Amazon's Alexa makes herself at home

With Amazon's Echo smart speaker becoming a surprise hit, the online retailer is expanding its line of Alexa voice assistants with two new devices.

"Alexa, how did you sneak inside my Bose speakers?"

For the past year, Amazon's Echo speaker, which houses a digital voice assistant called Alexa, has become a breakout hit of the connected home. People all over the country are now calling out to these voice-activated devices: "Alexa, what's the weather today?" "Alexa, order more beef jerky." "Alexa, play some classic rock."

But, it seems Alexa -- like Amazon -- is an ambitious type, and she's not content simply serving as a digital genie stuck inside a speaker shaped like a Pringles can. She wants to go places. With that, Amazon revealed Thursday that it has built two new homes for Alexa: the Amazon Tap and the Echo Dot.

amazon-alexa-echo-dot-tap-4011.jpg

David Limp, Amazon's devices executive, shows off the expanded line of Alexa products.

James Martin/CNET


The $90 Dot, essentially the hockey-puck shaped top of an Echo speaker, can connect directly to a homeowner's speakers and turn them into Alexa-powered ones. The $130 Tap is a portable, battery-powered version of the Echo. The trade-off for the Tap's mobility is that folks will need to press a button to activate the device instead of simply uttering a magic word. Early orders for both begin Thursday, with deliveries starting at the end of the month.

With its new suite of Echo-related devices, Amazon hopes to cement its place at the center of our increasingly smart homes. Alexa's ability to work its digital fingers on light bulbs, fans and alarms comes at a time when we're starting to embrace the idea of connecting former "dumb" objects. Amazon is just one of many companies, including Apple and LG, that are banking on the idea that a voice-controlled assistant will better manage all these devices.

"At Amazon, we think the next big platform is voice," David Limp, Amazon's senior vice president of devices, said during a press event Wednesday in San Francisco.

Alexa is among the four major digital voice assistants now on the market, with Google's Google Now, Microsoft's Cortana and Apple's Siri also clamoring to answer your burning questions. Each one of these assistants is now traveling into more devices to help make talking, instead of typing, a bigger part of our computing experiences. Apple's Siri started in iPhones but is now integrated into the Apple TV streaming box. Microsoft's Cortana also started in phones but now can be found inside Windows laptops, too.

From its original roughly dozen capabilities (Amazon calls them "skills"), the Echo can now perform more than 300, including turning on and off the lights, playing Jeopardy and leading a listener through a choose-your-own-adventure tale about Batman. The Echo also can help you order new stuff from Amazon.com. All you have to do is ask, as long as you have a credit card on file.

Because the Echo includes microphones that are always listening for the word "Alexa," Limp emphasized the importance of privacy for such a device and noted that no conversation is sent to Amazon's servers until the Echo is woken up by hearing its name spoken. Customers can also go online and delete all the saved voice commands connected to their accounts, he said.

Amazon executives, meanwhile, seem to be just as surprised as many others about the Echo's sudden success. The Echo first became available for sale in late 2014, but the device offered so few tricks that many people hardly noticed it. This year, the device became big enough to merit its own Super Bowl commercials.

"Consumer electronics are hard," Limp said. "Roads are littered with consumer electronics failures. So when we have a hit -- and especially one like Alexa and Echo that are doing so well, so quickly -- I'm absolutely surprised."

Limp, of course, knows what such a failure can look like, since his company nearly two years ago came out with the Fire Phone, which quickly flopped.

Amazon doesn't regularly disclose Echo or other device sales, so it's hard to say how big a hit the Echo really is. Despite that, it looks like Alexa will keep finding new tasks to perform in our homes.

While writing this story, I got up and asked my Echo: "Alexa, where are you going next?"

Even she didn't know. The device spat back: "Hmm, I can't find the answer to the question I heard."

-- CNET's Ry Crist contributed to this report.

Featured Video