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Everything You Need to Know About Amazon.com's New Smart-Home Devices

By Daniel B. Kline - Mar 8, 2016 at 9:30AM

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The company has released two Alexa-enabled devices as part of its Echo line.

Call Amazon's (AMZN 1.67%) a sort of stealth play by the online retailer to take over your living room.

When it first launched, the device was offered by invitation only for Prime members. The company was very slow in rolling out Echo because at first, it didn't do very much.

The original version of the product was part wireless speaker, part voice-controlled assistant, and part gimmick. It could be addressed using voice commands to access Pandora or music in your personal Amazon library. Echo could also deliver weather reports and answer questions like, "Who was Abraham Lincoln?" There was also rudimentary product ordering, which was hard to use and required interfacing with the device's iPhone or Android app, and a few other things that didn't do very much.

As an early purchaser of the product who paid the Prime invitation price of $99 for it, I liked Echo as a voice-controlled music device, but I certainly didn't consider it a digital assistant or a home-automation device.

Over time, however, that has changed. Amazon has improved the Alexa voice-assistant interface and slowly rolled out new features as well as partnerships with home automation devices. It's not a rival for Apple's (AAPL 2.06%) Siri or Microsoft's (MSFT 0.47%) Cortana, which makes sense, because Amazon is competing with those two companies for control of your living room.

But, where Apple and Microsoft have PCs, tablets, and phones that can serve as the hub for that control, Amazon has Echo. To grow the line and improve the company's prospects of winning a piece of the home automation market, Amazon has released two new Echo products.

What did Amazon do?
The company has introduced Echo Dot and Amazon Tap, two members of the Echo family that solve specific problem.

Amazon Dot. Image source: Amazon. 

Dot is "a hands-free, voice controlled device that uses the same far-field voice recognition as Echo," according to a press release. It has some stand-alone functionality, including operating as a smart alarm clock and controlling smart-home devices like its bigger sibling, but the real point of the smaller device is to serve as sort of an extension of the Echo, bringing its functionality to other rooms of the house. Dot can also be plugged into a stereo, allowing people who want voice control, but with better speakers than the wireless devices offer, a way to add Alexa to their system.

Echo Dot is meant for houses that already have a Alexa device. To drill that in, Amazon has made it available "for $89.99 exclusively for Prime members through Alexa Voice Shopping." To order one, existing Echo and Fire TV customers must say "Alexa, order an Echo Dot." There is a page for the product on Amazon.com, amazon.com/echodot, but you can't actually order the device from there.

Amazon Tap. Image source: Amazon. 

The second product, Amazon Tap, brings portability to the Echo line. It's "an Alexa-enabled portable Bluetooth and Wi-Fi speaker that offers rich, full-range sound," according to the company. It does not have the same voice-activated abilities as its sister products, but it can be turned on with a tap, offering many of the same features and services as the full-scale model.

Tap does not require owning another Alexa-enabled devices, and it can be pre-ordered for $129.99 on Amazon.

Of course, even the portable Tap is not as portable as an iPhone, iPad, or a phone or tablet running Windows, but the devices do make it easier to spread the Amazon version of home automation throughout your house -- and to take it with you when you leave. Echo also has an app that allows for remote control of home-automation devices.

Alexa is not Siri or Cortana
Apple and Microsoft already have solid penetration in homes with computers and tablets as well as Xbox and Apple TV -- all of which could serve as home automation hubs. Both also have voice assistant -- Siri and Cortana -- which should serve as the control system for controlling a house.

Still, neither company's device nor their virtual assistants were primarily built for that purpose, which gives Amazon, if not an edge, at least a way to wedge its way into the market.

The Echo products all do some pretty cool things before a user even considers home control. Whether those functions are worth the price for people who already own computers, smartphones, tablets, and other devices is debatable. However, if consumers do elect to bring Alexa-enabled devices like Echo, Tap, and Echo Dot into their homes, Amazon could succeed in doing an end run around its should-be-dominant rivals.

Home automation is in the very early stages, and no clear winner, or even market leader, has emerged. Apple and Microsoft -- in theory -- have some advantages because they already have hardware in tens of millions of homes or tablets and/or phones in millions of people's hands. Amazon is certainly playing catch-up, but these are smart, focused devices that do a lot while also not doing too much.

It's hard to know if the public will ever full embrace home automation, but these new products from Amazon bring that reality a step closer.

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