Amazon Echo Could Sneak Voice Search Into Users’ Living Rooms

Critics have called Amazon Echo everything from creepy to useless, but “smart houses” could be the logical next step for search.

Amazon Echo is an Internet-connected device that uses microphones to pick up voice commands and speakers to answer questions, play music, or give news, in much the same way as Siri or Google Now. The “always on” microphone within the device responds to the name “Alexa” (but the name can be personalized by the owner) and runs on the cloud to learn and automatically update functionality over time.

While Echo isn’t the first voice command system to answer to a woman’s name, according to Bryan Eisenberg, best-selling author and cofounder of the Web Analytics association, Echo differs from Siri and other mobile voice search platforms because the device is the first to seamlessly fit into users’ homes, and by extension, their day-to-day lives.

“Echo is very passive,” says Eisenberg. “It sits in your living room, basically weaving itself into the fabric of customers’ lives. There’s an opportunity for more of this furniture-like device.”

Right now, Echo doesn’t allow users to shop Amazon with voice commands, but many publications, including TechCrunch, assert that Echo is a “Trojan horse,” meant to find its way into potential customer’s homes before software upgrades enable the device to turn Amazon’s one-click shopping into no-click shopping.

Eisenberg agrees, but doesn’t believe that voice-search-enabled shopping is a bad thing.

“[Founder and chief executive of Amazon] Jeff Bezos is quoted as saying that Amazon isn’t in the business of selling books; it’s in the business of helping customers buy books. That’s a very subtle distinction, but it shows that [Amazon] is in the business of helping customers buy. They’re going to wait for adoption to make the technology more secure. And then think about what the customer is going to feel comfortable buying, not just today, but five years from now.”

Other critics, like AdAge, call the device “odd” and “not very useful,” countering that everything Echo can do, Siri and a good sound system can do better, but Eisenberg believes this view is shortsighted.

By releasing Echo last week with a simple video and very little fanfare, the company is quietly testing the market for a more interactive device with better features, such as shopping and home security.

“[Amazon] isn’t looking for this to be a huge success. It’s just got to prove that people have an interest in it. Customers have to get comfortable with what the technology can do. Amazon can build from there by adding this feature and that feature, and then it’s just usage and updating software.”

Echo retails for $199, or $99 for Prime members, and customers must request an invitation to purchase, which has prompted some to wonder if the price tag is too steep for what is, right now, just a smart speaker.

But Eisenberg counters that critics shouldn’t be too quick to judge whether Amazon has the next Kindle or Fire Phone on its hands.

“This is just one more big experiment,” Eisenberg says. “It’s either going to hit or not hit, but [Amazon] won’t know unless they put it out there and see.”

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