Amazon debuts Siri-like digital assistant Echo for your home

The e-commerce company continues to push further into consumers' homes -- and wallets -- with a voice-recognition tower that answers to your beck and call.

Donna Tam Staff Writer / News
Donna Tam covers Amazon and other fun stuff for CNET News. She is a San Francisco native who enjoys feasting, merrymaking, checking her Gmail and reading her Kindle.
Donna Tam
2 min read

The new Amazon Echo answers questions, and lets you buy and play music. Amazon

Amazon doesn't just want to be there for you when you feel like shopping; it wants to be your personal assistant at home whenever you need it.

The online retail giant on Thursday unveiled Amazon Echo , a stationary tower activated by voice commands or through an accompanying mobile app. Similar to other digital assistants -- like Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana or Google's Google Now -- Echo can scour the Web to answer questions, tell the time or check the weather. You can also tell Echo to add items to a shopping list on the companion mobile app.

"We think it makes everyday life a bit easier -- when you have a question or want to do something, all you have to do is ask," a company spokeswoman said. Users need to say a "wake" word to active the tower. Currently, the only words that work are "Alexa" -- a homage to the library of Alexandria -- or "Amazon," but the company plans on adding more words in the future.

This is an ambitious -- and likely expensive -- endeavor for Amazon. Unlike other digital assistants, Echo lives as a piece of hardware, not just a layer of software available through a mobile device. It has built-in speakers and lets users sample and purchase music as well as stream that music on demand, according to the company.

The device, which is only available to those who sign up on a waiting list, costs $199, or $99 if you're a Prime subscriber. It will be available in "coming weeks," according to the product page.

"Amazon is clearly in the hardware business -- hardware that is designed to facilitate commerce," BGC analyst Colin Gillis said about the new device. In a promotion video released by Amazon, the user instructs "Alexa" to add wrapping paper to her shopping list.

Amazon has aggressively grown its hardware offerings in the last year, launching multiple products, including a TV streaming box, media streaming stick and a smartphone, on top of its already existing line of Kindles and tablets. All the devices are designed to highlight Amazon's efforts in providing digital content. Echo not only grows Amazon's line, it gives the company a chance to showcase its music offerings and keep consumers within its ecosystem. Amazon uses content to attract consumers to its $99 Prime subscription service, which includes access to two-day shipping, video and music streaming and an e-book library. What Amazon has found in the last year is that once customers are hooked on the content, they tend to buy more physical items from Amazon's site as well.

While Echo only lets you purchase music, for now, there is potential for Amazon to expand into other types of media or maybe even physical goods, giving the company yet another way to dig deeper into consumer's wallets.