Amazon Echo: My First 10 Days - InformationWeek

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1/6/2015
09:33 AM
Doug Henschen
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Amazon Echo: My First 10 Days

Amazon Echo crosses Siri with Sonos to create a "smart" speaker that can summon information as well as music. It's promising, but here's where it falls short.

function, so you can't set an alarm for, say, every morning at 6:00 a.m. Alexa puts requests for appointments or reminders that are more than 24 hours in advance on your "to-do" list, which has no sense of time. You won't get reminders and you can't sync these reminders with your Exchange/Outlook, Apple, or Google calendars.

The timer function is handy in the kitchen, where your hands are often busy with pots, pans, and messy preparation. Echo's built-in mics are sensitive from quite a distance, but one night while grilling chicken, using the range hood fan, and playing music all at the same time, my request for a "two-minute" timer was interpreted as "10 minutes." Alexa repeats all timer and alarm requests so you know if it got it right, but between the fan noise and the music, I didn't hear the error. I finally caught on, but not before drying out the chicken.

More than music
If Echo succeeds, it will be on the strength of its blend of playing music and radio, setting alarms and timers, and answering common questions all with the ease of voice command. I had never used the Amazon Music app before buying Echo, but it's the default music service for Echo, along with the iHeartRadio and TuneIn radio apps.

[Want more on the latest devices? Read CES 2015 Preview: 8 Hot Trends.]

Amazon says it plans to add other music streaming services "in the future," but I'm guessing it will take its sweet time in order to favor its own services. The Amazon Music app can suck in your entire iTunes library, and if you're a Prime member, you also get free access to lots of playlists. Echo adds the convenience of voice commands: Alexa: next track; Alexa: louder; Alexa: softer; Alexa: stop; Alexa: Play Coffee Shop Indie playlist.

I was already experimenting with Pandora and Spotify before buying Echo, but access to Amazon Music with free Prime Music playlists made it easy to forego paid access to Pandora. Spotify can't run on the Echo App as yet, but you can connect to Echo via Bluetooth and use the Spotify app (or any other service) as you would with any Bluetooth speaker.

Comparing sound quality, Echo sounds good, but my Jawbone Big Jambox sounds better, with better clarity, surround effects, and less hiss at high volume. My Sonos 1 speakers sound better still, mainly because they can be paired to play in stereo. You can also set up Sonos speakers in every room in your house, syncing all speakers or playing different playlists in different rooms. Echo is just one, isolated speaker that's adequate for a midsized room.

A big play for Echo -- but one I didn't explore -- is buying music or merchandise through Amazon using voice commands. It's obvious what these options are all about. If you like one-click buying, you might appreciate "buy it" requests via Echo. You can also set up separate Echo users with separate Amazon accounts, but I didn't go there.

Echo potential
Amazon can take Echo and the Alexa service in a lot of directions, but for now it's a blending with limits as well as potential. The speaker isn't the best available, but it's more than adequate for listening to music, weather, news, and streaming radio. Alexa is limited as a personal assistant compared to Siri and Cortana, but the voice recognition is reliable and Amazon is using Echo as a training platform, improving accuracy (and, hopefully, query capabilities) as it gains experience.

Many expect Alexa to show up in the next generation of Amazon Fire Phones. CEO Jeff Bezos has said all along that phones are a long-term play for Amazon. If Echo helps Amazon develop natural-voice services, grab a slice of the connected-speaker market, and gain more Amazon Music users, it just might be a three-way success. That's the kind of long-term investment Amazon is known for.

For now, Echo V1 will live in my kitchen, serving up news and weather updates, setting timers, answering stray questions, and playing music and the radio at my family's command.

