Echo HomePod? Amazon wants you to build your own

One of the bigger surprises at today’s big Amazon event was something the company didn’t announce. After a couple of years of speculation that the company was working on its own version of the HomePod and Google Max, we still don’t have a truly premium Echo. That’s due, in part, to the fact that Amazon […]

One of the bigger surprises at today’s big Amazon event was something the company didn’t announce. After a couple of years of speculation that the company was working on its own version of the HomePod and Google Max, we still don’t have a truly premium Echo.

That’s due, in part, to the fact that Amazon is already leaning fairly heavily on hardware partnerships with companies like Sony to offer people a premium, Alexa-enabled smart speaker. But today, we got a better glimpse at how it plans to take on such products. And frankly, it’s a bit of fresh air.

Amazon’s already laid the ground work here. The first step in the plan is seeding the Echo and Alexa into as many rooms in as many homes as possible. Check and double-check, thanks in no small part to the super-low-cost Echo Dot. Today, the company demonstrated how those pieces can be turned into something more.

After the event, we were ushered into a handful of fake rooms at Amazon HQ, designed to show the new products in their native habitat. As I stood in front of a couch flanked by two of the new Echo Dots, the company blared some Ed Sheeran song (again, not my choice), with the devices splitting up the left and right stereo track.

The sound was loud and decent, but couldn’t compete with the likes of the HomePod. No problem, though. Toss in the new Sub and pick up the Link Amp. Boom, you’ve got your very own modular home stereo system. It’s a compelling à la carte approach to the system that puts Amazon in competition with the likes of Sonos, but more importantly, makes existing Echos the centerpiece of a multi-room home speaker system.

An Amazon clock? A microwave? None of these bizarre additions mattered much to my colleague, Matt Burns. The Link, on the other hand, as he put it, “I almost bought a $600 device a few weeks ago just to get optical out.” For $199 or $299, he can get his hands on the Link or Link Amp, respectively.

Instead of shelling out $349 or $400 for the HomePod or Home Max, you can create your own version piece by piece. Granted, all of the parts could easily end up costing you more than either option, but there’s a lot to be said for the ability to mix and match and customize on a per-room basis.

This approach marks the single most compelling revelation in a day jam-packed with Amazon news. It will be fascinating to see how Apple and Google respond.

Amazon introduces APL, a new design language for building Alexa skills for devices with screens

Along with the launch of the all-new Echo Show, the Alexa-powered device with a screen, Amazon also introduced a new design language for developers who want to build voice skills that include multimedia experiences. Called Alexa Presentation Language, or APL, developers will be able to build voice-based apps that also include things like images, graphics, […]

Along with the launch of the all-new Echo Show, the Alexa-powered device with a screen, Amazon also introduced a new design language for developers who want to build voice skills that include multimedia experiences. Called Alexa Presentation Language, or APL, developers will be able to build voice-based apps that also include things like images, graphics, slideshows, and video, and easily customize them for different device types – including not only the Echo Show, but other Alexa-enabled devices like Fire TV, Fire Tablet, and the small screen of the Alexa alarm clock, the Echo Spot.

In addition, third-party devices with screens will be able to take advantage of APL through the Alexa Smart Screen and TV Device SDK, arriving in the months ahead. Sony and Lenovo will be putting this to use first.

Voice-based skill experiences can sometimes feel limited because of their lack of a visual component. For example, a cooking skill would work better if it just showed the steps as Alexa guided users through them. Other skills could simply benefit from visual cues or other complementary information, like lists of items.

Amazon says it found that Alexa skills that use visual elements are used twice as much as voice-only skills, which is why it wanted to improve the development of these visual experiences.

The new language was built from the ground-up specifically for adapting Alexa skills for different screen-based, voice-first experiences.

At launch, APL supports experiences that include text, graphics, and slideshows, with video support coming soon. Developers could do things like sync the on-screen text and images with Alexa’s spoken voice. Plus, the new skills built with this language could allow for both voice commands as well as input through touch or remote controls, if available.

The language is also designed to be flexible in terms of the placement of the graphics or other visual elements, so companies can adhere to their brand guidelines, Amazon says. And it’s adaptable to many different types of screen-based devices, including those with different sized screens or varying memory or processing capabilities.

When introducing the new language at an event in Seattle this morning, Amazon said that APL will feel familiar to anyone who’s used to working with front-end development, as it adheres to universally understood styling practices and using similar syntax.

Amazon is also providing sample APL documents to help developers get started, which can be used as-is or can be modified. Developers can choose to build their own from scratch, as well.

