‘We might never see an event like that one again.’
So muttered my CNET News colleague Ben Fox Rubin as we left Amazon’s Day One offices in Seattle this Thursday. The online megaretailer had just dropped more than a dozen new devices on us over the course of a presentation that only ran about an hour long. That’s an average of one new product announcement every 5 minutes.
Don’t believe me? Check the play by play for yourself.
The dizzying news day left us device drunk as we scrambled to snap photos and get the specs straight. Now, in the weekend after, we’re only beginning to work through the hardware hangover.
But let’s step back a bit from the razzle dazzle of this week’s avalanche of gizmos. Yes, Amazon’s team showed us an awful lot, but there’s also plenty that it didn’t show us — and some of those omissions might offer clues as to where Alexa’s headed next.
New hardware? Kinda sorta…
Yes, there are lots and lots of new Amazon gadgets this week. But how many of them are gamechangers?
The Echo Dot and Echo Plus both got fabric-bodied redesigns, and the new, bigger Dot should offer slightly stronger sound quality, too. But remember, the last time Amazon dropped a new Dot on us, the company slashed the price almost in half. This time around, there’s no price cut at all — not for the Dot, and not for the Plus, either, which still feels overpriced to me at $150 considering it’s really just a $99 Echo with a Zigbee radio and a temperature sensor added in.
Speaking of the Echo, there wasn’t a new one this year. That wasn’t all that surprising — the existing model still feels current in design and competitively priced at $99 — but why not release a couple of new, fabric-bodied shells that better match the new design of the Echo Dot and Echo Plus? Those swappable shells were one of the Echo’s key upgrades a year ago, but Amazon has essentially ignored them ever since. This would have been the perfect opportunity to change that, and to help current-gen Echo owners make their devices feel like new again.
Part of me wonders if, a year from now, Amazon won’t just get rid of the Echo altogether and essentially replace it with a lower-priced Echo Plus as the midrange Alexa speaker of choice.
No Echo Max, but…
Amazon might have the midrange well covered, but there still isn’t a high-end Alexa speaker like some predicted we might see this week. If you want a single smart speaker with high-end, audiophile-approved sound, you’ll still be better off with the Apple HomePod, the Google Home Max or with a third-party speaker like the Sonos One.
For now, the closest thing Amazon has to a single-source premium audio device is the new, second-gen Echo Show. Amazon did an admirable job of giving that device the most dramatic makeover of all, but it should still fall well short of the sound you’d expect to hear from Apple and Google’s top offerings. For whatever reason, Amazon still seems content to cede that ground to the competition.
Amazon did have a couple of answers for audiophiles, though. The Echo Link and Link Amp might offer some narrow appeal to anyone willing to build their own, premium smart audio setup with Alexa at the center, while the Echo Sub will offer a serious bass boost to existing Echo and Echo Plus speakers. The key part of Amazon’s pitch is that you can pair the Echo Sub with two Echo speakers to create a 2.1 stereo setup. The total cost of such a setup: $330 — or $20 less than a single Apple HomePod.
Your move, Cupertino.
Alexa appliances? Not exactly
Yes, I know that Amazon’s offering an Alexa microwave now. I saw it. I touched it. I watched Alexa cook a potato in it (several of them, actually).
But this isn’t the appliance some people were expecting when rumors of the microwave’s imminent arrival hit the net earlier this week. It’s a microwave without a microphone, and Alexa isn’t built-in — instead, you’ll need to give your cooking commands to a separate Echo device. And while it does, in fact, offer Dash replenishment for your popcorn, there aren’t any premium bells and whistles with the thing — no touchscreen, no speaker and no barcode scanner like you’ll get with GE’s take on the Alexa microwave.
So yes, we all saw the microwave coming, but we didn’t call the AmazonBasics branding or the $60 price. I figured (wrongly) that Amazon would try and make a high-end play. Instead, it went cheap with a relatively small, 700-watt microwave that looks like the one I used in my dorm almost 15 years ago.
And that’s exactly the point. The microwave isn’t the real product here — it’s the Alexa Connect Kit chipset inside of it. Amazon’s offering that new chipset to outside manufacturers as an easy, affordable means of upgrading any old appliance with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and secure access to Amazon’s cloud.
In other words, Amazon isn’t getting into the appliances business. It’s shouting to manufacturers, ‘Look! Even a dumb old microwave can be a nifty Alexa gadget!’ The fact that the microwave managed to grab so many headlines only hammers the point home.
It’s the software, stupid (but also the hardware)
In the end, don’t let the gaggle of new gadgets fool you. Amazon’s devices are getting lots of attention these days, but only because of the popular appeal of Alexa and the growing clout of the company’s cloud. Think back just a few years ago, and try to imagine this sort of hubbub for a flock of new Fire Tablets or Kindle e-readers. Heck, even the Fire Phone was a flop.
The context around Amazon has clearly changed, but that doesn’t mean that the company’s hardware is inherently more compelling than it used to be. Not really, anyway. For as many new gizmos as we saw this week, Amazon’s central theme seemed to be ‘everything is better when it’s connected to us.’ The Alexa Connect Kit is the physical tool that can make that happen for third-party manufacturers — and in doing so, expand Alexa’s reach even farther into people’s homes.
In other words, Amazon isn’t in the device business so much as it’s in the ecosystem business and, more than anything, the flood of new hardware is really just a sign that Amazon thinks business is pretty good right now. New gadgets aside, in the long run, it’s that ecosystem — and Amazon’s ability to make it more or less ubiquitous in the modern smart home — that’ll determine where Alexa goes from here.