Alexa, is Amazon poised to control the connected ecosystem of the future?

In adding a screen to Echo and creating a network beyond the platform, Amazon is honing its connected ecosystem.

Just two weeks after introducing the hands-free camera and style assistant Echo Look, Amazon made another Echo product, Show, available for pre-order – and this time it has a screen. And while an introductory video would have you believe it’s a device that enables us to live better lives, there are many signs Amazon is positioning itself to control the connected ecosystem of the future – and it may very well win.

Or, as Amazon puts it, “Now Alexa can show you things”. And consumer voice queries will receive responses enhanced with visuals.

That’s because the Echo Show, which will be released June 28, has a 7-inch touchscreen from which users can make standard queries, as well as initiate hands-free video calls to users who have an Echo or the Alexa app and monitor their front doors or nurseries and see music lyrics as songs play. In fact, in the video that showcases Echo Show’s features, a man asks Alexa to show him YouTube videos of sponge painting and then selects the video he wants to watch by asking Alexa to “play number three”.

Long live ten blue links?

This marks a vastly different way to search for information with Alexa, which was previously limited to verbal responses. It also means search as we know it may not change as drastically as initially suspected as digital assistants become further ingrained in our lives. In other words, marketers don’t necessarily need to panic about how they will become the single best answer Alexa selects for a given query.

For his part, Michael Dobbs, vice president of SEO at digital marketing agency 360i, said it’s exciting to see a voice input paired with a visual output and Echo Show could pave the way for more engaging experiences overall – and the advent of Echo Show will only accelerate the number of voice queries made because voice search is faster and the screen enhances the interactions consumers have with assistants.

“I think the visual component will add another new layer of relevance and remove friction to get to relevant content faster,” Dobbs said.

An interactive lifestyle device – with a network beyond Amazon

And while Echo and Dot and Google Home have previously interacted with screens via other devices, Echo Show combines this into one device so users can understand the benefit of a voice and graphical user interface in a single package, Dobbs said.

For his part, Chris Colborn, global chief innovation officer at digital agency R/GA, used the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” multiple times in talking about the Echo Show, noting a verbal interface can be a challenging way to convey information. In other words, a screen allows the device to convey more information more quickly and for consumers to make decisions more naturally, so an Echo with a screen marks something of a natural progression for Amazon and the Echo family.

“It’s functioning as a mobile phone, but in a hands-free home-based environment,” Colborn added.

Echo Show indeed allows users to make hands-free video calls – and that, too, is an intriguing development.

“When you’re busy making dinner, just ask Alexa to place a call from your Echo Show to anyone with a supported Echo device or the Alexa App,” Amazon says on its pre-order page. “You can also enable a new feature called Drop In for the special cases when you want to connect with your closest friends and family. For example, you can drop in to let the family know it’s time for dinner, see the baby’s nursery or check in with a close relative.”

Per David Hewitt, global mobility lead at global agency SapientRazorfish, Echo Show is poised to do what smart TV manufacturers have failed to do for a decade – and that is to effectively transform a staple media appliance into an interactive lifestyle service.

“Instead of scaring folks out the gate on what Amazon partners and brands are going to do with [a] big brother live camera feed in consumer homes, Amazon has taken a smarter approach to initially focus on intra-family communication and a more one-way approach to [third] party video content,” Hewitt said. “That is not to say Amazon will completely close off video access for third party skill developers – this launch strategy might presumably be to build trust and dependency with basic family-friendly features to then scale to other developers at a more measured pace.”

And this, in turn, could indicate Amazon is now effectively the leader in the drive to create assistant-driven ecosystems that know consumers and make decisions on their behalf, so tasks are performed as if by magic.

“Even at CES [a few years ago], Amazon wasn’t even there, but everyone talked about Alexa,” said Dana DiTomaso, president of digital marketing agency Kick Point. “I think their ecosystem is winning in a lot of ways.”

Colborn agreed recent activity makes it look like Amazon is trying to build its own connected ecosystem – particularly by enabling personal peer-to-peer connections. And, he noted, because the mobile market is already saturated – which is even more interesting when you consider Amazon’s Fire phone was a bit of a dud – this is the new battleground, he added.

