At first glance, Amazon’s Echo seems to be a Wi-Fi-connected Bluetooth speaker with something like Siri’s long lost cousin built in. And while that’s not inaccurate, Amazon is clearly going for something a little more ambitious with this gadget: It wants to become the voice-controlled hub of your connected home. And starting today, you can finally buy one.
Previously available on an invite-only basis, the Amazon Echo will start shipping on July 14 to whoever clicks the “Add to Cart” button, provided they’re based in the U.S. The device is going for $180.
In addition to serving as a compact Bluetooth speaker, Echo also functions a bit like Siri or Google Now, awaiting the user’s commands and curiosities. By saying the word “Alexa” (the nickname of the underlying AI technology powering Echo), users can activate its voice control, whether it be to turn on music or NPR news or to ask Alexa a general question (“What’s the traffic like between here and the mall?”). It can also be used to set an alarm, query Wikipedia, or get the weather.
Echo is affixed with seven microphones, which help the device hear and decipher speech from across the room. The speaker is even able to suppress extraneous noise and differentiate between voices.
With the widespread availability of Echo comes a bunch of new integrations–and more importantly, a hint about where Amazon sees this product heading in the future. New partnerships like Pandora and Audible are no-brainers for a wireless speaker like this one. But what makes Echo all the more interesting are things like its integrations with IFTTT (effectively putting it in control of a wide range of apps and services, thanks to that platform’s huge repository of “recipes”), as well as with smart home products like Belkin WeMo and Philips Hue connected lightbulbs. With enough adoption and third-party integrations, Echo could become a central hub for controlling various aspects of the connected home.
Why would Amazon create a product like this? Knowing Amazon, the profit margins on the hardware itself are probably not going to rise the company to Apple-levels of success anytime soon. Instead, the device could become a vehicle for Amazon’s core retail business. Indeed, when it ships, the Echo will let you order Prime-eligible items from Amazon using only your voice.
Perhaps most notable of all, Echo’s Alexa platform has a free SDK, which developers have been using to build a variety of other apps and integrations for the speaker. This means that, much like your smartphone or tablet, the range of Echo’s functionality is limited only by the ingenuity of third-party developers (well, and the hardware’s natural limitations, of course). Presuming Echo sells well enough to spark demand for more features, we will presumably start seeing this thing do a lot more in the months to come.