Amazon is working on a new Echo virtual assistant appliance.
The product, code-named Fox, is reportedly about the size of a can of coke and can run on batteries. It’s also cheaper than the current $179.99 Amazon Echo (pictured). The Fox version sits on its side rather than standing straight up and responds to commands only when you press a button. Commenters have focused on the size, price and “portability” (battery power), but I think the most interesting aspect of the device is that it’s limited to close-up use. Fox is to the Echo what a tablet is to a TV. It’s the “right there” experience rather than the “over there” experience.
My Amazon Echo sits on the refrigerator in the far corner of the kitchen. I can use it from the bedroom down the hall—by yelling. The large, loud speaker can reach me, and my large, loud voice can reach Alexa (the cloud-based virtual assistant that lives in the Echo).
The “normal” (non-yelling) range of the Amazon Echo is about 25 feet. I’m guessing the range of the Fox version will be somewhere around 2 to 3 feet.
That makes the Fox Echo great for the bedroom side table and the home-office desk, but not the bathroom. (I’ll tell you why below.)
Most of all, the short-range Fox will be very well suited for the office. That’s right. Amazon Echo for work.
Apps Determine Locations
The Amazon Echo is way ahead of Apple’s Siri, Google Now, Microsoft’s Cortana and other virtual assistants, not only because it’s an appliance, rather than a slow and hard-to-reach smartphone or desktop app, but also because it’s more open to app developers.
And, yes, Google has a Google Now API, but Google is taking an ultra-conservative approach and limiting access to a few dozen developers.
Amazon has thrown the door wide open. That’s why, today, I can ask Alexa how much gas is in my car (via an automatic integration), listen to TV shows, radio stations and police scanners live (via a Tunein integration), use Alexa as a personal trainer (via a 7-Minute Workout integration) and turn on the lights (via a WeMo integration).
As with the iPhone, which didn’t introduce but did legitimize the app store concept, the Amazon Echo and Alexa platform will be taken into unexpected places and also popularized further by apps.
For example, the Fox Echo product can easily be transformed into a business tool for executives by the addition of a few key apps. Alexa could do all the traditional stuff secretaries used to do: take dictation, look up information, tell you about incoming calls and more. Alexa could read your important emails and enable you to reply by voice.
In fact, pressing a button on the desk is how executives interacted with their human secretaries for decades in the mid-20th century. As in (press button) “Alexa: Hold my calls.”
Alexa can already interact with your Google Calendar, but with better integration with more calendar platforms, Alexa could arrange business lunches and meetings with others, and generally function as the sole interface to your business schedule.
All that is fairly obvious. The real opportunity is in the realm of in-house applications or, more likely, Alexa interfaces to existing in-house applications, especially big data and even regular-size data applications. The ability to simply ask Alexa about sales metrics or customer retention numbers or make inventory queries transforms the data into something far more appealing to access for managers and executives.
Why the Amazon Echo Means Business
I could also see Amazon enabling powerful integration with Amazon Web Services (AWS), giving you deep insight into your data or Website that’s extremely secure.
And imagine Echo in the conference room. Looking up data with a laptop requires a mental shift, essentially psychological exit from the meeting and an entry into laptop land.
An Alexa interface means you’re still in the meeting—Alexa is just another meeting participant, albeit one with all the answers. Instead of one person mentally vanishing from the meeting, then returning with the data, everyone can hear both questions and answers. It’s just better. The same goes for everything from board meetings to informal one-on-one meetings in the office.
The Fox is a 2.0 product and appears to be targeted for use in any location that’s close-up. In the future, I expect Amazon or some third-party company to create conference room-specific versions of the Echo—preferably built into conference call and video conference systems, smart white boards and other business communication paraphernalia.
We’re already getting location-specific Echos.
At CES earlier this month, Ford introduced Alexa integration with its SYNC Connect dashboard system. That means your car can function as an Amazon Echo. Here’s what that looks like. The interaction goes both ways—you can control the car from your home Echo, and control the home appliances and devices connected to Alexa from your car. For example, you can start your car from the kitchen with a voice command, and then open the garage door from your car with another voice command. You’ll also be able to get the status of things, as in: “Alexa: How far can I drive with the electrical charge and gas in my car?” And: “Alexa: Is anyone home?”
Amazon is also reportedly working on a kitchen-specific version of the Amazon Echo, code-named Kabinet. Right now, an app by Campbell Soup Company called Campbell’s Kitchen, lets you learn about and select recipes. Once you’ve picked a recipe you’d like to make, it emails the recipe to you. Which is worthless. I expect the Kabinet product to be able to walk you through recipes step-by-step with pictures and more. Clearly, the Kabinet version is designed to encourage the ordering of ingredients through Amazon.
We can also imagine other location-specific hardware implementations, such as a car version for people who don’t drive Fords, a bedroom-specific one integrated into an alarm clock and phone dock, a version for kids, a version for outdoors and others.
A bathroom version of the Echo should be more like the current version—large, loud and hands-free. It could also be waterproof and come with a karaoke app for singing in the shower.
However, the most powerful implementations will be for work, not home. After all, secretaries and personal assistants have always been associated with workplaces. Now, however, everyone can have them, from executives to truck drivers to factory workers.
One of the biggest motivations for Amazon to embrace enterprises is that, so far, Amazon is failing with its Amazon Business offering—an Amazon store for professionals. Echo for Business could do for Amazon Business what the original Echo was intended to do for consumers—redirect purchases to Amazon, instead of the company’s competitors.
Why the Amazon Echo Means Business
One way Amazon could succeed with getting companies to order stuff through Amazon Business is the good old-fashioned backdoor.
PCs and smartphones were embraced by companies only after employees were bringing their own to work in large numbers and using them for mission-critical work. Amazon surely understands that making Echo devices standard on the desks of managers, executives and others is the best way to get the company to officially embrace the platform and mandate their placement on every desk.
I believe virtual assistant appliances will become ubiquitous in homes, cars and offices. If that’s true, Amazon has a real shot at dominating this space.
The biggest threat to Amazon’s primacy, of course, will be the likely entry of Apple, Google and Microsoft into this space. All of them have virtual assistant apps they’ve been developing for years. What they lack are the hardware appliances that would make them as usable and appealing as the Amazon Echo.
At this point, it’s impossible to predict which of these four companies—Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon—companies will favor.
Apple’s advantage is its ultra-high penetration of smartphones in the enterprise.
Google’s advantage is a willingness to be open to third-party software integrations, as well as potentially to third-party hardware companies.
Microsoft’s advantage is leadership in enterprise software platforms.
And Amazon’s advantage is a head start.
Still, I think the first step into the business market for Amazon and for this category is likely to be the Amazon Fox, which some business users will bring to work and use for business.
And the best way to buy one will be to ask Alexa to do it for you.
One way or the other, the Amazon Echo, in particular, and the virtual assistant appliance, in general, is coming to work.