After an invite-only beta period that began late last year, Amazon Echo is ready to ship to US customers on July 14. While the "smart home" product is initially designed for consumer use, its long-range voice detection capabilities and improved voice recognition could spawn applications for enterprise, government, and healthcare workers, especially in areas where hands-free functionality is required.
The product was initially introduced with handsfree voice control for music, information from Wikipedia and the web, weather, timers and alarms, news, and shopping/to-do lists. It's been described as a "microphone and speaker system that lets you talk to Amazon's cloud and get answers, news, and music." It's what Apple's Siri or Microsoft's Cortana might look like if those services weren't embedded in your smartphone.
Since its beta phase began in November, several additional services have been added, including the ability to access Google Calendar, Audible audiobooks, and to act as a hub for connected home devices.
Amazon Echo, which has a list price of $180, looks like a small cylindrical speaker, and has a 2.5-inch bass reflex system and a 2-inch tweeter stuffed in there. The seven microphones at the top are present to listen to voice commands that start with the activation phrase "Alexa" (I wonder if Billy Joel's daughter gets a cut?). Once the voice commands are parsed, they are sent out to the cloud – specifically to Amazon Web Services. Echo supports 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi networks, but does not support connecting to ad-hoc (or peer-to-peer) WiFi networks. Power comes from a plug-in power supply, so the device is always on standby.
Content from mobile devices that meet the Bluetooth Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) standard can be streamed by Echo, but not devices controlled by Mac OS X. This Apple snub extends to music streaming, which is generated by Pandora, along with the TuneIn and iHeartRadio services. Of course, the Amazon Music Library will be available to Echo.
Echo can also be used to access Wikipedia, traffic reports, and sports services. Amazone Prime customers can re-order products purchased via Amazon.com by accessing their shopping history.
[ Talk nerdy to me. Read 10 Smartphone Apps You Can Talk To. ]
Though Amazon said Echo needs an activation phrase, some privacy advocates have wondered about this kind of product (along with GoogleNow and Smart Barbie) monitoring conversations while it is in standby mode waiting for its activation phrase. Amazon has not yet issued any comments precluding such monitoring, though its press statement said: "Echo uses on-device keyword spotting to detect the wake word. When Echo detects the wake word, it lights up and streams audio to the cloud, where it … recognizes and responds to your request." If the wake word detection is done inside the device without a cloud connection, it would limit the possibility of being a monitor.
Echo may be a way to bring voice control into the consumer mainstream. It has some useful but limited functionality, and a price point to match its capabilities.