The next game-changing device after the smartphone could very well come from Amazon--not Apple, Google, or Microsoft.
Amazon's Echo, a virtual assistant that users talk to and address as "Alexa," has been the exception to the rule that the company almost never runs out of products, The New York Times reports. Last month, the highly sought-after gadget reached the No. 2 spot on the Amazon's list of electronics best sellers and it frequently sells out.
A sleek, standalone device, the $180 Echo responds quickly to voice commands, completing tasks like ordering you an Uber or playing your favorite music. It can also read recipes, do math, and share transit schedules.
"The longer I use it, the more regularly it inspires the same sense of promise I felt when I used the first iPhone--a sense this machine is opening up a vast new realm in personal computing," writes the Times's Farhad Manjoo. "Amazon has found a surreptitious way to bypass Apple and Google--the reigning monarchs in the smartphone world--with a gadget that has the potential to become a dominant force in the most intimate of environments: our homes."
Scot Wingo, chairman of e-commerce consulting firm ChannelAdvisor, told the Times the Echo is on track to become a $1 billion business for Amazon. Last week, the company introduced two new versions of the product, which it recently featured in it's first-ever Super Bowl commercial that starred Alec Baldwin, Dan Marino, and Jason Schwartzman. Part of what makes the Echo such a promising device is its superior voice-recognition capabilities compared to Apple's Siri and Google's Now, the Times reports. It can respond to requests from across an entire room, even when simultaneously playing music.
Hardware companies including Nest, maker of the smart thermostat, are already working to make their own devices compatible with Echo. Amazon could see competition on this front from a startup called SoundHound, however, which has been developing voice-recognition software for more than 10 years and is already trying to get hardware companies to use its technology.
While dozens of smart home products hit the market following the success of Nest's smart thermostat--think, smart blenders and smart toothbrushes--many have failed to gain traction with consumers. For Joel Espelien, a senior analyst at research and advisory firm The Diffusion Group, the problem with most smart home products isn't the category, but the value of the service they provide.
"People are open to smart devices," he said during a panel at the annual tech trade show CES in January, but they need to "[solve] some kind of problem."