Enter the Amazon Echo. A basic cylindrical music speaker by the looks of it, but an entirely new approach to the smart home device space. The Amazon Echo circumvents much of the interface friction of other devices and their associated mobile apps; its primary mode of interaction is through voice-commands. The device responds when you say its name, and (more interestingly), is constantly improving through its “Alexa” platform’s machine learning and natural language processing capabilities. But while the interface itself is extremely novel for most users—Apple’s Siri and Google’s Now features leave much to be desired in their abilities for reliable interactions—what Amazon has tapped is a level of horizontal utility we haven’t seen since the advent of the smartphone. Horizontal refers to the technology’s ability to serve many use cases or needs. By speaking into a cylindrical device, current integrations and possible services available transcend listening to music, they transcend Amazon, even the home itself.
Consider the following use cases already possible on the Echo today:
This is a significant improvement when compared to the vast majority of so called “smart home” devices on the market today with singular, or at best, limited to very specific use cases like turning on the lights, brewing coffee, or remote video-conferencing with the dog. Aside from its breadth, the device accelerates purchasing—an obvious win for Amazon. A recent Mindmeld study found the Echo’s voice interface drove a 3x faster transaction experience purchasing the same item (“men’s black Adidas shoes for under $75) using voice assistants/microphones compared to navigating menus in mobile apps.
The Echo’s array of use cases also … echoes… the ‘horizontal’ nature of the mobile phone. Like the smartphone, the device can effectively serve as the remote control for a wide variety of needs. What consumers don’t want is another app for every new appliance or another channel required for every interaction (each with their own kinks and quirks). The other notable element (taking a page from Apple’s App store and Google Play) is Amazon’s decision to open up the application– what they call “skills’– development for the Echo to developers. In effect, anyone can add skills to Alexa, and users can activate new skills each week.
What Amazon has done by creating an effective, multifunctional in-home assistant, is render itself a magnet for other organizations trying to get into the home. Organizations of all kinds, from telecom to insurance providers, manufacturers to retailers, and more, are all vying for in-home market share—many are already integrating with the Echo. This requires exploration at every level, from design principles to business models, from privacy to interoperability. Instead of asking “What would Google do?” founder of O’Reilly Media, Tim O’Reilly, challenges companies of every type to now ask “What would Alexa do?”