Here is one ambitious new product that did not make it through to the grapevine: Amazon Echo.
Amazon surprised everyone on Nov. 7 when it introduced the cylindrical black tower-shaped speaker that doesn't just play music. It listens to its user's voice for a wake-up word, which Amazon has, for now, chosen to be "Alexa" as a tribute to the library of Alexandria, and does pretty much everything the user tells it to do.
Users can tell Alexa to get updates about the weather or the local news, have it set the alarm clock and add things to their shopping list. Or they can ask questions such as "How many teaspoons are in a tablespoon?" or "How tall is Mt. Everest?" or tell Alexa to play music right from Amazon Prime on the 360-degree speaker or from Spotify or Pandora via smartphones linked to the speaker via Bluetooth.
It's similar to Apple's Siri, Google Now and Microsoft's Cortana, but instead of users reaching into their pockets and taking out their smartphones, Echo is supposed to be plugged in all the time and can pick up voice commands from anyone inside the room using its seven microphones that Amazon says "use beam-forming technology to hear you from any direction." Amazon meant for Echo to be placed in the living room for the entire family to use, not inside a single person's pocket.
"We think it makes everyday life a bit easier -- when you have a question or want to do something, all you have to do is ask," says an Amazon spokesperson.
Echo is certainly the first of its kind, and we have yet to see if a family device that heeds voice commands can truly take on the burgeoning voice command and home automation industries.
One criticism that skeptics have begun hurling at Echo is the fact that, like the embarrassing flop that was Amazon's Fire Phone, the cylindrical speaker is simply just another way for Amazon to get people to buy products.
Amazon does not play it up, but Echo will already let users add items to their shopping list with a single command. In the future, it is likely that Amazon adds the functionality for users to purchase everything on their shopping list all in one go. There would be no need to sit in front of the computer or make a few taps on the smartphone. Any user can buy stuff from Amazon simply by telling Alexa to do it for them.
"Amazon is the first to put a persistent microphone interface in your home, a listening and learning service that is ready to hear your every command," James McQuivey, analyst at Forrester Research, tells Wired. "Sure, it doubles as a connected speaker and some people will end up buying it for that, but the Echo will only achieve its real purpose when you start asking it questions, having it complete tasks for you -- especially shopping tasks -- just the way Apple hopes its users will interact with Apple Watch."