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.

CES 2015 Preview: 8 Hot Trends
CES 2015 Preview: 8 Hot Trends
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

There's much to like about Echo, Amazon's blending of a natural-language-savvy personal assistant and a connected speaker. But after 10 days of use, it strikes me as an experiment in progress and a first step toward bigger things.

Is Echo Amazon's answer to Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana, and natural-language access to Google through Android devices? Or is this Amazon's hat in the ring of the connected speaker market, led by the likes of Sonos, Jawbone, and Bose?

My experiments confirm that Echo doesn't really match either comparison, but this hybrid device just might establish a category all its own, assuming Amazon can deliver on its promise to add more services and capabilities.

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

Amazon is being rather mysterious about its intentions for Echo. For starters, the device was introduced with an invitation-only release on November 6. Limited-time pricing was set at $99 for Amazon Prime members and $199 for non-members, though that pricing still stands at this writing.

I'm a Prime member, so $99 didn't seem like a budget buster. I was also intrigued by the Amazon video showing a family peppering Echo with questions and requests: Alexa: Play rock music … Alexa: What time is it? ... Alexa: How tall is Mount Everest? ... Alexa: Add wrapping paper to my shopping list.

Echo uses seven built-in microphones to continuously listen for a "wake word" -- in this case, "Alexa" -- and you can follow that with a variety of questions or commands. With all those mics, Echo can hear you from just about anywhere in the same room without your having to shout. If you're too far away you can speak into Echo's remote or use its controls to advance to the next track or turn music up or down.

Behind the scenes, your requests and questions are connected with music-streaming services or online information sources such as Wikipedia. Echo confirms each request or responds to your questions in a pleasant, female voice. "Rock music" … "It's 12:34" … "Mount Everest's height above sea level is 29,029 feet, 8,848 meters" … "I've put wrapping paper or your shopping list."

The "request an invite" sales approach is the first sign Echo is an experiment for Amazon. I didn't hear back on my request for more than a month, suggesting Amazon is manufacturing based on accumulated orders. Perhaps the caution is due to the stinging failure of the Amazon Fire Phone, which fell well short of sales expectations last year.

Solid and simple
My first impression of Echo was the heft of the box when it finally arrived. Inside the black, unmarked box was the cylindrical, 3.27-inch-around by 9.25-inch-high tower, along with a palm-sized 1.5-inch by 5.5-inch remote. The solid-feeling, black plastic tower houses a 2.5-inch woofer and 2-inch tweeter. Judging by the tower's two-pound-plus weight, both speakers have hefty magnets.

Setup was simple. You download and use the Echo App (for Android, iOS, or Amazon Fire devices or desktop browsers) to interactively configure access to your WiFi network, enable location services, and register the device to your Amazon account. When the light ring atop the tower turns blue, Echo is ready to take your requests.

There's Echo, the speaker tower with built-in microphones, and then there's the cloud-based, voice-interactive service that runs on Echo. My first disappointment was learning that you can't give the service a unique persona -- at least not yet. I wanted to call it "HAL" and give it a disturbingly calm, male voice -- à la 2001: A Space Odyssey. Alas, you can only choose between "Alexa" and "Amazon" as the wake word (though Amazon says it's considering more options), and you're stuck with one, ever-polite female voice. I stuck with "Alexa," but she's got nothing on "Samantha," the sexy operating system given voice by Scarlett Johansson in the movie Her.

It's pretty easy to imagine Amazon adding Alexa to the next Fire Phone. I asked her for local weather and news updates, as suggested in the Echo app. The service uses text-to-speech capabilities to recite "Flash Briefings" from sources including Associated Press, NPR, and the BBC. You can customize these briefings to include top stories, US news, world news, business, sports, entertainment, tech, and more.

You can ask ad-hoc questions, such as, "How do you spell onomatopoeia?" Alexa got that last question right, but it's easy to stump her, particularly with topical questions. Alexa had no answer for "Who won the 2014 Major League Baseball World Series?" or "Who won Sunday's Dallas Cowboys versus Detroit Lions football playoff game?" Apple's Siri also missed that recent football trivia question, but it nailed the World Series question and even noted the score of the last game between the winning Giants and the Royals.

When Alexa can't answer a question, it responds with a variation on: "Sorry, I don't have the answer to that question, but I've added a Bing search to the Echo app." Checking this long list, Alexa usually interpreted my voice correctly, but it just wasn't set up to retrieve the desired information. It's best suited to retrieving spellings, definitions, or facts related to famous people, dates, and places: What's the capital of Spain? ... How many people live in New Orleans? ... How many kilometers in a mile? What was Bruce Springsteen's first album? You get the idea.

Alexa can also tell jokes, but let's just say it shouldn't quit its day job.

