Every few years, the biggest names in the consumer electronics industry try to predict what the Next Big Thing will be. Sometimes they get it right, as in the case of smartphones. Sometimes they get it wrong, and are left with a lot of unsold 3D televisions.
The latest such prediction is the Connected Home. The Connected Home is essentially a regular home in which everything that runs on electricity has become sentient. In the Connected Home, the thermostat knows to lower the heat when you leave the house; the refrigerator recognizes when you're running low on eggs, and automatically orders more; the television knows when you've left the room to get popcorn, and pauses the show until you get back.
The Connected Home is, depending on your disposition and capacity for cynicism, either a Jetsons-themed dream world come to life or a dystopic nightmare.
The technology industry loves the idea of the Connected Home because it represents a massive outlay of cash on the part of consumers. Companies such as Samsung and LG stand to make billions selling Internet-connected dishwashers, motion-sensitive light bulbs and smartphone-controlled bidets. But the real money isn't in building one or two of these things, it's in making them all work together. Whichever company manages to build the technology that acts as a kind of universal remote for all these disparate gadgets will make a killing.
This is the long-winded way of explaining the existence of a new voice-activated, tube-shaped gadget called the Echo – Amazon's attempt at building the universal remote of the Connected Home, even if the Connected Home doesn't quite exist just yet.
The Echo has been available in the United States for a little under a year, but Amazon has only recently started pushing the device with a big marketing campaign (as well as the introduction of two similar but lower-priced versions). It is essentially a voice-activated robot concierge, similar to Apple's Siri. But rather than just being in a smartphone, the Echo's voice assistant, named Alexa, is built into a standalone speaker. And rather than just answering questions, the Echo is designed to do things like turn off the lights and buy toilet paper.
The Echo, which is currently only available in the United States and will set you back about $180 (U.S.), is an unassuming thing. It looks like a plain black pill, a minimalist cylinder fit for shooting through one of those old-timey pneumatic messaging tubes. There are no screens and almost no buttons – if you want the Echo to do something, you say, "Alexa …" The gadget then perks up and waits for a voice command, such as "play NPR radio" or "buy more bread."
The vast majority of the time, Amazon wants you to interact with the Echo only through Alexa – in other words, only through voice commands.
(Amazon declined to provide The Globe and Mail with a review model of the Echo. Like most big tech companies, Amazon enforces with some militancy with its various regional firewalls – because The Globe is a Canadian paper, and the Echo isn't yet available in Canada, the company decided they didn't want us to review it. So we went out and got one).
The bottom half of the cylinder is home to the Echo's wrap-around "360" speaker. On the device's flat top edge are the Echo's only two buttons – one that wakes the microphone up (in case you get tired of saying "Alexa") and one that mutes the microphone altogether (in case you're having a conversation with someone named Alexa). Otherwise, the Echo's only sign of life is a ring of light around the top edge; it glows blue when Alexa is listening, pulses when Alexa is trying to figure out what you want, and red when you mute the device.
That's it. There's no physical remote control, no other buttons, nothing but a tiny hole in which to plug the charger cable (the Echo needs to be plugged in to a power outlet all the time).
At first blush, everything about the Amazon Echo is fine. Nothing stands out or seems to be the result of an engineering or design team's audacious risk-taking or grand epiphany. The wrap-around speaker is clean, although it sounds a little cavernous at low volumes, begins to get shaky at high volumes and doesn't really compete with any of the higher-end (and, admittedly, much more expensive) offerings from the likes of Bose. The setup process is done through an accompanying smartphone app and is relatively straightforward.
The only area in which the Echo outshines almost all its competitors is voice recognition. At present, Alexa recognizes more than a hundred commands, from the usual weather-and-sports-score stuff to more sophisticated requests, including shopping orders from Amazon. But that's not what separates Alexa from the likes of Siri and the "Ok Google" robot. Alexa is designed to learn, to function as a platform on which anyone can build new things.
Since Amazon introduced the Echo to the masses last summer, the company has been adding new functionality, new apps – and with each upgrade, Alexa learns a few more commands. In addition, Amazon also allows outside developers to build their own Alexa-powered software. A lot of the current third-party apps are borderline pointless (one has Alexa tell you what colour the Empire State building is lit up today, another offers a bunch of pickup lines) and all of them are arranged haphazardly in a single unordered list within the Alexa mobile app. But each one helps expand the list of things Alexa understands. Amazon even allows regular Echo users to build their own commands, creating custom vocal shortcuts to turn down the thermostat or open the garage door.
Still, there's no getting around the clunky machine-ness of talking to Alexa. Just like most other voice command robots, Alexa will sidestep whatever it doesn't understand, sometimes resulting in an awkward silence as the user waits to see if anything's going to happen. Sometimes the commands don't quite work – despite signing in with a premium Spotify account, I was unable to make Spotify-related voice commands work; every time, Alexa listened, its blue thinking light pulsed, and then … nothing.
Additionally, if the Echo is going to connect to dozens of other services, such as a user's bank account or Amazon shopping features, the company is going to have to provide a few more security features. Right now, pretty well anyone can ask Alexa to do almost anything.
There's really no good reason to run out and grab an Echo right now (and if you live outside the U.S., you probably won't be able to buy one in the near future; at least some of the functionality is America-specific). If you're looking for a Bluetooth speaker, you can get something better for the same price (the Tivoli Model One radio comes to mind). If you really like talking to your devices, you can already ask Siri a lot of the same questions. Sure, it's fun to do things like ask Alexa for a rundown of the day's headlines, but it's not exactly vital.
Where Echo becomes interesting is further down the line, as the Connected Home starts inching its way into the mainstream. If Amazon can get enough of these things in customers' hands by the time Internet-connected-everything becomes the norm, the Echo will naturally morph into the de facto remote control for all those smart fridges and dishwashers.
That, for Amazon, is the real potential payoff. Everything about the company's corporate ethos speaks to delayed gratification. Despite rarely turning a quarterly profit, it is one of the most highly valued technology companies on the planet. In other words, investors have been willing for years to buy billions in Amazon stock, not because the company makes a lot of money right now, but because it stands to make a lot of money in the future, should it ever achieve its overarching ambition of becoming the place where everyone buys everything.
The Echo is in many ways a product of this way of thinking. Its capabilities are modular, designed to be augmented and enhanced over time. And while there is perhaps a small segment of power users who have smart light bulbs and smart garage doors and all the makings of a Connected Home already installed, most people won't be able to make full use of all the Echo's capabilities just yet.
But it doesn't matter – Amazon is more than happy to get the Echo into millions of plain old homes now, and wait for the Connected part to come later.