Many of the world’s largest technology companies have spent the last five years searching in vain for the holy grail, a machine to succeed the smartphone as the next must-have gadget. They have made digital watches and fitness trackers, all manner of computerized glasses and goggles, and more doodads to plug into your TV than there are shows to watch on it.
Yet at the moment, the most promising candidate for the Next Great Gadget isn’t made by Apple, Google, Facebook or Microsoft. Instead, it is the Echo, a screenless, voice-controlled household computer built by Amazon.
A year after its release, the $180 Echo has morphed from a gimmicky experiment into a device that brims with profound possibility. The longer I use it, the more regularly it inspires the same sense of promise I felt when I used the first iPhone — a sense this machine is opening up a vast new realm in personal computing.
What is most interesting about the Echo is that it came out of nowhere. It isn’t much to look at, and even describing its utility is difficult. Here is a small, stationary machine that you set somewhere in your house, which you address as Alexa, which performs a variety of tasks — playing music, reading the news and weather, keeping a shopping list — that you can already do on your phone.
But the Echo has a way of sneaking into your routines. When Alexa reorders popcorn for you, or calls an Uber car for you, when your children start asking Alexa to add Popsicles to the grocery list, you start to want pretty much everything else in life to be Alexa-enabled, too.
In this way, Amazon has found a surreptitious way to bypass Apple and Google — the reigning monarchs in the smartphone world — with a gadget that has the potential to become a dominant force in the most intimate of environments: our homes.
If all this sounds over-the-top, read some of the reviews. On Amazon’s site, the Echo has racked up more stars than an Oscars party.
When the Echo was introduced, its utility was not obvious. But there are a couple of reasons it has earned such raves from users.
First, it’s simple to learn, and its voice-recognition capabilities are more intuitive than those of many other vocal assistants (like Apple’s Siri or Google Now). More than that, it keeps gaining new powers.
Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president for devices, said the company created the Echo because it had seen interesting possibilities arising out of advances in microphone technology, speech recognition and cloud connectivity. Unlike competing assistants, the Echo can be activated hands-free from far across the room (Siri only works from a couple of feet away),and it can decipher your voice in noisy environments, even when it’s playing music.
Amazon also worked to make sure the device responded very quickly. “Early on in the product, to play music took eight or nine seconds, and it’s just unusable when it’s like that,” Limp said. “Now it’s often 1,000 milliseconds or 1,200 milliseconds.”
The speed makes a crucial difference. Compared with the trudge of chatting with Siri, speaking to Alexa feels natural, closer to speaking to a human than a machine — and even when it gets your request wrong, which in your early days with the device will happen often, it doesn’t feel like you have paid a huge penalty for trying.
More important, just like the early iPhone, Amazon has managed to turn the Echo into the center of a new ecosystem. Developers are flocking to create voice-controlled apps for the device, or skills, as Amazon calls them. There are now more than 300 skills for the Echo, from the trivial — there is one to make Alexa produce rude body sounds on command — to the pretty handy. It can tell you transit schedules, start a seven-minute workout, read recipes, do math and conversions, and walk you through adventure games, among other possibilities.
Makers of digital home devices like Nest are also rushing to make their products compatible with the Echo. Alexa can now control your Internet-connected lights, home thermostats and a variety of other devices. Hardware makers can also add Alexa’s brain into their own devices, so soon you won’t need an Echo to consult with Alexa — you could find it in your toaster, your refrigerator or your car.
The Echo also ties in to Amazon’s main business, its retail store. When you tell it to reorder popcorn, it gets your order through Amazon, of course. Still, Wingo noted that Amazon has so far kept the platform relatively open — other retailers are free to build their own apps that will allow for interactions with their stores.
The Echo is far from perfect. It still gets queries wrong and it still feels like it’s missing potentially useful features. Limp concedes this. Amazon’s teams keep working to add tricks to the Echo, he said.
Last week, Amazon unveiled two new versions of the Echo. One, the Amazon Tap (about $130),is a portable version of the Echo; the other, the Amazon Dot (about $90),is meant to plug into existing speaker systems.
Many in the industry have long looked to the smartphone as the remote control for your world. But the phone has limitations. A lot of times fiddling with a screen is just too much work. By perfecting an interface that is much better suited to home use — the determined yell! — Amazon seems on the verge of building something like Iron Man‘s Jarvis, the artificial-intelligence brain at the center of all your household activities. Who could say no to that?