Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) has been surprisingly low-key in rolling out Echo, its voice-activated personal assistant that's part Apple(NASDAQ:AAPL)Siri, part wireless music system, and part tiny store designed to make shopping with the retailer easier than it already is.
The product was announced with limited fanfare and only made available to Amazon customers who requested an invitation. Those invites were doled it in relatively small numbers, according to GeekWire, making the device somewhat hard to obtain. Echo costs $199, but Amazon is selling it to Prime members for just $99 for a limited time.
A cylindrical device, Echo works with companion iOS and Android apps, and it comes with a remote control. Neither the app nor the remote are needed to operate the device but both -- the app specifically -- enhance its usefulness. When awakened by a user using the verbal command "Alexa," which is essentially the device's name, it can be used to play music, answer basic questions, and buy things from Amazon.
The technology remains a little raw. However, Echo is very good at some of what it does, and the device could become a way for Amazon to reach its customers without the need for a computer, phone, or tablet -- something none of its online retail customers can currently do.
How does it work?
I received my Echo (which I ordered on Dec. 30) on Jan. 13, paying $99 as a Prime member. Amazon ships the device in a heavy-duty black box that is exceedingly easy to open -- just a small detail, but every taped point in the packaging had a clever seal marked with an arrow for quick removal.
Set-up was remarkably easy as well. Amazon includes a card with step-by-step instructions inside the packaging. Once the Echo was plugged in and the app installed on my iPhone 6, the app helped me connect to the device and my office Wi-Fi. The Echo was linked to my Amazon account information right out of the box, so like the Fire TV devices, it seems to be pre-configured for each buyer before shipping. The app also included a brief video introduction showing how Echo works and suggestions for how to use it.
Aside from the volume, which is controlled by a spinning ring at the top of the device and came preset to booming, the setup experience was flawless. Actually using Echo, however, was not quite as simple.
On the positive side, Echo delivers as a music player -- especially if you're an Amazon Prime member with access to the free music service. The device, which also can pull from iHeartRadio and the TuneIn Radio app, plays music after a simple voice command. "Alexa, play Bruce Springsteen," "Alexa, play Buffalo Tom," and "Alexa, I want to hear some music," all resulted in the device quickly building a playlist that matched the request.
Echo also told me who Martin Luther King Jr. was, who Martin Luther was, and correctly told me the day Luther Vandross died.
Buying stuff is not as easy as it could be
Echo also worked flawlessly as a timer, an alarm clock, and in delivering basic information like the weather. Where the virtual assistant struggled is actually the area which makes it most valuable to Amazon: facilitating purchases. You can add items to a shopping list, which can be seen in the app, and then find those items on Amazon. It's a convenient way to remember buying something you notice you need, but it's not a one-step process.
I was able to add a specific brand of kitty litter to my shopping list. Echo translated my request to "Buy Feline Pine kitty litter," as "Buy Feline Pine kitty butter," but the app still found the right product on Amazon and making the actual purchase was a two-click affair. In general, the shopping list is a useful way to make buying from Amazon easier, but it still requires making some choices in the app.
Echo has a direct voice purchase option, which requires setting up a verification code in the app, but I was unable to get it to work properly.
If Amazon smooths out the edges
Echo is tremendously fun to play with. It's an excellent music player that took requests as diverse as "play 'Jump Around'" to "play the theme from The Flintstones" to "play dance music." It's also good for basic math, simple data requests, and it responds when you say "good morning." That's all pretty neat, but it's not the functionality that will fundamentally improve Amazon's business.
Buying things takes a little too much effort. If Amazon finds a way to make purchasing through the device a more seamless process, then it could lead to significant sales increases for the online retailer.
Echo should allow customers to make purchases from the site simply by speaking. That could effectively make Amazon a replacement for your grocery list -- something that will be of increased value to the retailer as it rolls out its supermarket service in more parts of the country.
Amazon needs to make the sales process a little easier, but that seems like a tweak to the software, not a major revamp of the device. Once that happens, Amazon will have a super-convenient store sitting in the living room of many of its best customers.