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Doug Henschen is Executive Editor of InformationWeek, where he covers the intersection of enterprise applications with information management, business intelligence, big data and analytics. He previously served as editor in chief of Intelligent Enterprise, editor in chief of ... View Full Bio
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spembert
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spembert,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/8/2015 | 3:57:40 AM
Amazon Echo shipping to me
I responded to Amazon's offer on November 6. Received email from Amazon on January 6 that I could place my order ($99). Received email shortly after that I would receive echo on February 18. Received email from Amazon late February 7 that I would receive echo on February 11.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
1/12/2015 | 3:03:58 PM
Re: Amazon Echo: My First 10 Days
@Li Tan- The Echo is definitely attempt to prevent (or at least control) that matrix you are describing. I think one of the major challenges of the next 20 years is simply making machines fit into our lives in an organic, human way. Echo seems to be the best effort of this I've seen. Far better than Siri or Cortana or any I've seen because it also fits into the living space. That said, it needs a few more iterations.
Li Tan
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Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
1/10/2015 | 9:25:26 PM
Re: Amazon Echo: My First 10 Days
There are still some improvements needed for Amazon Echo but I do agree with your point - the most important part of it is changing the way we interact with machines. This is the step forward to integrate smart machines/IT products into our inner life cycle. But will it happen that soon we are living inside matrix of machines/IT equipments?
Li Tan
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Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
1/10/2015 | 9:25:07 PM
Re: Amazon Echo: My First 10 Days
There are still some improvements needed for Amazon Echo but I do agree with your point - the most important part of it is changing the way we interact with machines. This is the step forward to integrate smart machines/IT products into our inner life cycle. But will it happen that soon we are living inside matrix of machines/IT equipments?
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
1/8/2015 | 11:14:24 AM
Re: Amazon Echo: My First 10 Days
I like this as the first step in divorcing the computer from the box and putting it into our lifestyle. Even with a phone, if I want to know somehting or do something I have to take out my tiny box and interact with it. Or i go to my big desk box. Something like this takes a lot of computer management out of the box. As it commands more things ("alexa, tell Nest to turn up the heat" or "Alexa, tell my self-driving car to pick up the kids at school) it turns into the most unobtrusive way to mange your life. 
BryanG987
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BryanG987,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/7/2015 | 2:22:05 PM
Re: Echoing the first ten days
I'd like to be able to count on Amazon Music for serious consumption. The downside to Sonos / iTunes, etc is that they can access my purhased library, but not the songs that I add to my library through Prime. So far, the playlist problem outweighs the benefits of the Prime music for me as well, but if Amazon would improve that, it could swing the pendulum for me from iTunes to Amazon Music as I would probably add a lot more of the Prime music into my library.

I've done voice training a couple of times and it still seems like the "V" as a "C" is the one thing it still trips on, but that also doesn't seem to come up on the voice training. Their voice training works with a lot of very common phrases (like "Play my briefing report") and doesn't seem to really go after your custom names or anything at this point.
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
1/7/2015 | 2:18:21 PM
Re: Amazon Echo: My First 10 Days
I'm with most of the rest of you on this one - it seems like this product fits into a grey area, and while the value appears to be there, I'm also a little unsure of who the target audience for it is (indeed, it seems like Amazon might not be sure either). For what it's worth, this article is the first I'm hearing of Echo, but this seems like quite a solid review, Doug, and it looks like you've covered just about everything. I was wondering a bit about the smartphone and desktop integration, but happy to see that's covered here in the comments. I think Lorna makes a good point, though; maybe not with 'firmware updates' per se but it seems like a lot of the missing functionality could be added later. For example, e-mail integration seems possible if the smartphone app is just pushing text to read from your phone to the Echo.

If we consider the whole thing to be a beta of sorts, then most of the shortcoming are forgivable, but nevertheless some of these decisions seem strange from Amazon. Only being able to keep one alarm at a time? I don't see how there was a technical barrrier there, or why they wouldn't think people would have a use for that. The video showcases how the Echo is a little more family-oriented than a Siri, but as BryanG points out there are some hitches with that as well - you don't want your kids buying stuff on Amazon without your say-so. If it's just looking stuff up online, I don't see why it has to limit the sources it uses. I could go on, but we'll just have to see what Amazon plans long-term. At the $99 price, it seems like quite a deal, but the $200 general price seems to relegate it to a more niche category - I'm just not sure what that niche is.
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
1/7/2015 | 12:39:06 PM
Re: Echoing the first ten days
Amazon and every tech supplier wants to appeal to the public at large. I'd think of Echo in the context of the connected speaker market. You can find Sonos, Bose and Jambox speakers at Best Buy and even at some Target stores. That's a sure sign that this is a mainstream category. Time will tell whether Amazon fills out its speaker line, takes Alexa in another direction or both.
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
1/7/2015 | 12:24:10 PM
Re: Echoing the first ten days
Such release from Amazon will help them figure out what bugs it has and what areas it can improve.  As of now, they know many potential areas.  I'm sure future releases will improve.  My question is whether there is a consumer demand for such device?  You said that you can do many of its functionalities with a smartphone ( search info, timer, check personal calendar,etc).  Would this device by acquire just for tech enthusiast or the public at large.   
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
1/7/2015 | 12:11:50 PM
Re: Echoing the first ten days
This is good feedback for others to think about. As for me, I'm not counting on Amazon Music or Echo for serious music consumption. For that I use Sonos (in the living room or family room) with either my iTunes library or Spotify. Amazon's Prime playlists are fine considering they're free, but I wouldn't pay for them.

As for that "Alexa/Alexis," problem, you can go into the Echo App Settings menu and change the wake work to "Amazon." You could also try "Voice Training" from the "Things to Try" menu and see if that improves Alexa's understanding of your "accent." I'm from the midwest as well, so in my view, it's all those people from the East, South and West who have the accents.
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