The Amazon Echo Show is Amazon’s latest home gadget that adds a video screen to its Echo speaker and allows for “drop-in” video calls and news video, among other visual features, all enabled by voice control. At first blush, it seems like a vision of the future from the mid-20th century, but now that it’s finally here, do people want it? Amazon seems to think it’ll be great for multi-generational families and it featured various domestic scenarios with grandparents, parents, and grandkids. It remains to be seen if the Echo Show will feel essential to anybody else, though.
The device went up for preorder Tuesday, and in its immediate wake were questions about how useful it will be to stay connected with elderly parents to more paranoid ones about its Orwellian applications.
One note: The base price for the Echo Show is $230, but if you want all of the features, seen in its promotional video, you’re going to need to pay more, for the optional security cameras and smart outlets (needed for voice control) to use it throughout your house. But even without the ability to turn off your lights through voice command or see who’s at the door, the Echo Show’s addition of video leads to interesting questions.
4. So the Hands-Free Video Chat is Cool, but How Useful is This Really?
“To me, Amazon is betting way too heavily on voice as the optimal way to interact with hardware. I know that it’s cool because it hasn’t ever been done well before, but in practice the utility just isn’t there for the vast majority of use cases. When you think of all the different visual ways that a tablet enables a person to interact with the machine, and then compare that to an entirely voice-operated machine, it feels like taking a step backwards,” writes Y combinator user dkrich.
The Echo Show isn’t going to run all of the apps available on a regular tablet, even with the touch screen. Being able to see what Alexa is talking about is cool, but it also forces the location of the Echo Show into high importance. Shame it has no battery.
Reddit user ddhboy has a slightly pessimistic take on how useful the tech will really be when in a home. He writes: “I honestly don’t know why people were asking for an Echo with a touchscreen and camera. People aren’t going to be able to see the content of the screen clearly from the other side of the room. The camera likely isn’t going to be situated in a place that’s convenient for you to have a video chat with. If you wanted to watch videos on YouTube, you would probably opt for a tablet, phone, or TV to do that rather than have to watch it on an Echo Show on a nightstand.”
Once people start actually using them in their homes it will be interesting to see if the touchscreen capacity really expands how people use the Echo Show, or if the limited tablet functionality becomes annoying.
3. Will it Connect to Non-Amazon Platforms, or Are We All Going to be Stuck Only Talking Between Amazon Echo Devices?
“Are we ever going to see unity between these services, or are we doomed to have little walled-off fiefdoms forever? A phone number works anywhere in the world, to anywhere in the world, with anyone who has a phone,” mikeash on the Y combinator discussion page writes. “It feels like we’re taking huge steps backwards. Instead of sending a message to a phone number or e-mail address, I’ll use iMessage or Google Hangouts or Skype or Slack or…. Video call? We can do FaceTime or Hangouts or Skype or…. Will these things start interoperating with each other eventually, or are we just doomed forever?”
One of the big frustrations with these assistants is that no matter how fancy the voice tech, things like Alexa don’t allow users to access things like Gmail or YouTube. In the video that launches the Echo Show, it does say that you will be able to access YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, and there is mention of Google Calendar. However, watching Netflix — a competitor to Amazon Prime — doesn’t appear to be an option. It’s possible that these details aren’t ready for prime time just yet.
2. Is Amazon Trying to Get Into the Cell Phone Game?
A reddit user pointed out that the progression of Echo devices seems to be creating the need for an Amazon phone. The Echo Show steps up the Echo by giving it a touchscreen that lets users video chat or watch videos.
“I’m sure the next product in Amazon’s pipeline is a smartphone with Alexa. Which is funny because they launched the Fire phone and it was a flop. Now they’re ‘building’ the need for an Amazon phone from scratch. First the speaker + assistant only. Now speaker + assistant + touchscreen. Make it portable with a SIM card and you have the Fire Phone 2. Or the Echo Phone, a more reasonable name,” user rafael000 opines.
1. Is This Super Orwellian, or Is the Drop-In Feature Useful?
The drop-in calling feature allows you to instantly video chat your friends (with an Echo Show and the Alexa app that have given you approval), and it will show you the “frosted glass” video of them in the ten-second interval they have to decide to answer the call with video or just audio. It’s a bit concerning about how much contact it allows for someone to call into your home, particularly with the video ad showing an Echo Show on a bedside table.
As Y combinator forum user non_sequitur points out, “I think the biggest benefit is video calling. Get your parents one, get one yourself, schedule a video call with them once a week (or whatever). Easier than FaceTime since you don’t have to hold up the phone. Reminds me of the videophones in the Starship Troopers movie.”