How Amazon Aims to be the Voice of the Smart Home (and Car)


Amazon Alexa Echo Spot

The race to command share of mind and voice everywhere continues to accelerate, with Google, Apple, Microsoft and others all competing against each another. But as in other fields ranging from reinventing retail to creating award-winning original programming, Amazon is demonstrating that it doesn’t intend to play second fiddle to anyone.

Already rising 29% on the just-released Best Global Brands, Amazon is attempting to surge ahead in the race to be the voice-connected hub for the smart home after unveiling a suite of new hardware products that build on the capabilities of its Alexa artificial intelligence, voice recognition persona, while a powerful automotive partner aims to make Alexa a chatty (but helpful) passenger.

Revealed in time for the holidays, the Alexa-powered Echo hardware for the home is now the world’s smartest alarm clock, because it’s also a TV remote, a speakerphone, a smartphone hub, a kitchen intercom and an interactive buzzer for game night.

The all-new Echo brings “all the features you love about Alexa, now with a new design, improved sound with Dolby processing, and a lower price—just $99.99.”

The new Echo Plus, meanwhile, “has a built-in smart home hub to easily connect your smart devices—set up and start controlling lights, locks, and more in minutes—just $149.99, with a Philips Hue smart lightbulb included.”

And there’s the new $130 Echo Spot (which comes in black or white) at top, described by Amazon Alexa SVP Tom Taylor as: “Echo Spot combines the popular small design of Echo Dot, the display of Echo Show and the features you love about Alexa into an all-new, stylish and compact device. See the weather, watch video news briefings, glance at your alarm clock, check on your kids, and more—we think customers will find lots of places for Echo Spot in their homes.”

As Amazon notes in a press release, “Put an Echo Spot in each room so you can drop in on the kitchen to ask when dinner will be ready, or drop in on the family room to see how homework is going. Just like Echo Show, you can also use Echo Spot to start a voice or video call, or send a message—simply say, “Alexa, call dad,” or “Alexa, send a message to Mary.””

As Amazon stated, “Routines let you control multiple devices and actions with a single voice command—for example, simply say, ‘Alexa, good morning,’ and Alexa will turn on the lights, start your coffee pot, and read the day’s forecast. Now, call anyone with Alexa—new calling feature offers free outbound calling from Echo devices, plus the all-new Echo Connect brings the convenience of hands-free inbound and outbound calling to your home phone.”

Amazon also introduced Echo Connect, a new Alexa accessory that turns your Echo into a high quality, hands-free speakerphone for your home phone line. Echo Connect works with your existing home phone service – either landline or VoIP. Without touching a single button, ask Alexa to call anybody from your contact list – when you call, they will see your home phone number as the caller ID. When someone you know calls your home phone, Alexa will announce their name from your contacts list—just ask Alexa to answer to start the conversation.

Echo Connect is easy to set up—simply connect it to your home Wi-Fi network and home phone jack or VoIP adapter, and use the Alexa app on your mobile phone to set up Echo Connect. Echo Connect is just $34.99 and will be available later this year.

Amazon Echo Buttons

Echo Buttons are new devices that deliver ways for customers to play games with friends and family using Alexa. The buttons illuminate and can be pressed to trigger a variety of multiplayer and interactive game experiences. There will be a number of new Echo Button-compatible skills available this holiday season including Trivial Pursuit from Hasbro. Echo Buttons will come in a two-pack, priced at $19.99, and will arrive in time for the holidays in the US, UK, and Germany.

Echo Buttons are the first of many Alexa Gadgets, a new collection of accessories that enable fun and playful Alexa experiences.

Alexa is also embedded in the all-new Amazon Fire TV with 4K Ultra HD and High Dynamic Range ($70): “With the most accurate voice search on a streaming media player, you can ask your Alexa Voice Remote to find, launch, and control content. Press the button on the Alexa Voice Remote and say, “Find dramas,” and Alexa will show you results from apps like Netflix, Hulu, SHOWTIME, Amazon Video, and more. Plus, you can pair Fire TV to any of your Echo devices to enjoy hands-free, far-field voice control, powered by Alexa.”

Amazon also announced with the BMW Group that “Amazon Alexa will be available in BMW and MINI vehicles starting in mid-2018. Ask Alexa in-car to get directions, call a business, play music or Audible content, control your smart home, check the news, and more while you’re on the go—without downloading a separate app.”

Customers will also have access to tens of thousands of Alexa skills from third-party developers like Starbucks, NPR, and TED Talks, among others. For many requests, Alexa will provide voice responses paired with visual cards on BMW’s and MINI’s control display, such as to do lists or weather forecasts.

“We are excited to work with BMW to bring the Alexa experience to their drivers,” said Ned Curic, Vice President, Alexa Automotive. “Voice is a big part of the future, especially in cars. Using your voice to enjoy content and interact with your car makes a great driving experience even better. We can’t wait for BMW customers to try this out.”

“By making this step and integrating Alexa into our models from 2018, BMW and MINI will form a more intrinsic part of our customers’ digital lifestyles,” remarked Dieter May, Senior Vice President Digital Services and Business Models at the BMW Group. “Voice control first featured in BMW Group cars many years ago, and we are now enhancing its functionality by adding a digital ecosystem, which will open up all sorts of new possibilities that customers can access quickly, easily and safely from their car.”

Amazon introduced the new Alexa-powered devices at its Seattle headquarters on Wednesday. “It’s the most aggressive effort I’ve seen from any tech giant to colonize the home, the biggest part of our lives not already dominated by smart phones,”stated the Wall Street Journal’s Geoffrey A. Fowler. “Amazon is signaling that its Alexa strategy goes beyond letting you reorder Cheerios and toilet paper toward hooking you into more of its own services.”

The launch “felt as though Amazon execs held a massive brainstorm about every place they could stick Alexa, then greenlit every idea,” Fowler added.

For example the EchoSpot is a spherical alarm clock that displays information, streams video and lets the user command Alexa from nearby. It’s “yet another way to get Alexa in every room of your house,” The Verge said. “It’s easy to imagine this becoming, one of the most popular Alexa-enabled devices yet.”