The mainstream appeal of Amazon’s smart speaker Echo

Here is a German version of this article.

I have been following the transformation of Amazon’s smart speaker Echo from an unsuspected newcomer to the leading force within the field of voice-controlled (home) computing with quite some excitement. After a long hesitation, motivated by the hope to see the emergence of a “startupish” competitor or even an open source contender, I finally gave in and purchased the cylinder-shaped black loudspeaker. In order to be able to keep commenting on the evolution of voice technology, I felt that I have to personally use its main driver.

This is not a review. I haven’t played around with it enough, and there is no shortage of personal experience reports from long-term Echo users anyway. But I want to write about the moment of Echo’s first utilization – which I actually had together with my parents. Since Amazon doesn’t ship Echo to Sweden (or to any other country where the device hasn’t officially been introduced), I had to have the gadget be delivered to my parents’s address. And so I figured that I might as well show them the future. Initially I noticed some skepticism about the purpose of the device and the privacy implications – which is understandable. A microphone-equipped internet-connected device that sends every word it catches to the servers of one of the most powerful companies on this planet certainly matches the characteristic of an integrity-violating trojan horse. But I did not expect what happened after I started to talk to Alexa, the personal assistant software that runs on Echo.

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The weather report as killer app

I began by asking about the weather. “Alexa, how is the weather in Berlin right now?”. The quite pleasant sounding voice instantly provided us with a competent response. I wish I would have taken a photo of my parents’s facial expressions, showing surprise and amazement. That I didn’t think of preparing my camera just proves how easy it is for an early adopter to underestimate the allure of this technology to mainstream technology consumers. Just because I had been playing around with Siri on the iPhone before doesn’t mean everyone has. And even if people did: When the voice comes out of a dedicated little box that stands a few meters away in the apartment and features flashy color-changing light, it feels completely different than talking to your phone. Possibly contributing to the positive initial reception was that Alexa’s (German) voice actually doesn’t sound too much like computer-generated.

Next I asked Alexa for the news, and when the device promptly gave a summary of the latest news sourced from a well-known German news broadcast, my parents were as impressed as they could have been. All doubts about the purpose of such an apparatus were blown away, at least for the moment. My father later said that while he had heard about the vision of a future in which people interact through voice instead of screens, this was the first time that he actually started to envision how this in fact might play out.

The response to my little Echo demonstration helps to explain why the Echo initially was pretty much ignored by the tech elite – at least compared to the usual hype-fueled anticipation that other inventions such as VR, self-driving cars or crypto currency are causing. Echo seemingly isn’t able to do anything which wasn’t possible before. But outside of the bubble of people who have to try every new thing immediately and who have tested the limits of voice-controlled personal assistants on their phones years ago, the Amazon product is being perceived very differently: As first market-ready device with which you can interact casually and conveniently in your home via voice in order to accomplish simple but frequently reoccurring routine tasks, such as getting the latest information on the weather without ever touching any device or remote control.

Sci-fi movies suddenly become real

Echo (and Alexa) don’t just represent a fancy, semi-theoretical demonstration of what average people could be doing in a few years. As a product, it shows what’s possible right here, right now, for normal people. What people only knew from sci-fi movies suddenly got real. The impact of such a realization cannot be overstated. I’m quite sure that my parents will remember the day when they saw productive voice interaction for the first time. Even if this doesn’t mean that their critical stance about privacy matters will just be eradicated (mine isn’t either, even though I now own an Echo). It is not very likely that my parents will purchase such a device in the near future. But they for sure will talk about it with friends, and not without a tone of fascination. Some of these people will themselves get curious. And let’s not forget: I am talking here about a generation which still clearly distinguishes between “online” and “offline”, which switches off the smartphone over night and generally isn’t the first to jump onto a new trend. But when a hardware shows up which allows people to comfortably ask for the weather or the latest soccer results from the convenience of their couch, and which delivers a spoken response by a non-creepy voice – then this company is guaranteed the attention and curiosity of millions.

Limited regional availability as only flaw

Amazon’s outlook for Echo is almost unclouded. Google’s competing product “Home” suffers more than Amazon from the search giant’s reputation as data harvester. It also risks a possible lack of internal strategic determination since the voice approach undermines Google’s visual advertisement-based business model. Meanwhile, Apple and Microsoft still haven’t released their rival products, although they sooner or later will. But for the moment, Amazon faces few obstacles on its path to expand Echo’s foot print and Alexa’s software and developer platform.

The one major flaw that I see, aside from Alexa’s absolute lack of humor and quick-wittedness, is the limited availability. It is currently only available in three countries: the U.S., the U.K. and Germany. It can be speculated that once Apple launches an Echo-like product, it’ll be available in many more markets from the start, as Siri is a true language multi talent and even able to “understand” languages with only few speakers such as, for example, Swedish. However, it is safe to assume that Amazon works on internationalizing Alexa as well. That is also what has to be wished for on behalf of developers and startup communities in the countries in which currently no voice assistant for the home is being sold. These countries’s Internet economies will face a serious competitive disadvantage if they would have to wait much longer on the sidelines while competitors elsewhere can build for and reach users/customers through one of the most critical user interfaces of the future.

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2 comments

  1. It really is a piece of Sci-Fi coming to your living room :) But I still think, it’s a long way till voice assistants provide real value to our lives.

    What amazes me: The speed of Amazon pushing the Echo. I think the competition (Microsoft and Apple) is a bit in shock now…

    • True. Although I was actually a bit surprised when I was reminded that that Echo was released to customers in the U.S. in June 2015, so almost 2 years ago. The initial presentation even happened in late 2014. Time also goes pretty fast :)

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