Amazon's (NASDAQ:AMZN) latest device, Echo, is in a class of its own. At its core, Echo is a bluetooth speaker, but one that offers impressive functionality. Equipped with seven microphones and a WiFi connection, Echo serves as a digital personal assistant, able to take voice commands and respond intelligently.
Echo's announcement was unexpected, and given that it has yet to receive a full release, its success is largely unproven. Moreover, the reviews it has received have been rather lukewarm -- though for a first generation product, that's not particularly unusual. Still, the category appears to hold promise, and its one that Amazon's major mobile competitors -- Google (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) -- would do well to follow.
Siri is limited to iOS devices
Amazon's Echo is powered by the e-commerce giant's new digital personal assistant, Alexa. Like other personal assistants, Alexa can respond to queries, set reminders, and play select songs from a linked Amazon music account.
Apple's Siri offers all this and more but is currently restricted to the iPhone and iPad -- if those devices are out of reach, Siri is largely useless. Alexa, on the other hand, can be accessed from anywhere in the room with Echo's always-on microphones.
If the latest version of Apple's iOS is any indication, the Cupertino tech giant has an interest in offering something similar to Amazon's Echo. iOS 8 includes a new feature -- "Hey, Siri" -- that makes it possible to query Siri from a distance, completely hands-free. Still, it suffers from significant limitations: the device must be plugged in, and the microphones built into the iPhone and iPad, while solid, don't compare to the seven offered by Echo.
An Apple-made Echo alternative could significantly improve Siri's utility by making it far more accessible.
Google Now would be a perfect fit
Google's personal assistant, Google Now, is a little less restricted than Apple's Siri -- available as a mobile app, Google Now is accessible to owners of both Android and iOS devices. A few of these, including the recently released Nexus 6 and Motorola's first and second-generation Moto X, even offer hands-free accessibility.
But no handset quite compares to Echo, and like Siri, Google Now could be improved with dedicated hardware.
Of the three -- Alexa, Siri, Google Now -- the search giant's solution is probably the most powerful, able to interface directly with Google's many online services and offer personalized information on a predictive basis. Google Now can, for example, tip off workers to delays affecting their daily commutes -- assuming they have the foresight to check the app on their phone. A Google Now-connected speaker offering a helpful, verbal warning could prove immensely more useful for similar applications.
Cortana and the Xbox One
Microsoft also offers a version of Amazon's Echo ... sort of. Its video game console, the Xbox One -- when paired with Kinect 2.0 -- is capable of receiving voice commands. It can even search the Internet using Bing or start a playlist through Xbox Music. But Kinect is focused on entertainment rather than utility and exists as more of an alternative control scheme for the Xbox One, rather than an interface for a digital assistant.
Microsoft does have a digital assistant, though, one that it appears increasingly interested in. Cortana (named after a character from Microsoft's Halo franchise) is the Windows Phone equivalent of Siri. Given Windows Phone's extremely limited market share, Cortana hasn't enjoyed widespread adoption -- but that could be about to change.
Windows 10, the next version of Microsoft's operating system, will boast Cortana as a central feature. So long as Windows remains the dominant desktop operating system, Cortana should see increased usage. Away from a Windows PC, however, Microsoft's personal assistant will be largely inaccessible to a group of users that, more than likely, don't have a Windows Phone. A Microsoft-made, Echo-like device, could bridge the gap.
An important new hardware category?
The various digital personal assistants serve to bind users to their respective apps and ecosystems: Siri, with its ability to access iTunes music, encourages the use of Apple's digital music store; Google Now's predictive features work only when paired with its browser, Chrome, and its calendar app, Google Calendar.
Dedicated hardware like Echo could entice users to rely on these assistants to a greater extent and thereby tie themselves further to each company's respective ecosystem. At first glance, Amazon's Echo may appear to be a quirky, niche device, but it could eventually represent an important new hardware category.