SciTech

Paul Gilster: Amazon’s Echo offers a glimpse into the future

The computer industry has always been hard to predict, but today a certain clarity is emerging as we look at what companies like Amazon are doing. Today’s battle is no longer over desktops or operating systems but over connected devices, the theory being that the daily activities we take for granted will increasingly be handled by networked digital assistants. Multiply this factor out by the number of connected devices we’ll soon have and you can see where this is going.

Amazon’s actions speak volumes Not that long ago, the online retailer (and to think I used to refer to them solely as an “online bookstore”!) announced a product called Echo. The $199 cylinder is a “smart speaker” that is connected to the cloud – the ecosystem of servers that give punch to so many of our software tools today. An Echo app lets your smartphone work with Echo to take alarms, shopping lists and reminders with you when you’re out of the house.

Dash Button

Like Apple’s Siri, Echo can respond to voice commands (you activate the device by calling its name, which happens to be Alexa). Echo does not live in your pocket but in your living room, designed as an always available source of information when you need it. It does for voice recognition what the iPad does for the Web – it brings voice tools to the sofa, or dining room table. Instead of grabbing your keyboard to look something up, you just speak the request.

Echo seems like an extremely early version of the kind of device(s) we’ll be using a lot in the future as voice recognition gets better and artificial intelligence improves the range of the objects that use it. But ask yourself why Amazon is selling Echo, which surely isn’t going to be a runaway hit, or for that matter why Google is offering same-day delivery of products in seven American cities. The answer is data. Both companies need information on user behavior that improves the software incrementally as a way of building toward a larger infrastructure.

To explain that, let me point to another Amazon foray called the Dash Button. Here you have a small strip with a button at one end that can be affixed wherever you’d like around the home. Maybe you drink a lot of bottled water and would like to take repetitive trips to the store off your schedule. The Dash Button can be branded for the bottled water you need, and when you pull out your next to last bottle, you can push the button to have the product resupplied to your door.

Glimpse the future

We’ll see how this develops, but surely Dash Buttons will come in a wide range of “flavors” as Amazon expands the program. Think of all the staples we buy as a matter of course – coffee, or tea, tissues, soap, paper towels. You name it and there can be a button for it. One push and the product is delivered through Amazon’s fulfillment channels before you run out.

Like the Echo, Dash Buttons surely won’t make Amazon much money, nor will any of us want to have dozens of separate “buy” buttons scattered around the house. But by collecting data on what we buy, Amazon builds up the information and experience it needs to handle future connected devices, refrigerators or washing machines, for example, that know when to order the products they need when the supply is low. We’re seeing the connected home of the future being prepped for occupancy as we build toward what some are calling the Internet of Things.

Today’s trends are easier to spot because they’re all around us. They involve things we take for granted that can be supplemented by computer intelligence that we, most of the time, won’t think about as we come to rely on it more and more. As a company that stands to fulfill all these incoming orders, assuming it gets out in front of the trend, Amazon helps us glimpse that future.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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