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What is Amazon Echo anyway?

Amazon's new home stereo/personal assistant seems poised to duke it out with Apple's Siri.

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    This product image provided by Amazon shows the Amazon Echo speaker. The biggest feature in Amazon’s Echo speaker is a voice-recognition system called Alexa that is designed to control Pandora, Amazon Music and Prime Music services as well as give information on news, weather and traffic.
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Can you hear it?

The Echo – Amazon’s new technological magic box (well, more a cylinder) – is now publicly available after only previously being offered to a limited number of customers who applied to purchase it. 

The new gadget, which retails for $179, is an amalgamation of a home stereo and voice activated computer that comes preloaded with its own digital personal assistant. Alexa – the default name for the all-hearing program – seems poised to duke it out with Apple's Siri in the race to be the most helpful disembodied voice blaring out from your devices.

Since Echo was introduced last November, Amazon has been adding to its capabilities, including giving it ability to control other connected devices and give updates on your morning commute, as well as play music through a variety of streaming services or Bluetooth connection your smartphone.

The roughly nine-inch-tall tube also has some impressive technology to give Alexa the “ears” to hear your voice commands. With seven microphones that incorporate Amazon’s far-field technology placed around its base, Echo can hear you from anywhere within the room. It also has noise-filtering built in, so its possible to hold a conversation with Echo even while it plays music.

However, like Siri, Alexa's comprehension abilities leave quite a bit to be desired.

"If Alexa were a human assistant, you’d fire her, if not have her committed," writes Farhad Manjoo for the The New York Times. " 'Sorry I didn't understand the question I heard' is her favorite response, though honestly she doesn't really sound very sorry."

While the Alexa's technology still has a long way to go before she can become your personal concierge, she does have some valuable uses, Mr. Manjoo writes. "After spending three weeks testing the Echo, I really kind of love Alexa. She is just smart enough to be useful. And she keeps getting smarter.

Echo represents the most recent major hardware incursion by Amazon since the less-than-successful rollout of company’s Fire smartphone, which was beset by low sales and low developer interest. But the tech giant seems to have learned from this misstep.  

On Thursday, Amazon also announced three major programs to drive the progress and support the development of Echo and the Alexa cloud-based voice system.

The first move is decoupling Alexa from the Echo and offering the voice service for free to anyone who wants to add it to their own hardware.

The second initiative is the release of a software development kit that will make it easier for both hobbyists coders and more established companies to take advantage of Alexa to complete everyday tasks. Possible examples of the software’s possibilities given by Amazon include an alarm clock that lets a user ask about the weather, or a television that can respond to your query about the evening’s ball game by switching on ESPN. 

And the third is the Alexa Fund, a $100 million endowment meant to support and back engineers and other techies doing research or work in voice-activated technology

"Experiences designed around the human voice will fundamentally improve the way people use technology," said Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in a statement. "With the Alexa Fund, we want to empower people to explore the boundaries of voice technology. We’re eager to see what they come up with."

What this all means is that sooner rather than later you may have more and more voice-activated devices our homes that will remind you of your schedule, brew your cup of coffee and – of course – make it easier to purchase things from a certain online retailer.

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