July / 2015 08:00
David PogueJuly 16, 2015
How often does a truly new electronics category come along? The first television. The Walkman. The iPhone. The iPad. Each time, the industry spends years making copycats and refinements, but the original concept doesn’t change much.
Frankly, Amazon is the last company I would have expected to come up with the next completely new idea. I mean, its hardware ventures so far have been very much in the Us Too department. E-book readers, touchscreen phones, tablets — we’d seen all that before.
But not the Amazon Echo, which just became available for sale to the public (following an invitation-only, testing-the-waters release last November). Somehow, nobody’s thought of this before.
The big idea: Create a voice-activated smartphone assistant like Siri or Google Now — but take it off the phone. Make it a smart, always-listening machine in your house. Engineer it to understand you from across the room, hands free, as you’re cooking, reading, doing homework, discussing, living. Make it good enough to be just like the conversational, environmental computers on Star Trek or in the Iron Man movies.
That’s what the Amazon Echo attempts to be. And you know what? I’ve never been so excited about something that did so little.
Meet the Echo
If you wanted to make a conversational computer for the home, what should it look like? Because Amazon was creating the first one of something, there was no existing design model, no accepted size or shape.
So Amazon went with a nine-inch-tall, sleek black metal cylinder. And why not? It works. It fades into the clutter of your house, along with whatever else is on your bookcase or shelving unit or kitchen counter, just as it should.
The bottom part is perforated, hinting at the speakers inside. The top disc rotates — it’s a giant volume knob — and lights up in various cool LED colors and patterns to telegraph what the thing is doing. On the very top is a power button and a mute button that means both “stop speaking” and “stop listening.”