With an Amazon Echo speaker today, you can talk to Alexa, the virtual assistant that powers the device, and ask it to play songs, order diapers and even turn on your air-conditioner.
Now Amazon wants you to do more than talk to Alexa. It also wants you to call friends and family through Echo speakers — and it is even putting a screen on one of the devices so you can see them while talking to them.
On Tuesday, Amazon introduced the latest model in its expanding family of Echo products, the Echo Show, which has a seven-inch touch screen and a video camera that let people place video or voice calls to each other over a Wi-Fi connection. In a move that could have broader impact, Amazon also said it would release a free software update this week that brings voice-calling features to existing Echo devices.
The changes, which thrust Amazon into the crowded landscape of internet communications tools like Microsoft’s Skype, Apple’s FaceTime and Google’s Hangouts, underline the company’s ambitions for the Echo. In a way, the new communications functions turn the speaker into something like a traditional landline telephone, which many people have given up in favor of smartphones. Rather than pulling a phone out of their pockets, people will be able to simply command their Echoes to call someone.
The goal is to make the Echo, and Alexa, even more of a fixture inside people’s homes — a system that can help you shop online, control your home’s temperature and, now, converse. And it allows Amazon to once again chart a path ahead of others with how it is using the speaker.
“Amazon now has a huge first-mover advantage,” said Werner Goertz, an analyst at Gartner, the technology research firm.
Amazon said it planned to release the Echo Show in late June, with a starting price of about $230 for a single device, or two for $360.
The Echo was an oddity when Amazon released it in late 2014, a time when smartphones and touch-screen devices seemed to be elbowing other devices out of the way. But since then, the products have remained top sellers on Amazon’s site, though the company would not say how many it has sold.
Rivals have scrambled to come up with their own smart home devices that have voice controls at their core. Google released its Home device last year. On Monday, Harman International, the audio gear maker owned by Samsung, announced the release of its own smart speaker, Invoke, powered by Microsoft’s Cortana intelligent assistant.
Still, many have struggled to catch up to Amazon. The company is projected to have 70 percent of the voice-enabled speaker market in the United States this year, according to an eMarketer study published on Monday. Google Home is estimated to have about 24 percent of the market, with the rest split between smaller players.
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SOURCE: NY Times, Brian X. Chen and Nick Wingfield