By Dan Moren
December 18, 2015 8:00 AM PT
My favorite gadget of 2015: The Amazon Echo
As tech writers, we get an opportunity to try out a lot of different devices in a given year. Some of them we’ve come to expect—new iPhones, more TV streaming devices than you can shake a stick at—and, although we may not be jaded, it gets harder and harder to be taken by surprise. But every once in a while we run into something that defies easy categorization. While computers, smartphones, and tablets seem to get shinier and faster with each passing year, not all products follow that predictable trajectory. The ones that don’t tend to stand out—for better or worse.
The Amazon Echo is just such a device. Upon its announcement a little over a year ago, I found it a curious decision on Amazon’s part:
Like Siri, Cortana, or Google it provides news and weather, plays music, controls alarms, and provides information from web searches. Presumably, it will soon be able to buy things from Amazon as soon as you ask. Otherwise I’m not quite sure how it works in Amazon’s ecosystem—in some ways it seems more like a product Google would sell, maybe even Apple.
And you know what? It still seems like a peculiar choice for Amazon: Seven months later, that prophecy about buying things has come true in a limited fashion—you can buy digital music from Amazon and restock on certain Prime-eligible products—but the Echo has evolved into something much more: a true home hub.
For the first couple months, I had the Echo in my office, but I think it truly graduated to being an integral part of my home when I moved it to my kitchen.1 It’s perhaps not the ideal location in terms of the rest of my apartment; though relatively central, the kitchen is a bit far away from some parts of the house, like my office. But the Echo is far more useful in the kitchen, where I can ask it to play music, tune in to my local radio station, and even turn on my TV—all of which is handy when you’re busy doing something that occupies your hands, like cooking or washing dishes.
Three for three
Back in April, I don’t think I ever would have predicted that the Echo would become a part of my everyday life, but it definitely has. The way I see it, there are three major reasons that have spurred the Echo’s entrenchment in my daily routine.
First is the hardware itself. Though the Bluetooth speaker that makes up most of the device may not be much to write home about, it’s perfectly fine for listening to music or the radio while washing the dishes. But it’s the array of microphones that the Echo sports—seven in all—that really shine. The noise cancellation is top notch, and though the Echo occasionally runs into problems understanding me, I have personally found its success rate much higher than trying to use “Hey Siri” on my iPhone 6s.
The second reason is Amazon’s commitment to rolling out new features on a regular basis. Roughly once a week I get an email detailing the new capabilities the Echo has recently acquired. Not only does that show that Amazon’s dedicated to not letting this project languish and die, but it also keeps me invested as a user, as I try out whatever the company’s added this time, whether it be political jokes or local business information.
Third is the aggressive way that Amazon has integrated with third-party services. It’s here where I think you can most starkly see the differences between Amazon and Apple—while I have no doubt that Apple could make a strong competitor to the Echo, I have a hard time imagining Cupertino opening it up as much as Amazon has. (Granted, given the sparsity of Amazon’s ecosystem, that’s more or less a necessity for the Echo to garner any level of success.) In particular, Amazon’s added integration with a wide variety of home automation purveyors, like Insteon, Wink, WeMo, and SmartThings. Given Apple’s push for its own HomeKit protocol, it’s hard to imagine an Apple-branded device with the same broad third-party compatibility.
(Speaking of home automation, I haven’t delved very far into that to date, but the Echo and integration with my Logitech SmartHub have me thinking very hard about investing in some smart lightbulbs.2 Amazon’s done a nice job here of making the idea of a home automation hub much more accessible to the average user.)
An unspoken future
Lest you think all this the ramblings of a technophile who loves playing with the latest and greatest high-tech toys, I can think of no better indication of the Echo’s impact than that my girlfriend, who is not a particularly avid gadgetophile, was so enamored with it that she went out and bought her own for her apartment.
The Echo is an odd device, but I think that’s part of what gives it so much potential: unlike a smartphone or a tablet or a computer, there are no preconceived notions about what this product is or what it’s capable of. It doesn’t neatly fit into any category, and it’s a difficult product to even describe at times.
But all of that has given Amazon a freedom to experiment with various features, to see how the Echo gets used, and to improve it. The Echo’s future is wide open, and oh, the places it could go.
Not to mention it really cut back on Myke and Jason adding marshmallows to my shopping list. ↩
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