Amazon Echo First Look

What is Amazon Echo?

The latest to come out of Amazon is the Echo.   The Echo is a voice command device from Amazon.   It has a number of functions including fact finding, weather, traffic, music (from iHeart Radio, Tunein Radio, Pandora and of course Amazon Prime Music) as well as the ability to hook in to supported home automation solutions (WeMo and Hue right now).  Additionally, Amazon has recently added the ability to do fast ordering of previously purchased items.   It is a cylinder with speakers (woofer and tweeter) as well as a 7 microphone array.  It has support for Bluetooth and can be utilized like a Bluetooth speaker if you insist on playing music from your mobile device (since you don’t like any of the supported music options).  The package also contained a remote control that allows for giving commands from outside of microphone range, as well as music controls.  It is powered by Amazon’s cloud so the potential capabilities are limited to your imagination at this point (that and the available SDK J)

Functions

When the Echo originally shipped, it had limited functionality.  As a prime member, I had a chance to order one several months ago and decided to pass on it.  I wasn’t sure what Amazon planned to do with the device and so, I decided to wait.  You have to understand, this is something new to me.  I’ve always been ready to jump on new technology that I believe has potential.  Just to name a few devices that wound up being a complete waste of money for me (not a complete list, but you will get the point):

  1. Iomega Hip Zip, circa 2001 http://www.ign.com/articles/2001/10/01/iomega-hipzip-review
  2. Microsoft Cordless Phone System https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microsoft_Cordless_Phone_System
  3. Need I even mention the Zune (yes I had 3 of these)
  4. iPAQ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPAQ
  5. Pocket PC (not iPAQ)
  6. Windows Media Center addition (killed in Windows 10 http://www.extremetech.com/computing/204903-microsoft-kills-off-windows-media-center-for-windows-10)
  7. Microsoft DirecTV receiver (had this too https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microsoft_TV#UltimateTV) The TV Menu for Windows Media Center and Ultimate TV was (and continues to be ) light years ahead of anything the cable companies or Tivo has been able to come up with.

All of these devices (except for perhaps the Zune) were well before their time.  That said, they were also bombs; so this time, I decided to be more prudent and see where this was going.  In the last couple of months, Amazon has begun to show their hand at what this device was capable of doing.  They added functionality to provide ordering functions for products from Amazon (you had to have previously ordered the item from amazon to do this), Home automation support for WeMo and Hue systems, connections now to Pandora and an agent to work with IFTTT http://ifttt.com.  If you ask Alexa a question, you can have her send the response to your Kindle Fire.  Additionally, Amazon has now published an SDK and is working to encourage application developers do further integrate and expand the lexicon of ‘Alexa’ (the wake word for the echo).  This was now enough for me to buy in and we continue to use it around the house for everything from music, to keeping up with the Padres Score, to setting alarms and planning for the weather when we travel.  Tonight, I will likely let it read my kid a bedtime story, yup, it can do that too.

Usability

I’m always wary of voice driven devices.  There was many a time that I wanted to chuck my iPhone across the room because Siri just plain didn’t understand what I was trying to say.  That has been improved quite a bit and I think that competition from Google and Cortana has helped drive that…that and I suppose that technology has improved some too.  That said, Amazon has shown their intent to invest in ‘Alexa’ and give her more capabilities.  The echo has a 7 microphone array so even with the music playing, it can hear your use of the wake word.  Once the wake word is heard, it will lower the music so you can ask your question.  The same can be done from another room if you have the remote.  Finally, there is an app available for iOS, android and Kindle fire.  The app will allow you to direct the Echo as well as review the last commands that were sent to the Echo and indicate whether the echo understood the command correctly or not.  My kids have found her to be a blast to play with, especially considering the list of non-published commands out there.  So, is the device usable, oh yeah, very usable.

Potential

I can spend pages going over the different potential uses I can see for this device.  With the home automation integration already built in, that already broadens the capabilities.  My only complaint at this point is that I have to cart her from room to room because there is no point in having her in another room if I can’t hear the music or interact with her.  If I actually HAD home automation, I can see the use for it being remote, but right now, I don’t do that, so I want it with me to interact.  There are a couple of things I would love to see Echo do (so Amazon, hope you are listening):

  • Hook up via BT to a phone and be able to make phone calls on command.
  • Allow some form of remote speaker so I can leave Echo in one room, use the remote to play music or ask a question and have it respond in the room I’m in.
  • Allow daisy chaining of devices. What I mean is this, I can see echo’s all over my house, but I want them to be able to work together as well as independently.  So, ask echo to play music, have music play throughout the house, but when my kid goes in their room, they can order the echo in their room to do something else or play different music.
  • Integrate with FireTV or the Fire Stick so I can pull up movies, rent movies, buy movies, via voice command.
  • Personally, would love to see integration with XBOX Music (I have 2 years of subscriptions to music pass)

There are so many potential applications.

Bottom Line

Bottom line is that I (and my family) love this device.  It’s a winner.  Assuming Amazon continues to invest in its capabilities (and I don’t see why they wouldn’t) this could be the best foray into controlling the living room that I have seen to date.  I’ve done several solutions that were designed to be the “home controller”. None of it has the potential that this device has.  I can’t wait to see what Amazon’s next update will bring us as Echo owners.

Sam

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About scavali

20 years of Information Technology experience, including 15 with Microsoft Services and Sales to some of the largest and smallest companies in the world, give me some unique perspective on the technology industry as a whole. Now I am the Unified Communications Practice Manager for Janalent, 2 time UC Worldwide Partner of the Year in 2009 and 2010. Combine that with my passion for photography, scuba diving, all things Key West and my time volunteering with the Madison, NJ Fire Department and you will find an eccletic combination of thoughts and experiences conveyed on this blog. Please contribute, I value people's productive feedback.
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