Last year, Amazon (AMZN) introduced Echo, a cylinder about the size of a thermos that includes a speaker, microphone and access to the cloud. It's essentially Siri -- the voice-assistance service on Apple (AAPL) phones -- for your home. Just ask Echo questions from anywhere in the room and it responds. Amazon is starting to ship to pre-order customers, and you can sign up to get on the waiting list now.
At first blush, it seems like there are all sorts of things Echo can do. You can ask it for the weather, for example, or ask it a free-form question like "What is the capital of Texas?" Echo will even tell you a joke if you ask for one. And Echo is connected to Amazon, so it can play music from Amazon Prime Music. You can shop for and purchase items from Amazon by speaking, if you so desire. For brick-and-mortar shopping, you can add items to a shopping list, and Echo dutifully remembers them. When you leave the house, you can see your list on your mobile device.
Unfortunately, most people who plunk down $100 for Echo (that's the price for Amazon Prime members; non-Prime customers pay $200) may grow bored with Echo fairly quickly.
The central problem is that Echo, at least in its current state, just doesn't do very much. Some of the handiest queries you can throw at Echo include the weather and unit conversions, as in "how many tablespoons are in a cup?" It can also run a timer for you, another common kitchen task, as well as play a "flash briefing," which is a news report composed of the categories you are most interested in.
But Echo's vocabulary is limited. Echo couldn't tell me an easily Googled fact like, "What's the world's largest cat." That's probably because Echo doesn't Google, or Bing, for that matter. If it can't get the answer in Wikipedia, you simply hear that the answer couldn't be found. And you'll hear that a lot. When you do stumble onto something Echo can tell you -- typically, a straightforward fact such as, "What is John F. Kennedy's birthday"-- it'll feel like a minor victory.
Indeed, Siri and Google Now (on Android) are more helpful, and they're already in your pocket, begging the question of why you need Echo to begin with.
For a device that promises to tech up your home, Echo isn't particularly flexible. Amazon originally pitched the product by saying you could name anything you wanted -- important, because it's that trigger word that the device is listening for when you ask a question. Unfortunately, that feature appears to have fallen by the wayside. Echo only responds to the names "Alexa" or "Amazon." Strangely, you can't even call it "Echo," which is actually its name.
Echo also can't tie into any tech already in your home. It can't control your Nest, for example, or interface with Sonos. Those are some real missed opportunities, especially when you see how much fun it is to control music verbally with Echo.
On the plus side, Echo hears you pretty accurately, even in a noisy room. The device also comes with a simple remote that you can use to control its music and as a handheld microphone to command Echo when you're too far away for it to hear you reliably. The remote smartly sticks to magnetic surfaces, like a refrigerator door. And initial setup is a snap -- it takes less than five minutes using just your phone. It's also kind of cool the way everything you do with Echo is captured in the mobile app, and you can let the app perform a Bing search for things you asked Echo (and Echo invariably couldn't answer).
The bottom line is that Amazon Echo is a classic first-generation product. It takes a good idea, but fails to deliver on the product's potential.