Limited personal assistance
If Amazon intends to embed Alexa in a phone, it's going to have to link it to email, calendaring, and messaging services. Echo isn't a personal mobile device, so don't expect these routine smartphone capabilities. Alexa also can't retrieve maps, offer directions, or answer questions such as, "What's the number for Cousin's Pizza in Norwood, N.J.?" Siri recited that number in a flash, so I wasn't about to open the Echo app and search Bing results. Siri and Cortana also let you dictate and send texts and email messages, which is not something Alexa can handle.

Alexa can set timers and alarms, but only one timer and one alarm at a time, and you're limited to requests within the next 24 hours. There's no calendar

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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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D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
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1/6/2015 | 12:33:31 PM
Privacy nightmare?
A lot has been written about the privacy implications of having an alway-on, Internet-connected microphone in your home, but as my son observed, "if somebody wants to listen in on our conversations, they must really be bored."

Alexa: How do you spell onomatopoeia? Alexa: What's the weather? Alexa: Play Miles Davis. Alexa: Set a timer for 25 minutes...

Do you really need to be concerned about the Echo log of these kinds of questions and requests? If you're really paranoid, you can delete the log and turn the microphone off. But if you feel that way, you might as well buy a Bluetooth speaker without voice-interaction capabilities.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
1/6/2015 | 3:27:53 PM
Re: Privacy nightmare?
Doug, what about the list function? Say you needed some green beans to serve with that chicken -- you tell Echo to add beans to a shopping list, but where does that list reside? Could you make it a Google doc accessible from your phone?
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
1/6/2015 | 3:35:45 PM
Re: Privacy nightmare?
The shopping lists and to-do lists are accessible from the Echo App, which can run on your phone, on tablets, on desktops or all of the above. You can also add profiles and Amazon accounts for multiple family members, and each could have separate lists.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
1/6/2015 | 4:34:21 PM
Re: Privacy nightmare?
Ah, of course -- there must be an app-based ecosystem. Hopefully firmware upgrades will enable most of that future functionality,
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
1/6/2015 | 4:44:22 PM
Re: Privacy nightmare?
I don't think firmware updates will be required. Alexa accesses information on in the cloud, so Amazon can improve both the voice recognition and the variety of requests and questions the service can answer on its end. The Echo tower is really just a Bluetooth speaker and an Internet-connected mic, with an amplifier and a bit of audio processing and noice-cancelling technology onboard.
Some Guy
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Some Guy,
User Rank: Strategist
1/7/2015 | 11:33:31 AM
Re: Privacy nightmare?
The first-order threat here is knowing if anyone is in the house or not (and further what room they are in). Makes it a lot less risky to break into your house if, for instance, I know where you are and can ransack your bedroom with impunity knowing where you are.
BryanG987
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BryanG987,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/7/2015 | 11:37:35 AM
Echoing the first ten days
I've also had my echo for a few weeks now and for the most part, i agree with your assessment of it. It definitely for me seems to be the most help in the kitchen. Being able to start a timer and change/pause music with just my voice is very handy when cooking. Plus it is where I am most likely to use the shopping list ("Alexa, add butter to my shopping list" comes in handy to remember things).

My downsides to it are a little different than yours. For instance, I have used the Amazon music store for ages which means I am stuck with the Amazon Music Player. It is quite simply the worst app for managing/building playlists and has no ability to import a playlist that you build elsewhere (like iTunes). If you're dealing with a large music library, this gets really problematic. Secondly, it really could use a genius like feature. I can tell Echo "Play Rolling Stones" or "Play Classic Rock". What I can't do is say something like "Play music based on Sympathy for the Devil" and get a genius type of playlist. It's a good app for playback and the extra music available to prime subscribers is a really nice feature.

My other downside is I still find the voice recognition a little finicky on certain letters. For instance, I used to have playlists with names that included "faves". Since faves is not a real word, it always wanted to use "faces" so I got all kinds of unwanted results. I renamed the playlists with "Favorites" and it is better, but it still seems to have a hard time with the letter "v" for some reason (and I'm a midwesterner so not a thick accent by any means).

My final downside is my daughter is named "Alexis". Alexa gets really confused when I talk to Alexis sometimes! So being able to choose a wake word besides "Amazon" or "Alexa" will be really helpful at some point.

But overall, I'm very pleased with the Echo as a $99 kitchen helper. It definitely has some room to grow (for instance, I'd like to see a priority voice feature - let a parent override the kids choice instead of Echo getting caught in the middle of a bunch of people saying "Turn it up" and "Turn it down"). One other thing that I think would be great if they start adding this to the Fire Phone is to have Echo work as a speakerphone. Have the music pause and ask me if I want to take the call then become a bluetooth speaker phone if I say yes. All the tech is there for it already and that would be a very handy pairing! There is definitely room for it to grow as an assistant and become a lot more useful (like having multiple timers available at the same time), but for what it is at this point, I'm glad its in my kitchen!
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.
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 | 12:39:06 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.
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