The Software Society

How digital technology is changing our culture and economy

Amazon Echo: Why you’ll want one

Most of the press commentary on Amazon’s Echo speaker-as-a-personal-assistant characterizes the product as a solution looking for a problem. And Amazon seems even to have some doubts, with an announcement notable for its lack of fanfare and a limited distribution of the device.

But looked at properly, it has huge potential. Think of it as a clock radio for the next decade. (How many old clock radios do you have in your house that could be updated?) Like a clock radio, Echo can tell you the time, play music, present the news, and wake you up. But of course, it does more than the classic clock radio. You can control the music and news in ways a clock radio doesn’t allow. And it can do things a clock radio doesn’t do.

If in the kitchen, you can operate Echo hands-free while cooking, even asking for cooking info. It can maintain a shopping list. It acts much like a personal assistant application on your smartphone, with access to the Internet and its vast information resources. You can even use the available smartphone app to tell it to remind you of something when you get home.

But, hold on, you say! You want to be able to see the time on your new “clock radio” at a glance and it doesn’t have a display! Add an accessory: A small digital clock next to the speaker—you can get one from Amazon for about $16.

The device can also compete with “social robots” like trailblazer Jibo, which sells for $599 compared to Echo’s $199. Jibo is a stationary device like Echo, although battery-powered and more easily movable. (Jibo also has a camera and turns its “head,” but that feature perhaps adds more cost to the device than utility.) If Amazon adds the pet-like qualities of Jibo to the voice interaction, it could be positioned in this space as well.

In addition, the device could be viewed as assistive technology. Persons with movement or visual disabilities might appreciate the ability to do many things by voice and at a distance.

The most innovative aspect of the device is the seven microphones that may make the speech recognition at a distance more reliable. If the speech recognition works well (and that remains to be seen), it may surprise the skeptics. Since it plugs into the wall, it would be inconvenient to take it from room to room, so each family may even buy more than one if they like it.

We didn’t know how limited our mobile feature phone was until Apple showed us. Doesn’t your clock radio seem a bit outdated at this point?

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