These APL documents are JSON files sent from a skill to a device. The device will then evaluate the document, import the images and other data, then render the experience. Developers can use elements like images, text, and scrollviews, pages, sequences, layouts, conditional expressions, speech synchronization, and other commands. Support for video, audio and HTML5 are coming soon.

“This year alone, customers have interacted with visual skills hundreds of millions of times. You told us you want more design flexibility -in both content and layout – and the ability to optimize experiences for th growing family of Alexa devices with screens,” said Nedium Fresko, VP of Alexa Devices and Developer Technologies, in a statement. “With the Alexa Presentation Language, you can unleash your creativity and build interactive skills that adapt to the unique characteristics of Alexa Smart Screen devices,” he said.

A handful of skills have already put APL to use, including a CNBC skill that shows a graph of stock performance; Big Sky that shows images to accompany its weather forecasts; NextThere, which lets you view public transit schedules; Kayak, which shows slideshows of travel destinations; Food Network, which shows recipes, and several others.

Alexa device owners will be able to use these APL-powered skills starting next month. The Developer Preview for APL starts today.

Google’s fingerprints were all over today’s Amazon event

Hidden amongst the 70 or so announcements Amazon made at today’s big Alexa event was one key hidden presence. Google’s offerings loomed large over much of the news flowing out from the big event. It’s easy to understand why, of course. Assistant and Home have steadily been making up ground on Amazon over the last […]

Hidden amongst the 70 or so announcements Amazon made at today’s big Alexa event was one key hidden presence. Google’s offerings loomed large over much of the news flowing out from the big event.

It’s easy to understand why, of course. Assistant and Home have steadily been making up ground on Amazon over the last couple of years. In fact, just in time for today’s event, a study dropped noting that Google Home Mini was the best-selling smart speaker for Q2 of this year, dethroning Amazon’s popular Dot.

As one of the first products unveiled at the event, the newly refreshed Dot certainly bore the mark of Google’s influence. A new, fabric-covered design with improved sound promised to put the low-cost smart speaker on better footing against the Home Mini. It’s the first big hardware redesign for the product.

While Amazon also beat Google to the punch with the Echo Show, the refreshed version of the product also bears the mark of Google’s influence on the space. The original Show was clearly about function over form. This year at CES, however, Google upped the ante for the display-enabled category with its third-party Smart Displays. While the new Show has likely been in the works for some time, it’s hard not to see the influence of products like Lenovo’s.

Amazon does, however, deserve credit for not simply swiping from Google. The company is clearly interested in taking its own approach to the smart assistant category. Rather than, say, introducing a Google Max/HomePod competitor, the company introduced the elements (Sub, Link, et al.) for building a home stereo system, piece by piece. The Echo Auto, meanwhile, finds the company offering a plug and play solution designed to compete with the likes of Android Auto.

The rivalry between Amazon and Google that resulted in YouTube being pulled from the Echo Show is clearly a driving force behind many of the decisions on display at today’s event. And it’s clear that things are only going to heat up from here.

Amazon’s new Echo Dot, up close and hands-on

If the Echo Show was the Amazon device most desperately in need of a makeover (please and thank you), the Dot was certainly a close second. After all, while the cheapest (and best selling) Echo device has already been through a couple of iterations, the hardware wasn’t exactly the sort of thing you’d proudly display […]

If the Echo Show was the Amazon device most desperately in need of a makeover (please and thank you), the Dot was certainly a close second. After all, while the cheapest (and best selling) Echo device has already been through a couple of iterations, the hardware wasn’t exactly the sort of thing you’d proudly display on the coffee table.

The thing that strikes you immediately upon seeing the redesigned version of what Amazon calls “the best selling speaker,” is how much the new generation of the product is influenced by Google’s Home Mini. In fact, Google’s influence was evident all over the place here.

That said, I actually prefer the design on this one. The new Dot has a similar form factor to its predecessor, keeping the rough dimensions and button layouts intact. The biggest difference from the design perspective, is the cloth speaker that surrounds the perimeter of the device. The product takes the whole “speaker” part of “Smart Speaker” a bit more seriously.

The new version tops out at about 70 percent louder than the original Dot. The company played a pair of the products in tandem for me (the Ed Sheeran, for the record, was not my choice), with each one splitting the left and right stereo channels. The effect was solid, though I’m not rushing out to replace the Google Home Max in my apartment at the moment. 

The most impressive bit in all of this is, naturally, the price. Amazon managed to improve the hardware without charging more. That would have been a mistake, of course. The $49 price tag is kind of the whole point of the Dot. This is the gateway drug into the Alexa ecosystem (Echosystem?).

