"Best product of the year."
So said just about everyone I asked about Amazon Echo. So it went as I read review after review. I finally bought one when it went on sale recently. I'd been hovering around the idea, but I don't need another gadget in my life, and I already have plenty of things that listen to me...or try to.
A week into owning the Echo and I've been impressed at how it does what it does so smoothly. It's not the first voice-activated thing I've ever owned, or even the fourth, but it works so well my family gravitates to it.
The Apple Watch, a year in, feels like something no one ever gets excited about. Apple hasn't disclosed the actual sales numbers, but the Wall Street Journal estimated sales of 12 million in its first year. That would make it the most popular smartwatch in the world, and the second-most-popular wearable after Fitbit's collection of products.
In other words, for any other company in the world, the Apple Watch would be considered a celebration-worthy accomplishment. But for Apple, everything that's not an iPhone-level megasuccess feels like a letdown.
We don't know how many Echo speakers Amazon has sold, either. But compared to the Apple Watch, the Echo seems awash in a sea of love and praise from its increasingly loyal following.
I think that's because the Echo does a few things as a gadget that the Apple Watch should aspire to...and I don't mean playing audiobooks and listening to my voice commands. I mean being simple, easy and more brilliant in just a few key ways.
After a few weeks with the Amazon Echo, here are the four things I think the Apple Watch could learn from it.
Do a few things spectacularly well
The Echo can listen better than nearly any gadget I've ever tried, and it's made to work completely using voice. It also hooks into an ever-growing set of services, making it remarkably versatile. But it starts by being the best voice-controlled home audio speaker ever. The Apple Watch tries for a lot of things, and yet it's not spectacular at any of them: communicating, fitness tracking, and well, being a watch. The Echo seems fast, while the Apple Watch seems slow. If Apple Watch did its few key tasks better than any other device I own, then I'd feel a lot more drawn to it.
The iPad nailed the idea of doing a few things fantastically: that was Steve Jobs' pitch for it when it was first debuted. The Apple Watch hasn't quite gotten there.
Be something normal, and do it as well as any other normal alternative
When the Echo isn't doing something cool and futuristic like accessing my calendar, it just sits on a shelf and works as a perfectly normal speaker. If I had a normal Bluetooth speaker before, the Echo can stand in its place and be as good or better.
The reason I bring this up is because the Apple Watch aims to replace a watch, and yet it isn't as easy to live with as a normal watch. Its battery and on-and-off screen are compromises. And as a fitness tracker, it's good...but not as great as the best dedicated fitness trackers. And trackers like the Fitbit Charge HR offer a decent slice of Apple Watch's functionality -- it can hook into a social network, and can track sleep. The Apple Watch needs to be a better watch and a better fitness tracker.
The Echo's sub-$200 price makes it something of a splurge novelty purchase, or gets right in under the wire. At $300 (or more), it's a lot harder to justify the Apple Watch. It usually takes the $150 mark to get me to maybe consider a spontaneous gadget buy -- that's exactly the price the Echo (normally $180) was on sale for when I hit the buy button. It's what I like about Pebble watches: most of them are $200 or less. The Apple Watch could still use a super-affordable, even more entry-level option. Apple Watch SE, anyone?
Work simply, and invisibly
After a strange initial setup, the Echo is easy to use. It doesn't make too many demands. For new tech, that's seductive. It means no extra learning projects.
The Apple Watch gets more intuitive over time, but it's a complicated thing to customize and maximize. There are a lot of settings and glances, customized watch faces and complications, and notification filters to consider. It works with minimal setup, but it's far from the minimal magic of Echo. I don't want a totally dumbed-down Apple Watch, but I'd like a much more streamlined one. I think others would, too.
And the Echo stays out of the way. It doesn't intrude. Ideally, that was the Apple Watch's goal. But I find living with Apple Watch means being aware of it. Sometimes in a good way, and sometimes not. The Echo is the device my family would rather use. The Echo is the device that seems to know how to lay low when needed. Smartwatches are a whole other ballgame than connected speakers, but there are common points. Knowing when to be silent, and knowing when to help: that's something I think the Apple Watch still needs to refine.