What is the Amazon Echo, anyway?

Amazon's new digital assistant is making waves in the smart home technology market, despite some early criticisms. 

Jeff Chiu/AP Photo
David Limp, Amazon senior vice president of devices, center, speaks about natural language understanding in San Francisco in early March. Amazon.com is introducing two devices, the Amazon Tap and Echo Dot, that are designed to amplify the role that its voice-controlled assistant Alexa plays in people’s homes and lives.

Amazon may not be winning in the smartphone market, but its new Amazon Echo household assistant is making waves in the digital assistant sphere.

Although the Echo was initially available by invitation only starting in late 2014, it was released to the public in July of last year.

The company’s invite-only Amazon Echo customers helped to create the present iteration of Amazon Echo, said Amazon Echo Vice President Greg Hart.

“We are grateful to our early customers for their incredible engagement and for providing us with invaluable feedback to help shape Echo as it evolves,” Mr. Hart said in a press release. “[W]ith their help, we’ve been able to add features like Audible, Pandora, home automation, sports scores, calendar, and more.”

Simply put, the Echo is a small tower speaker. Place it in your living room and forget about it – until you want something, that is. Then, because the Echo is always on and responds to voice commands alone, all you have to do is speak to it.

The Echo performs many of the same functions as smartphones, including providing users with up to date traffic, weather, and news information. Echo users can also ask their devices to play music or update them on the outcome of last night’s game.

One thing Amazon’s Echo doesn’t do so well, though, is function as a speaker alone. Other user complaints include the device’s occasional misinterpretation of commands or questions and a need for more features. 

“The Echo is one of the most compelling cases I’ve ever seen for the power of voice control,” said The Verge’s David Pierce in a review of the product during its invitation only trial phase, “of talking to our gadgets the way we talk to each other.”

The Echo is just one part of Amazon’s smart home product lineup. Earlier this month, The Christian Science Monitor reported on the brain behind the Echo, named Alexa, and Amazon’s newest versions of the Echo, the Amazon Tap and the Echo Dot.

Alexa is a cloud-based voice service that can perform over 300 tasks. Amazon has since opened the technology to other developers, who have used it to create services like Scout Alarm, which allows Alexa users to control home security systems by voice, and Toymail, which allows parents to send voice messages to children in other parts of the home.

“Amazon is helping us create an even more simple and intuitive way to control your smart home – with your voice,” said the CTO of Wink, Nathan Smith, in an Amazon press release, “By integrating Alexa into our platform, customers will be able to manage their home – everything from turning on lights, locking doors, controlling temperature, and opening blinds – just by asking.”

Smart home technology like Echo and its brain, Alexa, is attractive to young, high income people, according to a survey by the Demand Institute. Yet there are dependency drawbacks to this technology as well. 

“Echo is part of this new movement of smart technology,” says psychologist and tech addiction expert Dr. Kimberley Young in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor, “and our dependence on that technology grows depending on how much we use it.”

New York Times reviewer Farhad Manjoo's glowing praise of the Echo device is almost a little haunting in that regard. According to Mr. Manjoo, "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."

Manjoo notes that there could also be privacy concerns inherent in this new technology. When you speak to the Echo, it stores information about you. Due to the device’s functions, that information could include shopping habits or more personal information. Although Amazon has included privacy protections in the Echo, reviewer Manjoo reminds readers that privacy is certainly something to consider with a device that can store so much personal information.

Yet despite the unease some consumers may feel when they contemplate their growing dependence on digital assistance, devices like the Echo are increasingly popular.

Figures from December 2015 show that although the Echo has company in the digital assistant market, including Google’s search engine and Apple’s ever-present Siri, it is by far the best liked. When asked, 67 percent of consumers say they “admire” the Echo, compared to 45 percent enjoyed by Google Now and Siri.

With glowing reviews, Amazon hopes to continue its current success in the coming months.

“We’re excited to get Echo into the hands of even more customers and continue to invent new features and experiences,” said Hart.

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