Amazon may have taken a financial bath on its Fire Phone. But that hasn’t slowed the company’s hardware ambitions.
On Thursday, Amazon revealed on its website a new voice-controlled speaker called Echo. The company said the tubelike gadget responds in a woman’s voice to requests such as “What time is it?” or “How high is Mount Everest?”
Users can also use Echo to set an alarm or play music from their collection uploaded to Amazon Music.
While rumors flew for months before the launch of the Fire Phone and Amazon’s streaming-video device Fire TV, Echo came by surprise. Amazon announced it by placing details at the top of Amazon.com, unaccompanied by a news release or a media event. Those interested can click on a link to learn more details.
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The device, which must be plugged in, stands 9.25 inches tall and is 3.27 inches in diameter. It has a seven-microphone array to pick up requests from across a room. And the speaker includes a 2.5-inch woofer and a 2-inch tweeter.
Customers were able to sign up Wednesday morning to be notified of the option to purchase an Echo. It will cost $199, or $99 for members of Amazon Prime, the subscription service that offers two-day shipping for no additional cost.
Amazon wouldn’t say how many invitations to buy will be sent to interested customers when the device becomes available. It gave no specific schedule for the product’s release, saying only invitations would be sent “in the coming weeks.”
Echo is a bit like Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana, in that it responds to queries from users. And, as with those services, which are tied to smartphones, Amazon said it will offer an Echo application for phones to manage alarms, music and shopping lists that have been set up with the device.
The app will be available on Android devices when the Echo ships. The company said an iOS version is “coming soon.”
Users can activate the Echo speaker by saying either “Alexa” or “Amazon,” though the company said it intends to add more “wake words” later. (Alexa is an homage to Egypt’s ancient library of Alexandria, according to Amazon.)
Echo will answer questions using a database Amazon created for the service. Echo is also connected to Wikipedia, AccuWeather and other third-party sources.
For now, Echo’s connections to Amazon’s shopping empire are few. Echo customers will be able to buy digital music from Amazon, and they will be able to add items to their shopping list to buy later from the website.
But Amazon spokeswoman Kinley Pearsall said people initially won’t be able to use Echo to purchase physical products from Amazon directly. And they won’t be able to add e-books to their Kindle library.
“We think it makes everyday life a bit easier. When you have a question or want to do something, all you have to do is ask,” Pearsall said.
Echo was built from scratch by Amazon, including workers at its Lab 126, the research-and-development operation that also created the Fire TV and the Fire Phone.
One reason Echo is such a surprise is that company Chief Financial Officer Thomas Szkutak hinted just two weeks ago that Amazon would be more circumspect about diving into new businesses.
The company took a $170 million charge for the Fire Phone, and said it has $83 million in Fire Phone inventory on its books, much of which will likely be written off in the future.
“We do have a lot of opportunities in front of us; but we do have to be selective on those opportunities,” Szkutak told financial analysts during a conference call after Amazon released its third-quarter results.