At that level, you’ve got a low-cost entry into multiroom audio. It’s all part of the company’s approach to home audio. By circumventing high-ticket items like the HomePod or Google Home Max, Amazon is letting users build their home audio system piece by piece.

Check out our full coverage from the event here.

Amazon’s new Echo Show up close and hands-ons

The Show was far and away the Echo product most in need of a makeover. The original device, introduced two years back, was far more concerned with function than form — that, of course, is in line with many of the company’s hardware offerings, which are often designed to simply show what things like Alexa […]

The Show was far and away the Echo product most in need of a makeover. The original device, introduced two years back, was far more concerned with function than form — that, of course, is in line with many of the company’s hardware offerings, which are often designed to simply show what things like Alexa are capable of.

The original show was big and boxy, with an out of whack body-to-display ratio that took up a lot of space on whatever desk or kitchen counter it might be placed. The refreshed version is far more aesthetically pleasing than its predecessor. That’s important, because unlike products like the Echo or Echo Dot, you can’t exactly stash the product away if you intend on interacting with the display.

While the new smaller design and cloth backing are certainly an upgrade, Lenovo still leads the design pack with its simply title Smart Display for Google Assistant. Google made the right choice here by leading with hardware partnerships to bring its concept to market. That said, the product should look at home in most kitchen.

Even more important than design language are the surface-level hardware upgrades. Screen size was one of my chief complaints with the original Show, and this generation effectively doubles it. Like Google’s Smart Displays, the product really does appear to be a tablet affixed to a speaker backing.

Interestingly, the new Show does support multi-touch. That’s certainly a handy and much welcome addition, though honestly, you’ll ultimately get limited use out of it. After all, the product is designed to be a voice device first and foremost, so the vast majority of interactions you’ll have with the thing won’t involve actually touching it.

That said, there are some compelling new additions that certainly benefit from the feature — including the addition of the Firefox browser. Of course, touch typing on a screen like this is a pain, so you’re probably not going to spend that much time doing it.

Of course, the on-going Amazon/Google battle means no native YouTube support. Of course, Amazon’s found a workaround in the form of a desktop shortcut. The browser means you should also be able to access videos that way — a kind of workaround until the company inevitably launches its own competitor.

The sound has also been greatly improved here, as evidenced by today’s showcase. It’s still not good enough to serve as your primary listening device — of course, the company’s got the workaround for that, in the form of the Sub and Link. Or you can go the Sonos route, but this is an Alexa family, damn it.

Like its predecessor, the new device will run you $330.

Up close with Amazon’s $60 Alexa Microwave

Amazon was quick to note at today’s event that not all that much has been done to update the microwave for the 21st century. While that’s probably a pretty fair criticism of the ubiquitous home appliance, the new AmazonBasics microwave is less about space-age technologies than it is helping to usher in the future of […]

Amazon was quick to note at today’s event that not all that much has been done to update the microwave for the 21st century. While that’s probably a pretty fair criticism of the ubiquitous home appliance, the new AmazonBasics microwave is less about space-age technologies than it is helping to usher in the future of Alexa in the kitchen.

Like last year’s Echo Buttons, the company says the product started off as an internal reference design. In other words, the company didn’t set out to build a microwave for consumers, per, say. Rather, it seems it was happy enough with its results to bring the product to market under its low-cost AmazonBasics line.

That last bit is important to note here. This, after all, is a $60 product. It’s a cheap microwave lacking the conveniences you’ll find on many high-end premium devices, so if you’re looking for a fancy new thing for your newly remodeled kitchen, I’m sorry Mario, but your microwave is in another castle.

The new device is more about convenience than anything else, as evidenced by the fact that the company built a popcorn Dash Button directly into the product. “It’s all right to laugh,” a rep said from the stage, acknowledging the sheer absurdity of the whole thing. But hey, if you’re going to integrate commerce directly into your microwave, popcorn is probably as good a place to start as any.

The product did require some fancy backend work on Amazon’s part. It turns out it’s hard to design a microwave that gets along with Wi-Fi signals. Makes sense, but it’s probably not the kind of thing you’ve ever really considered if you don’t work for GE. All of that’s important because in spite of the presence of an “Ask Alexa” button, the microwave requires an Echo or other outside hardware product to bring the assistant to the appliance.

All in all, the microwave is, well, just a microwave. It continues the company’s trend of bringing low-cost products to market as a sort of loss leader/reference design to nudge third parties into developing their own hardware.

Check out our full coverage from the event here.

