announced two new, Echo-like devices, both of them powered by the same Alexa voice-recognition software that runs on the original Echo (and the Fire TV). They’re called the Echo Dot and the Amazon Tap, and both are cheaper and smaller than the Echo. They also differ in some important ways.
That’s not the only news out of Amazon on Thursday. The company also announced that Alexa (and Alexa-powered devices) will soon be compatible with smart thermostats made by Nest and Honeywell, two of the leading brands in that sector.
Together, the announcements make it clear that Amazon views Alexa as more than just a nifty way to control your speakers and TV. Rather, the company sees an opportunity to make Alexa a sort of voice-powered command center for your household—a gateway to all your connected devices.
The original Amazon Echo sits most comfortably on a desk or bookshelf in your living room, or on a kitchen counter. It must be plugged in to a power outlet at all times, rendering it mostly immobile, though Alexa’s hearing ability has impressive range. It’s also listening at all times and will snap to attention whenever it hears you say “Alexa” (or “Amazon,” if you decide to change the wake word).
Of the two new devices, the Tap looks most like the Echo, but it’s actually the hockey-puck-shaped Amazon Echo Dot that’s most functionally similar. Like the Echo, the Echo Dot is listening all the time, and only works when it’s plugged in. But where the Echo is a standalone speaker, the Echo Dot is meant to be plugged in to your existing speaker system via either Bluetooth or an audio cable. It essentially turns your home stereo system into a giant Echo. It does also come with a tiny speaker of its own—enough to function as a smart alarm clock for your bedstand, Amazon says.
The Echo Dot costs $89.99, half the price of the Echo. Interestingly, it’s available only to Amazon Prime members, and you can only order it via Alexa. Apparently Amazon wants to condition people to start using Alexa as a way to buy stuff.
The same is not true of the Amazon Tap, which, technologically, is essentially a cross between the Echo and the Fire TV’s Voice Remote. Like the Echo, it’s a speaker in its own right. But like the Fire TV controller, it isn’t always listening: You have to tap a button to activate Alexa and its attendant voice-control features. The upside is that it’s portable, claiming up to nine hours of playback via battery power when it’s unplugged. You charge it by placing it on a charging cradle, which is included. In short, it’s more like a boombox than a home stereo.
You can buy the Amazon Tap for $129.99 on Amazon.com like a normal person, without using Alexa or a Prime membership.
Together, these devices address the Echo’s greatest deficiency: It’s too small to be a good home stereo, but it isn’t portable either. Unfortunately, each of the new devices tackles only half of that problem. They all come with trade-offs.
What’s increasingly apparent, though, is that the hardware here is not the point—at least, not the only point. The Echo, the Echo Dot, the Amazon Tap, and even the Fire TV are all just different vessels for a more important and fundamental product: the Alexa software. Amazon might sell a lot of speakers and set-top boxes, the way Motorola sells a lot of phones (or used to, anyway). But if I had to guess, I’d say Amazon’s goal isn’t to be the Motorola of connected household devices. It’s to be the Android: the brains of the operation.
If it works, Amazon could find itself in the enviable position of gatekeeper to many of the key devices in your home. When you want to watch TV, you’ll talk to Alexa. When you want to listen to music or the radio or a podcast or an audiobook, you’ll talk to Alexa. When you want to check your calendar or the weather or adjust your thermostat, you’ll talk to Alexa. And when you want to buy something, you’ll talk to Alexa—and guess what e-commerce giant you’ll end up buying it from?
Previously in Slate: Amazon Echo and the Art of Artificially Throwing Shade
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