When CBS MoneyWatch first reported on Amazon Echo in March, it seemed pretty clear it was a classic first-generation product. Echo was certainly a good idea, but the lackluster implementation meant Amazon (AMZN) barely scratched the surface of the product's potential. Instead, using Echo was a generally unsatisfying experience.
Just a couple of months later, it's a whole new game. Echo is finding its footing through effortless, automatic, through-the-cloud product updates.
A quick refresher: Amazon Echo is essentially a voice-controlled personal assistant that lives in your home, for instance on a counter. Like the Apple (AAPL) iPhone's Siri or the Google Now app for Google's (GOOG) Android, it responds to conversational questions and commands in plain English. You can ask Echo about the weather, to look up facts online, play music from Amazon Prime music, get the news or run a timer.
Echo is pretty good at understanding you from across the room, and the speaker in the thermos-size cylinder is adequate for casual music listening.
Our primary complaint with Echo was that it simply didn't do very much. It was about as flexible as Siri, which led to the question: Why bother? Siri is, after all, already in your pocket.
But then Amazon started rolling out updates. With no effort required by Echo owners, Amazon added some key new features in the past few weeks.
First came Pandora support. After adding your Pandora account information to the Pandora mobile app (a free account is fine, you don't need to pay for the subscription), you can voice-control Pandora directly through Echo: "Play Black Rebel Motorcycle Club in Pandora."
Amazon also added access to information about major sports franchises, like Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer. You can ask Echo for scores and game schedules.
A far more important update arrived last week, though: Integration with smart home appliances.
The Echo is now seamlessly compatible with Belkin WeMo and Philips Hue smart lights. WeMo is a system of connected outlets, which you can use to remotely control and program appliances connected to them. Hue is a lightbulb system that can be controlled and programmed as well. Now that Echo is in the mix, you can command these devices using voice commands.
Case in point: For all of the convenience of Hue lights, you lose the ability to simply toggle the traditional light switch, instead having to resort to a mobile app, Web browser or some other device (like a Roku remote control). Armed with Echo, you can simply say, "Turn off the bedroom," and the lights are instantly extinguished.
Right now, Amazon has rolled out smart home support just for these two products, but this fixes one of the points of our original Echo review when we suggested Echo was a missed opportunity for not supporting smart home devices like Sonos and Nest. If this is just the first salvo in a much larger offensive to turn Echo into a voice-controlled equivalent of a smart home hub like Revolv, that will make Echo truly great.