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Amazon Echo started out as a great way to order recipe ingredients. But it might just herald the start of a post-smartphone world. Tim Green wonders whether the next new digital thing might begin in the kitchen…

Shortly after the iPad was launched, a raft of videos went onto YouTube showing confused toddlers pinching and zooming copies of Marie Claire. It had taken just a few months for kids to alter their behaviour so drastically that they couldn’t understand paper. 

Seems a bit old hat now. But is another similar revolution on the way – this time involving voice?

How long will it be before your kids complain that the fridge is broken? They will rush into the room, and say: “I tried talking to it, and it didn’t say anything.” Then they will burst into righteous hysterical tears.

   Amazon – intentionally or otherwise – created the first significant comms device in a decade that doesn’t rely on the phone in some way.

Yes, the rise of voice activation has got people wondering whether this UI can have the same impact as touch and swipe. And there’s one device that is leading the charge: the Amazon Echo.

With little fanfare, Echo is tearing up the US market (it’s unavailable anywhere else).

People absolutely love it.

It’s fair to say, hardly anyone saw this coming. When Amazon first unveiled Echo in late 2014, the most common response was ‘why?’.

For the uninitiated here’s what Echo was/is. It’s a voice-controlled cylindrical speaker you (usually) locate in your kitchen. Its voice assistant is called Alexa, so you can ask Alexa factual questions (how big is the earth?) or ask her to play music or set alarms or set up shopping lists.

To answer all these questions, Alexa/Echo goes to the cloud and its default destination is Amazon services. So, if you want to buy something, you’ll do it from Amazon. And if you ask Echo to play AC/DC, it will cue up something it found on Prime (assuming you are a member).

However, Echo also links to a range of third party services, which you can set up via a web dashboard and monitor via the Echo app. That means you can play songs from Spotify, order pizzas from Dominos and summon cabs from Uber. And it’s adding all the time. In the last few days, it’s enabled flight times.

So the interesting thing is that Amazon may well have built Echo as a punt to see if it could get people to order more Amazon stuff. But it’s ended up (possibly) opening the door on a new post-smartphone world.

Think about it. How do you currently listen to music, order pizzas and summon Ubers? Through the smartphone app. Battle may rage over which platform controls your choices, but whether iOS, Android, WinPho or even WhatsApp or Facebook, the phone is always the underlying platform.

Echo overturns this. The analyst Ben Thompson explained on the podcast Exponent how this came to be. He reasoned that the mobile app has become all-powerful because the phone is always with you. But where is that not necessarily the case? In the home – where it’s usually charging up somewhere.

Amazon – intentionally or otherwise – created the first significant comms device in a decade that doesn’t rely on the phone in some way.

Of course, Amazon arrived at the Echo via a few missteps. It’s not as if the company always planned to sidestep the mobile: exhibit A – the lamentable Fire phone.

But, as Thompson goes on to say, sometimes it takes an outsider to see past the status quo. So just as Microsoft couldn’t clearly see a world beyond the PC, maybe Apple and Google struggle to envision an ecosystem product that is not smartphone-centric. Amazon was able to envision Echo because it doesn’t have a mobile foundation to protect.

tim-greenTim Green

Features Editor

MEF Minute

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It will be fascinating to see what happens next with Echo. Aside from adding more third party services, the obvious move is adding third party hardware. This is just getting started. Last summer the firm created Amazon Voice Services to let developers build Alexa into their own devices. A few weeks back, the first product launched – Triby, a portable Bluetooth speaker you stick on the fridge.

But more are coming. For example, one of the debut launch partners for AVS was Scout, which specialises in home security systems. So one can see how Echo could – stealthily – become the hub for the smart home. What a prize. Something Google thought it could claim with Nest, Apple with HomeKit and Samsung with SmartThings.

Just goes to show what’s possible when you create a really easy way to play AC/DC.