I have kind of a love/hate relationship with Amazon. Mostly love I guess. I buy a lot of stuff from them, my favorite tablet is my Kindle Fire HDX and I have a large collection of Kindle ebooks. I watch a lot of stuff on Amazon Prime Streaming. I can even forgive them for Prime Music since I have better alternatives. (Has it gotten any better? I should check one of these days.)
The hate comes from the fact that it's just too easy to order a new gadget from Amazon. You get the crazy idea you need a new $200 juicer and it's at your doorstep before you even stop to think about how you'll fit it on the kitchen counter or who is going to be running out to buy all that produce.
Yesterday Amazon unveiled the Echo. Turns out there are still companies that can keep secrets because I hadn't heard a peep about this gizmo before it was announced. The Echo is like a combination of a bluetooth speaker and a smart phone's digital assistant.
At the most basic, you plop down the Echo, plug it in to an outlet (so it's intended to stay put rather than travel with you), connect to your WiFi network and start streaming Amazon Music, iHeartRadio or TuneIn to it. Alternatively you can pair it as a bluetooth speaker and play whatever you have on your phone (Pandora, iTunes, etc) through the Echo.
But Echo does more than play music. You can also talk to it. Alexa is the keyword to wake it up (though you can change this if you wish), after which you can ask it questions and give it orders. Basically it's a replacement for pulling out your phone and talking to Siri or Cortana or "OK Google." (Google really needs a cute name for its system.) Examples offered on the Echo site include things like "How many teaspoons are in a tablespoon" and "Set an alarm for 8 minutes." Echo will parse your question and give you an answer, or do your bidding if you've given it a command.
Echo has an array of seven microphones which is supposed to make it able to hear you over the music you're blasting through it. We'll see.
Echo is supposed to get smarter with use and learn the kinds of things you ask it, which I suppose means it gets faster with its answers? There's an Echo app for Android and FireOS that will let you manage your content from far afield. Hilarity will ensue when you startle your family by having Echo start playing your disco mix from some remote location. (If you're an iOS or Windows Phone user you can access a browser-based version of the app.)
The Echo page mentions lists, and specifically shopping lists. That has led folks like Greg Kumparak at TechCrunch to speculate that Echo will eventually let you order stuff through Amazon by voice. Greg seems to think the shopping lists mentioned are Amazon shopping lists (though in the video below it just looks like a text list in the Echo app). He envisions a day when you'll just be able to say "Alexa, order me a copy of Kung Fu Panda 2" and the next morning it'll show up on your doorstep.
I'm not sure if that idea thrills me or scares me to death. I don't need it to be any easier to buy stuff!
For now you need an invitation to buy an Echo. If you get an invite you can save $100, which is definitely good news. I admit it, I requested an invite. I'd pay $100 for the Echo just to see how well it works, but $200 feels like too much to me. I have this scenario in my head where we're sitting around watching TV and I say "Alexa who played Iolaus in Hercules, the Legendary Journeys?" and Alexa will tell me it was Michael Hurst, and yes that was him playing Kvasir in The Almighty Johnsons. Because you know, picking up a phone or a tablet to find out this critical piece of info is so much work!
If I'm lucky enough to get an invite (and I suspect any Prime member who requests one will get one) I'll do a hands-on piece once I get the Echo set up. Until then you can enjoy this incredibly cheesy teaser video. It's practically like living with The Jetsons! In fact if I get one I think I'll change the trigger word to "Rosie."