My View From Outside The Anti-Echo Chamber

Amazon’s stumble into mobile with the Fire Phone was widely and savagely derided by the tech press, and when it comes to its latest gadget, the Echo, the only way to describe the reaction is “meh-spicious.”

My fellow TechCruncher Greg Kumparak wagged a finger at Amazon for providing us with yet another unnecessary way to give them our money, and others in the tech media have offered admonishments of their own. The initial response to the currently invite-only gizmo hasn’t been completely one-sided, but the average review and impression seems ambivalent at best.

But this feels like a case of making the perfect the enemy of the good. Since when did having more options become a bad thing? Touch has revolutionized the way we interact with technology, and voice is fast gaining traction as the next frontier. This brave new world of technology is about more choice. It’s not an insidious plot; just the next natural progression in our on-demand lives. Amazon is a business, and the more platforms it makes available for its customers to spend money with them, the better they fare.

Even buying the device was a pretty unusual move for me. I’m not typically an early adopter. I never waited in line for an iPhone, and the only iPods or iPads I’ve ever owned have been gifts. These items have all enhanced my life in their own way, but for none of them did I deviate from my daily routine. Today as I headed to my mailbox to retrieve my long-awaited Echo, there was an undeniable haste to my gait.

As a fairly average technology consumer, I was excited for the possibilities with the Echo, given its promise of being a sort of personal assistant/Bluetooth speaker hybrid which yes, does give you the option to make music purchases from Amazon by voice.

I opened the package, plugged it into the wall and with a few minutes of tinkering on the Echo app on my phone, my new toy was up and running, announcing it was now connected to my network.

Alexa is the quasi-entity Amazon has created to be the link between the user and device. This is also known as Echo’s “wake word” (which can, for now, only be changed to “amazon”.) You say Alexa, and the device knows to listen for a request. Unlike Siri, your only choice (again, for now) is a female voice.

“Alexa, play A Tribe Called Quest,” I said, almost tentatively at first. In half a second, Echo’s silky voice replied, “Shuffling A Tribe Called Quest in the Amazon Prime Music library.” Pretty cool.

I decided to play around with it a little. “Alexa, what do you know about me?” I asked. “I know you ask interesting questions,” she replied, cheekily. Touché, Echo. Touché.

“Alexa, how many miles is it from Milan to Venice?”

After a brief moment, its bright blue and green LEDs spinning in contemplation, I had my answer. “Milan is 151 miles from Venice.” Again, pretty cool.

Then I got a little more specific. “Alexa, play Games Without Frontiers by Peter Gabriel.” Sure enough, it fired up. The quality of the voice recognition seems to be quite good. Amazon has boasted about the multi-directional listening microphone built into the device, and I’ve had no problem getting Echo to hear me even from another room. My request for it to start playing the Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack while I was washing dishes was heeded, and already playing when I returned to my office.

As an Amazon Prime member I was able to ask for an invite around Thanksgiving to order the Echo, and after no word until mid-December I had all but given up hope of getting the chance to try it out when the invite popped up in my inbox. I’d have to wait an additional 3 months before it shipped, but that didn’t bother me. The Echo cost me $99 plus tax (50% off its launch price of $199.) I can unequivocally say that I’ve spent way more than $100 on way dumber stuff in my lifetime. That said, I consider $100 a worthy investment to try my hand at the latest in voice-recognition technology from a company through which I already buy everything from my coffee to cat litter.

While I’m no audiophile, I like to think I have at least a passable ear when it comes to audio quality. In that department, I would rate the echo as solidly “not bad.” The bass comes through loud and clear and you can hear each instrument clearly in the Baroque classical pieces I asked it to play. It’s also a lot smaller than I expected, maybe 25 percent larger than a tube of cookie dough.

In a way, I can understand the members of the tech media scoffing at such a device, failing to see the need for it, or even scolding Amazon for a shameless cash grab. But I’m not sure that elite tech crowd will be Amazon’s intended audience for the Echo when it’s released to the general public. It’s aimed more at users like me, in the meaty center of the technology consumer bell curve. I get a kick out of being able to ask for the latest news headlines and instantly hearing Audie Cornish’s soothing voice read me the day’s events from an NPR feed. I think it’s neat that while typing away on my laptop I can ask it hands free to play me happy or sad music, or classical for work, and it’ll do just that, most of the time.

Occasionally I’ll request a song not contained in the million-or-so song Amazon Prime Music library, in which case it plays about a 30-second sample of the song you requested. If you ask to buy the song, it tells you the price and asks if you’re sure. You say yes, and your account is charged and the song plays, remaining in your personal Amazon Music library.

In the last decade, countless apps and devices have come into existence which make the act of separating us from our money ever more frictionless. Why Amazon is in the crosshairs as if they invented the concept is beyond my ken. Admittedly I’ve been slow to read more about Amazon’s purported business practices for fear I’d stop shopping there, as with Walmart.

But for now, if a semi-obscure R.E.M. song I want to hear isn’t available in Prime Music, I don’t mind shelling out $1.29 to own it forever. It’s nothing different than I do in the iTunes store already, except that it’s easier and I don’t have to pause my Nintendo to change the track.

The cool kids might not like Echo, but I’m confident it will find a large and curious audience among the middle of the road technology users. From where I sit, sometimes a new thing just being fun is enough.

Disclosure: I own shares of a mutual fund in my 401(k) that may have Amazon as one of its numerous holdings. That possibility has nothing to do with my writing this story.