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Amazon's hardware event was a small step for wearables, a giant leap for Alexa
It wouldn’t be hard to lose count of the sheer number of product announcements Amazon made at last week’s hardware devices event in Seattle.
From the safe, updated smart speakers, to the absolutely outlandish announcements included new networking hardware as well a low-power, long-distance beaconing system. Paired with a new dog tracker called Fetch, Amazon went ahead and gave you a reason to invest in those beacons as well. Some of the most intriguing announcements, however, included a range of echo wearables.
Spending a bit of time with the devices though, one thing is obvious: The company’s latest efforts with hardware signify a shift to a kitchen-sink style approach, rather than the carefully curated and custom-built efforts by virtually every other wearables brand. Let me explain.
All three Echo wearables are remarkably similar in capabilities.
Amazon introduced three new form factors for the Alexa-based wearables family, and it is incredible how similar they all are in terms of capabilities.
The most popular will, of course, be the Echo Buds. Despite sporting dual-balanced armature drivers, these don’t necessarily push the gauntlet as far as audio quality is concerned. Indeed, their claim to fame is active noise reduction technology licensed from Bose, but the effect is far more subtle than on anything by Bose.
The smart-bit comes from always-on Alexa support. Use the standard wake word and you get access to the same virtual assistant as on your Echo speakers at home. Amazon has baked in rudimentary sports tracking functionality, but I don’t see it adding anything meaningful to the user experience. The Echo Buds, priced at $129,99, are a fairly low-cost entryway into the world of Alexa wearables.
Next up, the Echo Frames. This is where things start getting a bit more interesting. Weighing just 31 grams, Amazon is hoping that you will be wearing these all day. They also support prescription glasses. Functionality doesn’t differ much from the Echo Buds, or indeed any Alexa powered device — you get the same voice interaction model, and the glasses lack any form of heads-up display, camera technology or location and spatial awareness. To that effect, these are just the Echo Buds in a different form factor.
If the Echo Studio is Amazon’s largest speaker yet, the Echo Loop is its smallest. The strange little titanium-coated ring plays it safe, and is little else than a gateway to Alexa on your finger. There’s a small button on the underside that activates Alexa, and you can then speak to it and issue commands. An incredibly small speaker gives voice-based feedback when placed near the ear. It does not do any form of payments, transactions, or transit passes.
Amidst shutdowns and acquisitions of visionary wearable technology startups, Amazon’s hardware event displayed its intent to take a slower and steadier approach. You might feel that the devices are uninspired — boring even — but there is a method to the madness.
Instead of focussing on the hardware, it is imperative we focus on the larger image here. Amazon would rather have Alexa on every ear, in every form-factor, than make the next-generation of AR-enabled glasses. Within the confines of safe designs and form factors, the hardware becomes a carrier for virtual assistants. By pricing the hardware within grasp of the average buyer (the Echo Frames top-off at an initial, invite-only price of $179,99), these devices are priced to move.
Hardware is just a carrier to get Alexa everywhere.
By commoditizing the carriers of virtual assistants, Amazon is making a bold move to make the assistant itself ubiquitous. It also removes the friction layer between having to pull out and deal with a smartphone when on the move. In doing so, users get more entrenched into Alexa, an assistant that works best within the confines of Amazon’s ecosystem. It easy to imagine Amazon pushing you towards Prime enabled services for all your music listening, shopping and more.
In fact, I’d go a step ahead and say the somewhat uninspiring hardware is the perfect carrier for a virtual assistant. In this case, Alexa becomes a feature rather than the sole focus. It also helps position the wearable as a mass-market option, rather than something designed just for tech enthusiasts.
Despite the safe approach towards hardware, Amazon’s product announcements showed that the company is willing to flex its muscles. The Frames, Loop, and most importantly, the Buds, are positioned to drive pervasive adoption of virtual assistants. Coupled with the updated speakers, gaggle of smart displays and a robust array of third-party hardware, Amazon’s smart devices ecosystem has something for everyone.