Amazon’s Echo devices get redesign on the way to world domination
Amazon’s products are the minivans of the devices world. They’re plastic-encased, utilitarian and sometimes ugly. But they work, are inexpensive and can take a beating. Parents love them.
In comparison, Apple designs its sports-car-like devices as artwork — with a price to match. Drop an Apple product and the neighbors will know about it from your shrieking.
That changed Thursday, as Amazon unveiled a torrent of new products, with many featuring a badly needed update in looks. They may not come close to the fit and finish of Apple gadgets, but Amazon’s portfolio of products is keeping pace with modern aesthetics.
‘We’ve always in our design group focused on products that sort of disappear into the background,’ Dave Limp, head of Amazon’s devices business, said in an interview on Thursday. ‘We don’t think of them as show pieces or pieces of furniture, but as we’ve had more and more devices in the home, we’ve discovered that people do put them in lots of different rooms, lots of different decors, so we wanted to make them fit in more there and disappear.’
The move to update its products comes as Amazon continues its mission to put Alexa everywhere. After Thursday’s launch, which included a microwave, wall clock and an in-car accessory, the company is surely aiming for world domination through its Alexa digital assistant.
Creating a bigger universe of Alexa-powered products is an increasingly important goal for Amazon as it tries convincing millions of people to place its Echo products all over their homes (or even their cars). Competitors, meanwhile, had been looking to capitalize on Amazon’s uninspiring Echo designs by offering prettier devices, forcing Amazon to spend more time on the Echo’s look, not just its voice assistant.
The concern over aesthetics isn’t superficial. What’s at stake for these companies is establishing a presence in the home as more consumers opt to invest in smart speakers to power the smart gadgets in their lives. If you buy an Echo, you’re less likely to invest in a Google Home, ensuring your commitment to using Alexa (that works the other way round too).
Though the Echo remains the leading smart speaker in the US, taking up 70 percent of the market, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, its lead could slip if people start drifting to other, more attractive options. The Google Home accounts for 24 percent, while the Apple HomePod takes just 6 percent. The number of devices in use in the country hit 50 million.
Not just for show
Amazon’s device lineup is likely best known for offering better-than-expected capabilities at a lower-than-expected price. It’s a sales pitch that’s often repeated by Amazon execs when they trot out new products.
But while Amazon devices chief David Limp likes to pack his gadgets with useful features, apps and storage, he doesn’t seem to emphasize design as much.
The Echo Show is a good example. The Alexa-powered smart speaker with a built-in touchscreen display was released last June. The 2.5-pound device has a boxy and bulky design with a thick plastic border around its screen. The design instantly made it look outdated in an age of thinner smartphones with nearly edge-to-edge displays.
Limp showed off a new Echo Show featuring a 10-inch touchscreen, twice the size of the original, all housed in a sleeker body. The company’s new lineup almost universally embraced the fabric design scheme that Google Home employs. Amazon also showed off Skype support and the ability to display step-by-step cooking instructions.
Competing Google Assistant-powered smart displays were introduced at this year’s CES and some offered better designs, putting more pressure on Amazon to up its game. The LG WK9 ThinQ looks as clunky as the original Show. But the Lenovo Smart Display offers a more elegant shape, complete with a bamboo finish like what you might find in a cutting board.
The Show’s new look means it’s no longer a running joke in the industry.
Echo’s wallet-friendly options
On Thursday, the company gave it a fabric makeover and boosted its volume, while keeping its price to $50. The Dot is among the best selling product on Amazon’s site and is critical to Amazon’s mission to get its Alexa digital assistant into your home.
For those who have their own speakers, Amazon unveiled an even cheaper Echo — the Echo Input. The $35 puck connects to speakers and offers all the same Alexa functionality. The device comes later this year.
With sleek new designs, you can’t exactly call them the minivans of the smart speaker world.
Alexa’s new abilities
Amazon somehow squeezed in descriptions of new Alexa features between the slew of new products and refreshes. The company kicked things off with the ability for Alexa to whisper — a godsend to any parent worrying about waking a child.
Alexa can employ ‘hunches’ based on your preferences, offering you suggestions like turning off the living room lights when you say good night in your bedroom. There are routines you can program based on your location, allowing you to set up actions when you leave or arrive home. Amazon touted the ability for Alexa to recognize your location, which potentially opens up several new capabilities for the digital assistant.
You can even use Alexa to help ease the process of setting up smart home gadgets around the house, solely using your voice rather than searching for the right Wi-Fi network and inputting codes to recognize devices. Limp compared it to the ‘frustration-free’ packaging used in its shipped products.
‘We’ve only scratched the surface of AI-powered inventions and we’ll continue to invent ways to make Alexa more useful for our customers,’ Rohit Prasad, vice president and head scientist for Amazon Alexa, said in a statement.
Carolina Milanesi, an analyst for Creative Strategies, said Amazon on Thursday strongly emphasized ease of use of its devices and better looks in a bid to win over more mainstream customers.
‘For early adopters, pain is part of the pleasure,’ she said. ‘But for mainstream users, they just want it to work.’
Amazon’s trying to put Alexa everywhere
Those smarts don’t mean much if Alexa isn’t widespread. Amazon took a big proactive step toward that goal today.
The company introduced the AmazonBasics Microwave for $60, and an Echo Wall Clock for $40 — which prior to today, could have been punchlines to a joke. Then there’s Echo Auto, Amazon’s effort to get Alexa into your car. Amazon also unveiled subwoofers, amplifiers, receivers and a DVR called Fire TV Recast.
‘Our mental model is to build a new interface,’ Limp said. ‘Originally it was for the home. Today it was about extending where else an ambient experience will work.’
Amazon has a history of jumping into categories that’re occupied by its partners, and today was no different. Appliance makers that worked to integrate Alexa into their products have to be giving Amazon’s offering a critical, potentially worried, look. After the speakers were announced, Sonos’ stock fell nearly 3 percent, to $13.94.
Amazon’s stock, meanwhile, was up 1 percent, to $1,947.14, as everyone absorbed the sheer amount of products in its new lineup.
They’re a lot prettier to look at.