Alexa at the bat: Amazon aims to keep its hot streak going

Commentary: Expectations are high for Amazon's newest generation of voice-activated gadgets. With Google Home nipping at the Echo's heels, can Alexa rise to the occasion?

Ry Crist Senior Editor / Reviews - Labs
Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a writer, a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, broadband and home networking.
Expertise Smart home technology and wireless connectivity Credentials
  • 10 years product testing experience with the CNET Home team
Ry Crist
3 min read
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When Amazon starts cooking up an idea for a new product, it often likes to sum the pitch up in a single, snazzy line. For the Kindle, that line was "Any book, anywhere in the world, in a minute or less." For the Amazon Echo smart speaker, it was just seven words: "A Star Trek computer for your home."

That pitch paid dividends at the end of 2014, when the Echo made a surprise debut and soon reached smash-hit status. Amazon followed suit the following year with the smaller, more affordable Echo Dot -- another sell-out success. Last year, the second-generation Echo Dot arrived at a price that was even more irresistible than the original. It, too, became a bestseller.

Today CNET reports that Amazon is about to unveil a new version of its Star-Trek-computer-for-your-home, one that includes a built-in display. Code-named "Knight," the new Echo device is slated to arrive within weeks, and would be the first Alexa-enabled voice gadget to bring visuals into play. This comes just one day after Amazon announced the Echo Look, an Alexa-powered selfie cam that can snap pictures and videos upon command and even help you decide what outfit to wear.

Both new arrivals raise the same question: Can Amazon again do in 2017 what it did in 2014, 2015, and 2016? Can Alexa hit another home run?

At this point, it's hard to say. The Echo Look arrived to mixed reactions, in part because -- despite persistent rumors of an upcoming Alexa camera, including a mysterious product photo that proved to be spot on -- it seemed to take everyone by surprise. In spite of months of speculation about what to expect from next-gen Echo hardware, few, if any, saw fashion advice coming.

As for "Knight," there's a lot we don't know yet. What will it look like? What will it cost? What can it do? What's the display for?

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Google Home is making gains on Alexa -- and you can make a case that it's pulled into the lead.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

That last one has me curious. After all, new hardware implies new functionality -- and to be sure, there's a lot that Alexa's fans are hoping for in this newest generation of gadgets. Alexa still can't synchronize audio playback across multiple devices, nor does she offer native home entertainment controls, native integrations with people's calendars, the ability to identify individual voices or the sort of conversational intelligence needed to easily handle follow-up questions. Meanwhile, the arch-rival Google Home smart speaker does all of these things -- and it's hard to imagine how a screen would shore up any of those weak spots.

To be fair, it's much too early to render any sort of judgement about Knight, or even about the Echo Look. The one thing that seems clear is that Amazon seems interested in diversifying the Alexa lineup and creating new reasons for people to want to bring the voice assistant into their homes. That's a timely strategy, and not just because it doubles down on one of Amazon's key advantages over Google's single-device approach. Recent reports project as much as $2 billion in sales for the smart speaker category by 2020 -- Amazon wants as many pieces of that pie as it can fit on its plate.

In the end, it might all come back down to that original one line pitch. "A Star Trek computer for your home" was a compelling vision because the computer in question was capable of handling seemingly any question or command its crew could think to throw at it.

Alexa isn't there yet, but as Amazon will tell you, she's getting smarter all of the time. Now, the question is this: How much smarter will she seem once we've gotten to know these new devices?