Echo Auto brings Alexa to cars

As Amazon noted at today’s event, the company has already been working with a number of car companies to bring Alexa to vehicles. There are already a number of high-profile partners, including Toyota, Ford, Lexus, BMW and Audi. Today, it announced its plan to bring the assistant to the rest of the “hundreds of millions” […]

As Amazon noted at today’s event, the company has already been working with a number of car companies to bring Alexa to vehicles. There are already a number of high-profile partners, including Toyota, Ford, Lexus, BMW and Audi. Today, it announced its plan to bring the assistant to the rest of the “hundreds of millions” of auto models out there — Echo Auto.

The device is a small dongle that plugs into the car’s infotainment system, giving drivers the smart assistant and voice control for hands-free interactions. Users can interact with the product’s mic array in standard fashion and ask for things like traffic reports, add products to shopping lists and play music through Amazon’s entertainment system.

The product also integrates with Amazon’s routines, making the product an interesting part of the company’s growing smart home experience. That means it can turn lights and appliances on/off as you’re coming and going.

The Drop-In feature, already available on products like Fire tablets and the Echo Show, is here as well. Using it, you can speak directly with those on your contacts list with a simple voice command. 

Of course, the product also integrates with various mapping services, so you can get driving directions. It works with Waze by default, but Apple and Google Maps will also be available. The product will run $50, though early adopters can get their hands on it this year for testing, with an added bonus of a price discount down to $25.

Check out our full coverage from the event here.

Alexa Guard turns Echo products into security devices

Here’s another unexpected surprise, as the hardware announcements have started coming fast and furious. Alexa Guard is a home security device that integrates with existing Echos. When the users is away, the product, flips the smart speakers in “Guard Mode,” so they listen out for sounds like breaking glass. The product features smoke and carbon […]

Here’s another unexpected surprise, as the hardware announcements have started coming fast and furious. Alexa Guard is a home security device that integrates with existing Echos. When the users is away, the product, flips the smart speakers in “Guard Mode,” so they listen out for sounds like breaking glass.

The product features smoke and carbon monoxide and integrates with existing security products, including those from ADT and Amazon’s own Ring products. The company didn’t highlight much in the way of information beyond that, but it promises that the offering is part of a much larger security offering, moving forward.

Along with the Guard offering, the company also announced the new Ring Stick Up, a camera powered by batteries that works outdoors.

Amazon launches an Alexa microwave with built-in popcorn Dash button

One of the weirder rumors ahead of today’s Amazon event has come to fruition. The company’s attempting to make a big push into home appliances, so it’s leading the way with its very microwave. The Amazon Basics Microwave apparently began life as an in-house reference product, as the company was developing an API for third-parties […]

One of the weirder rumors ahead of today’s Amazon event has come to fruition. The company’s attempting to make a big push into home appliances, so it’s leading the way with its very microwave. The Amazon Basics Microwave apparently began life as an in-house reference product, as the company was developing an API for third-parties to develop their own Alexa-powered devices.

The microwave is “still stuck in the late 70s,” the company said at the event. So it built a new one.

Among the other things the company had to solve was the ability to make the microwave work with WiFi signals — which has proven a difficult problem to solve. Unlike early rooms, Alexa isn’t built in, rather the appliance works with a nearby Echo, so you can cook things via voice.

The real killer app, however, is a built-in Dash replenishment, so you can order popcorn directly from the device. Seriously. The other big upside here is the price — the microwave will be available later this year for $60.

Amazon launches an Alexa Smart Plug

Amazon wants to make it easier to set up your smart home. Today, the company introduced a new Smart Plug device that brings Alexa’s voice control capabilities to anything you want to control – a coffee pot, a light, or anything else that can be powered on or off at a power outlet. What makes […]

Amazon wants to make it easier to set up your smart home. Today, the company introduced a new Smart Plug device that brings Alexa’s voice control capabilities to anything you want to control – a coffee pot, a light, or anything else that can be powered on or off at a power outlet. What makes the device interesting is that it won’t require a smart home hub in order to work – that is, something like the premium Echo Plus it introduced last year.

However, the price of this new device – $125 –  could be a breaking point for some potential smart home adopters, especially considering they could get a fancy Echo for not that much more. Pre-order starts today and the product starts shipping next month.

It’s not the the first smart plug by any stretch, but it’s a big part of Amazon’s plans to be the connective tissue for the smart home. The device works instantly, for those with an Echo at home. Plug it in and Alexa will recognize the device. From there, you can rename the device, to designate which room it works in, making it easier to control devices remotely.