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Amazon's Toy Is About to Become a Game Changer

By Rick Munarriz - Sep 10, 2016 at 11:00AM

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The leading online retailer's Alexa-powered Amazon Echo could be working with app developers to become a more useful and invasive appliance.

Image source: (AMZN 3.66%) is reportedly about to take its voice-activated digital assistant to the next level. The Information is hearing that Amazon Echo and the Alexa voice-activated platform may soon give app developers the ability to push notifications out to users. 

It's a pretty big deal when you think about it. Amazon introduced the $179 Echo early last year, giving first adopters a crack at owning the smart speaker. A smaller scaled-back version -- Echo Dot -- was briefly made available at $90 earlier this year. 

In its present form, you can wake Echo up by simply saying "Alexa" or an alternate name. You can then interact with the device, asking it reference questions, getting news updates, stream music play lists, and a lot more. You can even listen to Motley Fool Flash Briefings -- but let's get back to business. 

Allowing push notifications raises the stakes. Instead of merely asking it for a weather update, a savvier Echo would be able to tell you when a storm's on the way. Instead of waking Alexa up for score updates, TV show times, or Uber hailing, it would be able to offer score alerts, tell you when your show is about to start, or notify you that your driver is waiting outside.

Sure, you can do this on your smartphone, but this is a plugged-in device that won't drain your phone battery by monitoring for notifications, or interrupt your mobile-gaming experience. 

Echo chamber

I was an early buyer, taking advantage of a half-priced deal for Amazon Prime members when it hit the market at $199 nearly two years ago. It's been sitting unplugged in my family room for months. 

It was great as a novelty at first. The smart speaker was a conversation piece when guests would come over. In time, we just lost interest. We got tired of Echo firing up whenever the TV or someone said something that sounded remotely like the wake-up word, Alexa. I would need a cool feature to get me to bring it back to life, and making it more proactive would justify the times that it would barge into my world uninvited. 

Echo remains a rare Amazon gadget in the gray area between success and failure. Its homegrown gadgetry usually proves to either be a hit like the Kindle, or a flop like the Fire phone. There's clearly a market at the low-end of the pricing spectrum for its Fire tablets and TV sticks, but Echo is a one-of-a-kind product that the market still doesn't know if it's supposed to love or hate.

Maybe the market will decide sooner rather than later, if Amazon rolls out a discounted on-demand music streaming service exclusively for Echo, as Recode was reporting last month. Then again, Amazon may not like the answer it gets if that particular aural offering bombs. Ramping up push notifications -- as long as consumers have strict controls for what they deem worthy of interrupting the silence -- seems like the smarter path to gaining relevance. 

Give me a reason to bring my Echo back to life, Amazon. It's been too long a slumber.

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