Alexa on Steroids — Now she can Show and Tell

The internet has been abuzz for days, whispering about the rumors. Is Amazon’s Echo getting a SCREEN? It seems that the earliest rumblings of the news started about a year ago, but about two weeks ago, when Amazon released the Echo Look, a new addition to the Echo line that boasts both a smart speaker and a camera, the talk intensified. Fans, enthusiasts, and techies alike speculated that the next step might be a screen — but what would that mean for the Echo??

And then, the rumors were confirmed. Amazon released the Echo Show just this week, complete with a screen. From the product description, it sounds like the addition is an attempt to make the Echo a complete 360-degree experience;

“Echo Show brings you everything you love about Alexa, and now she can show you things. Watch video flash briefings and YouTube, see music lyrics, security cameras, photos, weather forecasts, to-do and shopping lists, and more. All hands-free — just ask.” — Echo Show homepage

The Echo Show points to the usefulness of the Echo in a home — and its development over time has pushed it further into the domestic realm (remember, when Echo first launched in 2014, early users were encouraged to keep the device in their kitchen.) Studies show that at least one-quarter of households in the US have at least one piece of smart gear, and this number will surely continue to grow. Much like other technologies — radios, televisions, etc. — smart home systems will become primary characters in the lives of our families and ourselves. The ability to voice search has changed everything — so really, why add the screen? Does the Echo really need it?

Remember Fireside Chats? Me Either. No screen needed.

Alexa Needed the Screen

Early naysayers of the screen pointed to it being “a 7-inch Fire tablet slapped onto a slimmed down Echo speaker system,” but the capabilities that the screen adds to the experience of the Echo show that it is truly an update of the device. In most cases, the support for the addition of the screen is overwhelming — a recent article from Wired even touts, “Amazon’s ‘Echo Show’ Gives Alexa the Touchscreen It Needed.” As the article notes, “Sure, you can book a flight with your voice, but it’s so much easier when you can see the price chart.”

Is there really anything else that needs to be said? The Show integrates video, YouTube, and at a glance daily updates that appear to be intended for use as an alarm clock on steroids. You can ask Alexa to show you recipes and maps, or anything else you would want to see, and she’ll show it to you. You can shop through the screen. It gives you visual updates — like how far away your Uber is — with voice updates as well. It’s definitely adding to the Echo’s user experience, and is positioned as the hub for a host of other Echo products. The intention is that you would have many across your home, and use the Echo Show as the home base and dashboard.

An Alarm Clock on Steroids

A Screen — or A Window Connecting the World

In terms of a household completely connected to — and by — smart technology, Amazon is making strides with the Echo Show, keeping them squarely ahead of their competition. According to eMarketer, Amazon’s Echo devices will keep over 70% of the market, with Google in second place with 20%. Amazon’s Echo products run the gamut- with multiple devices that can see and hear, you can link your entire house to check on it and see what’s happening. Did your package get delivered, and is it still safely on the front doorstep? Check the Echo Look installed at your front door. In the kitchen, but want to keep an eye on your young kids playing in the living room? You can check in on the Echo Show screen. Perhaps the coolest new addition is that you can make calls between Echo devices, and because the Show has a screen, you can now video call if you’re calling someone that also has a Show.

If you’re joining a conference video for work, it’s easy to do with one click, and it mutes background noise, gives attendance, and works across all user devices and systems. You can set up a “Drop In” function, where you can instantly connect with someone through an Echo device by simply saying, “Alexa, Drop In on xyz.” Basically, it sounds like anything that you would need to view will be accessible through the new Echo Show. When you think about all of the things that the screen adds to the experience of using an Echo, it’s pretty clear that it is an update and an upgrade — it’s truly going to revolutionize how we get together and communicate with other humans.

From many experts’ view, it was a needed addition. Natalie Spano, an Associate Partner in IBM’s Cognitive Process Transformation practice commented, “I think it’s an improvement. It’s great for customer satisfaction, and it blurs the line between a device to talk to and interact with.” It’s true — the telephone has been disrupted, and it seems that the Echo Look could stand in as a modern age landline replacement.

An older landline

Even more? It would change interactions on such devices. “Imagine you had a customer service app with a cognitive streak,” Spano continues, “If you got to the end of your query and needed to talk to a live agent, rather than calling you back or emailing you — There’s a possibility to use the Echo channel.” And in addition, if the Echo is connected to a range of devices throughout your home, couldn’t it also tell when you are home to alert the customer service agent when the best time is to make the follow up call? It’s certainly possible that it will be an option in the future.

Criticism

Of course, the Echo Show is not without its critics. In addition to the comment about the show being an Echo with a Fire tablet attached, others are skeptical as to why the screen is needed, and what the cons of the screen could be. While the screen is nice for visuals, it also could point to a flaw or deficit in Alexa technology and capabilities — it’s just not as advanced as Amazon hoped it might be. As of now, the Echo voice search listens and recalls, but doesn’t quite converse with the person at hand. As Richard Windsor, analyst at Edison Investment Research, puts it, “The problem is simply that Alexa (and all other others) are far too stupid to be able to hold a meaningful conversation with a user. Google Assistant is currently the best but remains woefully short of what one would consider to be a useful assistant.”

Windsor goes on to explain that while the screen does greatly improve the experience of using the Echo, it could also open up Amazon to advertising space. While he does have a point, it is probably not likely that Amazon would use this new channel for ads — the way that it has used Echo in the past indicates that it has no intentions to do so. Audio ads do exist, as anyone who doesn’t have the free version of Pandora or Spotify knows, and Amazon has not used the Echo as a channel for such ads. It would pretty obviously put a kink in the user experience, which I doubt they will sacrifice.

Amazon and the Echo aren’t going anywhere

Even if it’s in its early stages, the market is behind voice-activated systems. In the last year, they have grown 128.9%. Over 35 million Americans use a voice-activated assistant device at least once a month. While Amazon’s share might fall from its lofty 70%, it will undoubtedly remain the dominant player, at least for the foreseeable future.

Market Share on Steroids

But what will the future of the Amazon Echo, or any other in-home device, be? We don’t exactly know, but we can guess. One issue with the Echo Look is where to actually place it in your home — Amazon suggests multiple locations based on use, but it’s not likely that each family in America will dish out for 3 right off the bat. Spano states, “I don’t get where you put it. We’ve been hiding home devices so you don’t see them. If it has a camera and video it has to be front and center. It would be better if it integrated to your TV.”

She makes a great point about connected devices and the future of smart homes — why do we need another device with a camera and screen when our televisions are already the focal point of our homes and family lives for most? Is that level of connected devices what will be possible the future — will we see an Amazon smart TV next? Perhaps. Spano also points out that we don’t necessarily know how generations of the future will want to interact with their devices, and right now, the Echo caters to an older audience. “My Parents — my children’s grandparents — love it. I just want to type everything.” And this is very true — different generations have reacted very differently to technology and use it in different ways.

I (a millennial) interviewed Spano over chat, so we could both type and multitask. It worked great for us, but might not be the channel of choice for those in the future. We don’t yet know what the children of today will prefer — especially as a generation raised entirely in the digital age, used to skyping, texting, and digital voice. So time will tell — perhaps this generation will go full circle and also love voice features. Or, perhaps something even more innovative will come along. Who knows? Anything’s possible.