At a surprise press event on Thursday, Amazon let loose a flurry of additions to its voice assistant, moving Alexa into every corner of the home and garage.
Alexa now has an enormous extended family that includes a microwave, car infotainment unit and wall clock, among many other additions, signaling a new intensity to the smart assistant movement, which is still developing and is being watched closely by fashion companies and retailers of all stripes.
With the $60 Amazon Basics Microwave, people can tell the voice-equipped appliance that they want to heat up, say, a potato, and the tech can figure out the cook time. The machine’s powered by the Alexa Connect Kit, a Bluetooth Low Energy and Wi-Fi component that can add smarter features to regular appliances.
The microwave’s built-in Dash integration lets users order popcorn from the Amazon Marketplace, in addition to just turning the microwave off or adding more cooking time by voice. The company also debuted a $30 wall clock to visually display Alexa timers.
Amazon also officially carved a path into the car with Echo Auto and made over existing Echo products — the Echo Show, Echo Dot and Echo Plus.
The new Echo Show comes with a larger, 10-inch display. Still priced at $229, the unit now includes Skype for video chat, the Amazon Silk and Firefox web browsers, Vevo music-video integration and new dedicated apps. For app makers, the company’s also rolling out new software tools to encourage richer experiences. The device will start shipping next month.
And the diminutive $49 Echo Dot and bigger $149 Echo Plus are now swathed in new fabrics and improved sound quality.
Amazon opened up multi-room sound through a software development kit, so partners can bring it to third-party electronics. The tech giant also has been working to boost Alexa’s conversational skills to make interactions feel more human. Part of that has to do with intuiting commands that Alexa owners may be interested in based on context — what Amazon calls “Alexa Hunches.” One use case could be noting that the porch light was left on, and Alexa saying “Would you like me to turn it off?”
Another scenario is the device recognizing that the user is whispering and softly responding back.
Other noteworthy announcements: Fire TV Recast, for recording over-the-air shows, a new Smart Plug and the Alexa Guard security system, which uses Echo devices’ microphones to monitor the home. Wi-Fi Simple Setup is Amazon’s effort to make smart home setups less complicated. The idea of sparing users from typing Wi-Fi credentials for each new connected gadget is part of a long-term strategy dubbed “Frustration Free Setup.” It may sound familiar to retailers used to seeing “frustration free packaging,” and the premise is similar — banish complexity to make things immediately easier to access.
Amazon might not offer the best hardware — or, for that matter, the best voice assistant. But what the wave of new offerings illustrates what it does do well is leverage its deep understanding of what consumers want, how they use their gadgets and for what purpose. Then it uses that insight to inform product development.
The company is clearly going all out, fusing its retail sensibility to its technology initiatives. If the tack is received well, it essentially brings the Amazon platform to practically every nook and cranny of a user’s life.
For Amazon, the stakes have never been higher.
Google Home’s gain on Amazon Echo has seen the latter losing its edge. While neither disclose hard sales numbers, a recent Canalys report revealed that Google Home sales reached 5.43 million units in the second quarter, nabbing a third of global smart speaker sales. Amazon Echo clocked in with growth of 24.5 percent and 4.12 million units across its multiple versions. During the same period last year, Amazon Echo had a massive 82.3 percent of the market, dwarfing Google Home’s 16.9 percent.