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Amazon Echo Can Now Do More Than Just Answer Your Questions Or Play Music

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While partners talked up their relationships with Alexa, Amazon's home life assistant, the e-commerce company didn't have a booth at the 2016 International CES in Las Vegas last week. Along with an ever-growing friends list, Alexa herself has been growing up.

The $179 Amazon Echo is the hardware home for Alexa, the cloud-connected digital assistant that became one of CES 2016's major talking points.

When vendors were talking connected homes, Alexa and the Echo kept coming up in those conversations. And that's good news for Amazon, which looks like it has built a major inroad between its industry-leading cloud platform and living spaces.

What The Echo Does
The innards of the 9-inch-tall Amazon Echo includes a 2.5-inch subwoofer, a 2-inch tweeter, a reflex port and a ring of seven microphones that can make out words through music and across rooms. But Alexa is the brains of this operation and she gets better at her job over time.

The cloud-based spirit of the Echo, Alexa has got some serious connections. It can, at the user's request, serve up information from local search, play audiobooks, read out sports scores, broadcast news and weather reports, restock household goods previously purchased from Amazon, relay local traffic updates and answer questions with whatever she can source from Wikipedia.

Alexa can stream music from Pandora, Prime Music, iHeartRadio and more. The digital assistant can set and check calendar events, alarms, timers and lists.

On top of all that, Alexa supports multiple profiles. So Alexa will personalize its communications with each member of a household, and guests too, if they happen to be cool enough with most of the family.

Alexa's premium sound output, far-field microphone reception and cloud connections have seen the digital assistant quietly rise to prominence, while the mainstream focuses on Siri and Google Now.

Out of all of the products over $100 on Amazon, the Echo was the top seller this past Black Friday. And along with the Fire TV and tablet, the Amazon Echo ranked in the top five through Amazon's Prime Now service on Christmas Eve. It was tied with the Fire Tablet as the top most wished for and gifted items for Amazon's customers.

What The Echo Will Do, Someday... Probably
While Alexa was made for the Echo, Amazon has set up a $100 million "Alexa Fund" so that third-parties can put it to work for whatever they make. Amazon has and will fund developers who impress the company enough with their projects that leverage the Alexa Voice Service or the Alexa Skills Kit.

The Alexa fund opened up with seven initial investments in companies that will use Alexa's resources instead of an app to communicate with connected devices.

Orange Chef, for example, has been working with the Alexa Voice Service to let people ask smart kitchen appliances for updates, while Scout Alarm has been using the Alexa Skills Kit to empower users to check or change the state of its smart alarms and sensor hubs.

This spirit of adoption has extended well beyond Amazon's initial push, as evidenced by all of the vendors at CES 2016 that attested to how their companies have been leveraging Alexa to solve one of the Internet of Things' toughest stumbling blocks – tying smart things together across hardware ecosystems.

It may seem every player in the IoT space wants to create a smart hub that lies at the center of a connected home. Amazon has offered up the Echo, but it also lets third-parties use Alexa independently of the company's own smart home hub.

Now startups, bolstered by bright ideas, don't have to start from scratch with coming up with a software to sew together their smart things. They can build on Amazon's Alexa foundation.

And on top of all that, the widespread use of Alexa means that smart things with different DNA can still talk to each other because they have a go-between from Amazon.

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