The Echo From Amazon Brims With Groundbreaking Promise

The Echo From Amazon Brims With Groundbreaking Promise

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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…

Credit Stuart Goldenberg

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 company whose last big foray into consumer electronics, the Fire Phone, was a humiliating flop.

This time it may be different. A bit more than a year after its release, the 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, and gently expanding the role that computers will play in our future.

Toni Reid, director of Amazon’s Echo and Alexa, and Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president for devices. Credit Matt Lutton for The New York Times

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. Amazon doesn’t release sales numbers, but the company is investing big in Echo. It ran Super Bowl ads to push the device and last week it unveiled two new versions of the machine. One is a portable version of the Echo and the other is meant to plug into existing speaker systems.

Scot Wingo, the chairman of ChannelAdvisor, an e-commerce consulting firm, said the early signs suggested that the Echo was on a path to become Amazon’s next $1 billion business.

“It’s one of the most sold-out things that I see on Amazon,” Mr. Wingo said. “It’s an unusual thing for Amazon to be out of something, but for the Echo, it’s usually in stock just for a couple weeks before it goes out of stock for a few days — so it feels like they’re having trouble making enough of the devices.” Mr. Wingo noted the Echo, which Amazon sells for $180 only through its own site, was selling for $200 to $300 on eBay.

When the Echo was introduced in a goofy video in late 2014, on the heels of the failure of the Fire Phone, it was widely ridiculed. The Echo’s utility was not obvious, and in its earliest incarnation, it seemed a bit of a ditz. 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.

During an interview at a media event last week, 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. Amazon’s engineers spent years perfecting the device’s unusual capabilities. 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,” Mr. 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.

Amazon’s open-platform strategy for the Echo calls to mind Amazon Web Services, its multibillion-dollar cloud business that also came out of left field to best competitors. “It is patterned very much off of the successful formula that A.W.S uses,” Mr. Limp said.

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, Mr. Wingo noted that Amazon had so far kept the platform relatively open — other retailers and product manufacturers 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. Mr. Limp concedes this. Amazon’s teams keep working to add new tricks to the Echo, he said. The device also faces limited retail distribution — it’s unusual enough that it would benefit from being displayed on shelves, but Amazon’s retail rivals are unlikely to stock it anytime soon. (Some analysts have speculated that Amazon’s retail plans may be an effort to show off its hardware.)

Amazon would be wise to step on the gas because while the Echo has no direct competitors, a few may be emerging. Among them is SoundHound, a start-up that has been working on voice-recognition for more than a decade, which is now offering hardware makers access to its service. Within the next year, according to the company, lots of gadgets will be using SoundHound’s software to talk to users.

Do you want that? As I argued recently, the F.B.I.’s battle with Apple over encryption should prompt deep questions about a future of Internet-connected devices spread around our homes. Amazon has strong privacy protections in the Echo. It doesn’t stream anything without the wake word and it has a physical mute button that electrically disconnects the microphone but, as with all groundbreaking technology, there is no doubt we are entering new territory here.

Yet, the Echo is so useful it may be worth the gamble. 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?

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