The voice control space is in a state of frenzy, but once again Amazon has made the next move, while its competitors are still at the drawing board. If the company could have moved this nimbly in the smartphone space, the Fire Phone might have been a big hit, but that shows the difference of setting the rules in a new sector, and trying to muscle into an established one.
Amazon has broadened its line of Echo smart speakers with the unveiling of the new-look Echo Spot and the more heavy-duty Echo Plus. The latest expansion comes in the same week that Google waged war on Amazon, pulling YouTube compatibility from Amazon’s Echo Show speaker, which could be interpreted as a rather sinister move, considering Google has smart home ambitions of its own.
The new spherical Spot device comes equipped with a small 2.5-inch screen, front-facing camera, upgraded microphones and a speaker, which Amazon says is best suited for bedside tables or smaller rooms. While the original Echo is all about providing a central hub, Spot is designed to fit snugly into every nook and cranny of a home, slipping in to replace outdated alarm clocks and radios, so that Alexa’s guidance is never out of reach.
“Voice control in the home will be ubiquitous. Kids today will grow up never knowing a day they couldn’t talk to their houses,” said David Limp, SVP of Echo at Amazon, at the company’s event in Seattle this week.
One of the most interesting features is that the Spot can initiate free voice and video calls to mobiles and fixed lines, which aligns neatly with AWS hinting at having telco ambitions, as analyzed this week by our sister publication Wireless Watch, but that’s another story. Amazon also teased a basic $35 Echo Connect device, for those who don’t want a full smart speaker experience but fancy making voice calls with Alexa.
Stepping up the voice game, Amazon has fitted Spot with intelligent microphone technology that uses far-field input processing, acoustic beamforming and enhanced noise cancellation. Similar then to the Apple HomePod with its six microphones and noise cancellation from the TV or speaker – so it only hears your voice. The HomePod also comes with a custom array of seven beam-forming tweeters, each with its own amplifier, and precise directional control of beam shapes and sizes all directed by an Apple A8 chip as its intelligence.
The long overdue update to the 2014 Echo, the Echo Plus, has also been given the revamped mic technology treatment, along with a new feature in the form of low power network protocol Zigbee, which will let it talk to no end of in-home devices. No mention of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), however, which is considered to have less limitations than Zigbee. Spot will officially launch in December at $130 and the Echo Plus retails at $150.
Not content with dominating the home, Amazon made another significant move this week by announcing an integration with BMW to fit microphones into select vehicles including those from Mini – enabling Alexa to bridge the gap between the home and the car, then from the car to the office, and back again. The ecosystem is almost complete, with Amazon just missing the all-important smartphone piece of the puzzle – with its Fire Phone venture failing quite dramatically.
Apple and Google have been present in the in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) sector for some time, with CarPlay and Android Auto, so the two tech giants should be understandably anxious about being joined by Amazon, if its smart home success is anything to go by.
Echo Plus is targeted at the more serious smart homes, saying it will instantly work with an array of connected devices, including lights and locks. This type of open API architecture is why Amazon is winning the smart home fight, while the likes of AT&T and Comcast have stumbled when trying to charge $30 a month for basic home automation services.
Meanwhile, Google claims that the YouTube experience on Echo Show devices does not meet its user experience requirements, and has decided to block access. Presumably this means YouTube ads were not being properly delivered on the Show, or other functions such as automatically playing the next video or providing recommendations had been deactivated by Amazon. Funny it does not do that to Samsung phones.
A new Fire TV was also showcased at the event, adding 4K HDR support with 2160p at 60fps, plus Dolby Atmos and of course the Alexa voice remote.