Here’s why Amazon made those weird Echo Buttons

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In a day full of Echo announcements, the Echo Button was a clear standout. Not because it was a better or more useful product than the rest, but because it’s just damn weird. Where most of what the company announced today was some iteration of an existing product line (be it the Echo or Fire TV), the Button is a strange, left field offering with a limited case use.

More than any existing Echo, the product resembles a Milton Bradley product from the 1980s — sort of a scaled-down version of Simon. How did such a bizarre product get added to the company’s road map? The way SVP of Devices David Limp tells it, the product was an accident.

The Button started off as an in-house reference design. “We first did the buttons as a reference device internally to prove out gadgets,” says Limp. “There’s a lot of product complexity in that. It uses Bluetooth to connect to the device and you have to do that while Wi-Fi is still working. We wanted to prove out the lighting API so we put some lights in some buttons. These were a bunch of engineers wire wrapping the things together.”

Eight or nine months ago, the company was playing around with the device, demonstrating its trivia abilities, and ultimately decided to productize it. It’s a contrast from the rest of the Echo offerings, which Amazon says are direct responses to customer suggestions, adding a screen or better speakers. Useful additions people actually want.

According to Limp, the Amazon offices filled with products that didn’t make the cut. In spite of how it may seem from the outside, Amazon actually does reject Echo suggestions. In fact, the original Echo apparently sat in development limbo for a number of years because the company just couldn’t get the product right.

“Rooms in this building are littered in things we didn’t let see the light of day because they’re just not right,” says Limp. “Echo was that way for a couple years before we launched it. It didn’t work very well. It had a lot of latency. It was bad. My wife was very angry at me for a couple of years because it would wake up in the middle of the night.”

The world and technology weren’t ready for the original Echo in the years leading up to its release, but the time is apparently just right for Alexa-enabled game-show buzzers.