“We’re at the point now where mobile is ubiquitous and there is little room for growth and all these electronics companies have to figure out how to go into IoT,” Colborn said.

And the addition of screens and so-called Drop Ins clearly demonstrates the notion of a network beyond Amazon – which extends to friends and family as well.

“We have to see how that plays out…it’s not an unexpected evolution for Amazon, but a new opportunity – they struggled with skills in terms of building good ones,” Colborn said. “But a lot more is known about touchscreens [and] cameras…and there’s a chance to build a stronger interactive paradigm if they can get out quickly and innovate well. But how fast it is adopted and by who is anybody’s guess.”

And citing the $230 price point, Hewitt said he doesn’t think Echo Show will likely have the sales volume of its cheaper siblings.

What’s more, DiTomaso pointed to the perhaps uninspired appearance of Echo Show and questioned whether it was rushed because Amazon heard a player like Google or Apple was working on something similar – particularly since Amazon only just announced a similar device in Look.

“It feels weird they are announcing it so close – and Look is still invitation only. It feels rushed,” she added.

Peeping Tom

Either way, the advent of a digital assistant with eyes as well as ears poses questions about what an always-listening device with access to images of our faces and/or bodies is doing with said information.

“It’s the same security implications of any other of these forever listening devices and the slow march to additional privacy concerns,” DiTomaso said. “If I said to you ten years ago, there will be a device in your home always listening to you in case you said, ‘Play this song,’ [you would have thought it was crazy], but now not only do we have this, it has a camera [and a] screen as well.”

With Look in particular, Colborn said there’s theoretically an eye in your room and consumers have to worry about when it’s on.

“Amazon has a big interest in gleaning more information from consumers,” Colborn said. “Not just what they’re searching for – what they’re wearing, and who they are interacting with. These are new opportunities to gather information about customers to help with purchase decisions.”

And machine learning can do a lot more with a photo of a user’s face than the sounds in his or her home – and even more than that with photos of his or her entire body.

“[Amazon says] it’s only for fashion advice, but they could change the terms of service,” DiTomaso said. “Sometimes companies get hacked or they’re using devices for slightly different information [than they explicitly talk about] like Unroll.me, [which is a free service that helped users unsubscribe to email newsletters] but it turned out they were reading your email and selling out patterns to advertisers…because these companies have complicated terms of service and can use data in different ways and I don’t think the average consumer understands [how their data is being utilized].”

And while DiTomaso conceded there is value to Look for users who are, say, color blind, she noted it may also start to deliver messages like, “People who look like you bought weight loss equipment”, which raises questions about privacy.

For his part, Hewitt said it will be interesting to see how Amazon manages “such an intimate and precious asset” and Dobbs recommends healthy skepticism when introducing new devices into the home.

“I think there are a ton of exciting things a consumer might want to sacrifice in terms of privacy [and] security. If it helps me have a more seamless experience with getting information or doing research, those are things I’m going to weigh. We can only hope companies are doing their due diligence in terms of keeping information private,” Dobbs said. “From a search perspective, we saw something similar with encrypted search. Search engines used to allow third parties to intercept keywords, but that’s no longer the case. While Alexa [and] Google are recording interactions we have, they are not recording everything all the time on every device…we do need to be worried about who they’re sharing that data with and there should be some privacy questions, but, as a consumer, it’s about balancing value and rewards.”

DiTomaso agreed, advising consumers look at companies with a critical eye.

“People just trust Amazon – it’s one of the top 10 trusted brands,” she added. “But so is Google [and] they’ve done crazy stuff.”

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Lisa Lacy

Lisa Lacy is a senior reporter for The Drum, covering digital and search marketing. Based in New York, she writes about how brands use technology to connect with consumers, particularly as innovations like voice search, digital assistants and the Internet of Things change consumers’ lives forever – not to mention the data these platforms increasingly collect and the security and privacy issues therein. She is a graduate of Columbia's School of Journalism. Her bucket list includes riding in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

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