Amazon unveiled Wednesday a range of devices aimed at cementing its lead in the business of intelligent home speakers.
Amazon wants Alexa to be everywhere.
The company unleashed a barrage of new hardware on Wednesday, from refreshed Echo speakers and Fire-branded streaming device and the new, alarm-clock-like Echo Spot.
The new devices represents an acceleration of the Seattle company’s push into building its own hardware, three years after the surprise release of the original Amazon Echo. The cylindrical tower, controlled by Amazon’s Alexa voice-activated software, was a surprise hit, spawning a range of lookalikes built by rivals such as Google and Apple.
Since then, Amazon has released refined devices and accessories, but made no major facelift to the flagship Echo.
The company changed that on Wednesday, hosting a press event at its Seattle headquarters to reveal a new portfolio aimed at extending its early lead in the category of electronics it helped to invent.
In a space built to look like part-living room, part kitchen, Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services, pulled one device after another from underneath a counter over the course of an hour-long press conference.
First was the new Echo, shorter than its predecessor and bearing a refined speaker and microphone.
In typical Amazonian fashion, the company also shrank the price: the new Echo will sell for $100 in the U.S. (The original sold for $200 at launch).
Voice-activated computing, Limp said, “is going to be ubiquitous.” Future generations, he said, will be unfamiliar with a world in which people can’t tap into computers by using their voice.
That option already exists in many households. While Amazon hasn’t disclosed sales figures – saying only that tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices are in consumers’ hands – Alexa and the Echo are widely seen as the most popular voice activated home technology, eclipsing competing efforts from Google, Apple, Microsoft and others. Amazon currently has more than 5,000 people working on Alexa-related projects, Limp said.
Amazon’s new lineup is a test of what people want to do next with voice-activated software, said Carolina Milanesi, principal analyst at technology research firm Creative Strategies. “At the start it was easy: There was a speaker, it played music and had Alexa. Now Amazon is trying to do different things.”
While Alexa’s core uses are simple tasks like playing music, checking the weather, and setting alarms, the device is also in the center of the race to build a hub that controls internet-enabled devices of all sorts. Alexa’s off-the-shelf tools made available to software developers means builders of everything from light bulbs to stoves and sprinklers can link the operation of their devices to the software’s voice commands. More than 1,100 smart home products are linked to Alexa.
A new version of the Echo takes aim at managing that universe.
The Echo Plus, the same size as the original Echo, is pitched at simplifying the sometimes-tedious task of connecting Alexa to other devices. Users can say “Alexa, discover my devices,” and the Echo Plus will find and link with the other electronics it is able to find on the network. More than 100 products will be compatible with that functionality at launch, Amazon says.
“Simplicity is really the watchword here,” said Daniel Rausch, a vice president in Amazon’s smart home group.
To drive home its hope people will make use of that, Amazon is including a Philips light bulb with every Echo Plus. It is priced at $150.
It’s not just appliance and electronics makers plugging into Alexa.
BMW says it will incorporate Alexa into its cars beginning next year, letting drivers using voice commands to toggle the radio, get directions, or check the news and weather.
Two new, smaller devices are also coming: The Echo Connect, which, when plugged into a telephone jack, allows people to make and receive calls from a landline phone number using Alexa. A decade into the smartphone revolution, Amazon says about 50 percent of households still have landlines.
And the Echo Buttons, hockey-puck-sized, neon-bright devices that can be paired with an Echo as a tactile outlet for games or other applications.
Amazon also introduced the Echo Spot, which, like the Echo Show, gives Alexa a screen to display photos, videos, and a range of visual cues. The Spot looks a bit like an alarm clock, sporting a two-and-a-half inch screen.
The smaller devices are likely targeted at Alexa fans, Milanesi said, an effort to increase the software’s utility to existing customers, and perhaps get a few to shell out for a new device.
The Echo Spot costs $130, and will be available in the U.S. in December, Amazon says.
Both the new Echo and Echo Plus will start shipping to consumers in October. Amazon sells Echo devices in the U.S., Britain and Germany.