"How de we get an intelligent personal assistant into the home of every Amazon customer?” That simple query, according to sources involved, set the mission for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and the team he tasked with creating the e-commerce giant’s latest entry into the hardware market: the Amazon Echo, a $179 cylindrical speaker roughly as tall and sturdy as a bottle of Merlot cut off at the neck. Sure, the Echo, which officially launched this past June, is good at playing music, delivering excellent bass and clear treble. But the key is what’s inside: Alexa, an always-listening Siri for your living room. It’s Amazon’s vision of the platform of the future, one that gives you the ability to control your home by voice.
Say the word Alexa, and the device’s top glows blue, awaiting your command. Like Siri, she can respond to a laundry list of queries and requests—Alexa, how tall is Mount Everest? Alexa, could you set an alarm for tomorrow morning? But whereas Apple designed Siri primarily for mobile consumption through iPhones and iPads—push a button and talk—Alexa is invisible and ever-present, a natural interface for the connected home.
For decades, we’ve heard and seen visions of what the smart home of tomorrow could bring, from HAL 9000 and The Jetsons to Minority Report and Her. But this promise has leaped toward reality in recent years, thanks to improved technology and economic manufacturing, growing venture-capital (and crowdfunded) investments, and a network of so-called Internet of Things devices. Just as they did on PCs and mobile devices before,tech giants are racing to build the next big platform, this time for the connected home, a market poised to grow to $58 billion in the next half-decade.
The domestic arena has tempted tech giants at least as far back as Microsoft’s release of the Xbox console in 2001. But now, rather than only battle to build the connected-TV box that could be a digital hub for the home, these companies have shifted their focus from hardware to voice interfaces, which may be the trick to getting their ecosystems widespread adoption. Apple’s HomeKit platform will enable Siri to control devices such as the window shades and coffeemaker. Google has integrated voice commands into Nest, the smart-home company it spent $3.2 billion to acquire. Microsoft is making its personal assistant, Cortana, a key feature for the Xbox One.
What makes Alexa stand out in this crowded market is that Amazon is already an essential home-management tool for a whole lot of people, especially the estimated 40 million who have signed up for Prime membership. Run out of paper towels, need to replace your smoke detector, or just want to cue up the latest episode of Orphan Black? With its e-commerce reach and growing video ambitions, Amazon is there for you. The logical next step is to allow people to shop without having to touch a thing— making the Prime experience even more compelling.
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