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Why I think Amazon's Echo is the breakthrough product of 2015

Commentary: Forget smartwatches and virtual reality. Echo tops them all simply by being a good listener.

Sarah Tew

We all just want to be listened to. Listened to, and understood. That's why various attempts over the years to create technology that listens, understands and responds to your voice has always felt like it was overpromising and under delivering.

That's also why I now gladly start each morning in casual conversation with Alexa: Alexa, what's the weather today? Alexa, play NPR news. Alexa, remind me when it's 8:20AM.

The most surprising part is that, after years of playing with (and loudly swearing at) various voice recognition systems and supposedly smart digital assistants, the velvet-voiced Alexa actually hears me and almost always does what I ask.

Apple's Siri may be the poster child for this wide delta between voice assistant expectation and delivery, even as Google ramps up its own "OK Google" functionality on its ubiquitous search engine. Microsoft, meanwhile, has two takes on the voice assistant -- though Windows' Cortana has a low bar to overcome compared to the experience of yelling at your Xbox One while its Kinect camera and microphone combo blithely ignore you.

That's what makes Amazon's Echo -- an internet-connected wireless speaker wrapped around a digital personal assistant named Alexa -- all the more amazing. So much so, in fact, that it's easily the most impressive new technology I've used all year.

Sarah Tew

To be fair, the Echo did receive a very limited release in late 2014, but only to a handful of early Amazon Prime members who acted as an unofficial beta testing group. The software behind Echo and Alexa continued to develop and improve, and the system became available for unfettered purchase in June, 2015.

After playing around with one of these early units, I went from skeptical to fan in a matter of days. Why? Simply because, unlike any other voice-recognition technology I'd tried, Alexa understood what I was saying at least 80 percent of the time, and very often offered logical, informative replies. Even more impressive, this all happened while I was speaking in an everyday, casual voice -- not shouting at it, or taking great pains to speak only in slow, overly enunciated snippets.

When something just sort of works as you expect it to, without needing a lot of specialized tinkering or workarounds, that's what counts as a breakthrough product these days.

Echo does a lot of notable things besides making sure I'm dressed appropriately for the weather. It can access audio streams from Pandora, TuneIn and other providers (sorry, no Spotify yet); answer general interest questions, often by quoting Wikipedia; access your Google Calendar information; and even control some of the most popular smart home devices, including Philips Hue and Belkin's WeMo products.

But aside from weather, traffic, and basic Google-worthy queries, I primarily use Echo for music. It's not the greatest-sounding speaker in the world, or even the best one you can find for $179. But as a music fan, musician, former radio DJ, and vinyl collector, it's not bad, especially for a NYC-sized apartment.

But more importantly than that, Echo fulfills a music need for me because of a bit of fortunate happenstance from a few years ago. Looking for a place to store my large collection of MP3 and other digital music files, some downloaded, others ripped from compact discs (remember those?), I elected to upload the entire collection of more than 5,000 tracks to Amazon's music cloud, where I could access it via the Amazon Cloud Player app on any phone, laptop or tablet (Both Google and Apple offer similar services).

Because I went with Amazon's cloud storage for music years ago, I can now call out any song, album or artist in my collection, and Echo plays it, right from the cloud, getting it right at least 80 percent of the time. This is on top of the million-plus songs included in Amazon Prime Music for Prime members. The Prime Music collection is ok, more filler than not, but has a lot of good material for jazz fans such as myself.

Alexa now sits on a shelf right next to my pair of Technics 1210 turntables, and for dinner parties or casual background music, I find myself turning to her slightly more often then those record players, which I now save for more directed listening, vinyl-only rarities, and cool flea market finds.

Sarah Tew

The downside to all this is that while Alexa understands me easily, she isn't very loyal. She also understands and obeys anyone else who whispers her name into her electronic ear. That becomes a problem when my living room is bumrushed by a gaggle of three-to-five-year-old neighbors (friends of my four-year-old son) who have learned to shout "Alexa, play 'Shake it Off' by Taylor Swift!" at the tops of their lungs as soon as the enter the room, repeating the command again and again and again as soon as the song ends.

That's the price I pay for Alexa being such a good listener, I suppose.