Future Tense

Out of Nowhere, Amazon Is Releasing a Speaker That’s Also an Always-On Personal Assistant

Amazon’s new Echo speaker is made to look like a toaster. OK, no, it’s the thing on the right.

Screencap from Amazon

With no advance fanfare, Amazon just released a speaker called Echo that’s always on and has a built-in personal assistant that you can talk to. It might sound like a weird mashup of features, but it’s a recontextualization of the world’s Cortanas and Siris that could actually make a lot of sense. It’s like a hybrid of smart home devices, digital personal assistants, and Jibo the family robot.

Echo is always listening, but only activates when you say a preprogrammed wake word. (The default seems to be “Alexa.”) You can ask Echo factual questions, tell it to play certain music, or have it do tasks like make a to-do list for you or add a reminder to your calendar. And Amazon says that Echo has “far-field voice recognition” so Echo can hear you across a big room.

When you’re not close to Echo, you can control it with a standalone app for Android and Fire OS, through browsers in iOS, or using a desktop app. In addition to its artificial intelligence, Echo is also a normal Bluetooth speaker standing 9 inches tall. It can play music on command from Amazon Music Library, Prime Music, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio.

The product is definitely meant to be stationary, since it has a power cord instead of a battery, but at least you never need to charge it. Amazon will send out invitations “in the coming weeks” to buy Echo before it releases the product widely. The speaker will cost $199, or $99 for people with Prime subscriptions.

Though this Echo announcement comes out of the blue, it doesn’t seem completely crazy. Amazon released its first smartphone, Fire Phone, in June and is clearly attempting to build an ecosystem around Amazon Instant and Fire OS. And Amazon has slowly been acquiring companies over the last few years with relevant expertise, like U.K.-based interactive content creator Pushbutton in 2011, text-to-speech company IVONA in 2013, and Evi, a natural language artificial intelligence company, in 2012. Not to mention the Web analytics company Alexa Internet, which Amazon bought way back in 1996, and which could be the inspiration for Echo’s wake word.

The Fire Phone may not have done so well, but maybe pulling a Beyoncé will work for Amazon this time.