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Nothing can compete with the Amazon Echo — but why?

This month marks a whole year has passed since Amazon first unveiled the Echo. In a world where every smartphone has some king-of-voice-enabled-assistant software onboard, asking $180 for a Bluetooth speaker that did the same but only for Amazon's services seemed like a stretch. When people finally started using the Echo, and Amazon started to partner with third-party products and add more to the experience, it became clear this was a whole lot more than a decent Bluetooth speaker with some web features.

Curiously, the one thing the Amazon Echo doesn't have right now is competition. Despite being surrounded by services that could easily be baked into a simple sub-$200 connected system — and in many cases quickly outperform Amazon's fledgling Alexa system — there's nothing to be found.

A lot of folks who have never used an Amazon Echo look at the description and say "yeah but I already have that" in reference to Google Now, Microsoft's Cortana, and Apple's Siri. They're almost right, each of those services respond to your voice and answer questions. As long as you're near your smartphone or desktop and there's no external interference, those experiences are mostly pretty good for grabbing information from the internet or pinging your personal information for some clarity of confirmation. There are some clear limits to those experiences, the most significant of which being proximity and always-on functionality. The only service to function no matter what when the screen is off is Motorola's tweaks to Google Now, which only works on Motorola phones and only works if your phone is nearby with very little audio interference.

Amazon Echo

This is where the Amazon Echo is strongest. You can stand in an entirely different room, speak at a normal volume while the speaker is blaring music, and the microphones in this pillar will pick out your voice and activate Alexa with startling accuracy. This functionality is entirely hardware-driven, and it's the kind of thing you're unlikely to demand in a smartphone for power and spatial limitations, which makes sense.

It also brings us full circle to why neither Google, Microsoft nor Apple has made any effort in this space. Google, Microsoft and Apple clearly have demonstrated a desire to have hardware in the living room, and all of those efforts include robust voice communication platforms. The only one of those three to have bothered with an always-on microphone is Microsoft with its Kinect platform. Android TV and Apple TV both require an activation, either through a physical remote you have to keep with you or an app on your phone.

None of the current mobile-focused digital assistants seems interested in being part of the home experience.

Beyond the physical capabilities, none of these companies has demonstrated a desire through software to compete in this space either. You don't ask your Xbox to set a timer for 10 minutes, or your NVIDIA Shield TV to dim your Philips Hue lights. Siri on your Apple TV isn't interested in setting your thermostat, or rolling a six-sided die for you at random. This doesn't even scratch the surface of what the Echo is capable of in an instant, and it doesn't make sense. Each of these platforms are more than capable of cooperating in these spaces and supporting these features, yet nothing exists to offer household task management through these impressive digital playgrounds.

Digital assistant apps are awesome, and when they integrate into your life there's a lot to enjoy there. Alexa doesn't do a great job integrating into my digital existence because of the disconnect between Amazon and the services I actually use. At the same time, none of the current mobile-focused digital assistants seem interested in being part of the home experience. One of these makes sense, since Alexa is currently only in the home and Amazon's history of playing nice with others isn't spectacular. For Google, Microsoft, and Apple, failing to address this market when there's a clear desire while attempting to approach the living room and the connected home seems like an obvious misstep.

Amazon Echo

It doesn't even seem like the next step is particularly hard for either of these companies to implement. Google is clearly interested in the connected home with OnHub, Android TV, and the not yet released Weave application later. Microsoft's initiative to put Windows 10 app on the Xbox One seems like a quick path to connected apps with Kinect capabilities. Apple's HomeKit and Siri are basically already built for this functionality, the pieces just need to be better assembled for an effortless experience to present to users. Will it be another year before these companies implement something worth using? Perhaps more important to existing Echo owners, will Amazon figure out how to wield Alexa as a competing product on mobile hardware in the meantime and beat all of these companies to an all-in-one solution?

Here's hoping we get an answer sooner rather than later.

$179.99 on Amazon

Russell is a Contributing Editor at Android Central. He's a former server admin who has been using Android since the HTC G1, and quite literally wrote the book on Android tablets. You can usually find him chasing the next tech trend, much to the pain of his wallet. Find him on Facebook and Twitter

  • I really need to decide if I want to get this or wait for an "echo 2," I have Hue and Nest atm.
  • I love my Echo....highly recommend it. Just one note, if you decide to go with it. There is no direct interface between Echo and Nest, but you can use IFTTT to patch the two together. It works very well. IFTTT really expands what the Echo can do for you. It's the jelly to Echo's peanut butter.
  • I prefer peanut butter and marshmallow ; )
  • I have two of them, and really wouldn't be bothered if a new one came out, because I still need several more. I use them a ton for home automation. It's awesome walking into the bathroom and being able to say "Alexa, lights" and they phase up. Or," Alexa, secure the castle" while getting into bed, and all the lights in the house turn off, and the doors lock. Or, having it play an audiobook off audible right where you left off on your phone while cooking dinner.
  • Google Now works on Nexus devices with the screen off. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I said the same thing as soon as I read that sentence.
  • Well the 6 is made by Motorola. If it works on the others, then you're right.
  • Google Now works on any device that has Android 6.0 Marshmallow with the screen off. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Not the LG G4
  • it works on the Nexus 5 (LG), Nexus 5x (LG), and Nexus 6p (Huawei) too. It's more of a Nexus thing than a moto thing. All qualcomm chips since the SD 800 have supported screen off google now, but for whatever reason most OEMs block it. The Galaxy S6 use to support it, but a later update killed it.
  • So that's why that doesn't work anymore for me on my S6 :( Posted via the Android Central App
  • Don't see why it wouldn't work on the new nexus phones. They both have Google's new "sensor hub" chip thing for improved battery and monitoring. Posted via the Android Central App
  • It does. It also works on Nexus tablets. Posted via the Android Central App
  • As does Siri on the iPhone 6s
  • When the phone isn't charging? Posted via the Android Central App powered by Droid Turbo
  • I probably would have bought this if it were available in Canada. But I agree, would prefer if Google came out with something similar that I could tie in to more of my stuff. Posted via the Android Central App
  • But what about Google On? I purchased the Google On Hub but the app is simply called Google On...many speculate that this is the upcoming Google connected home platform...
  • A think that might turn into another thing is still just the first thing (until it actually does the thing where it turns into that second thing).
  • No one has really tried. This comes as a result of amazon failing to launch a personal assistant on both mobile and TV boxes. All the other major players are still sticking to their favoured platforms rather than developing separate new ones. If Google decided to integrate Google Now (along with all the play services) into something like this with some great hardware (maybe stick some amazing mics in the OnHub Router?), they could easily compete with this.
    Imagine "Play Avengers Age of Ultron on bedroom chromecast"
  • I can imagine it but it hasn't happened; and that is really what this whole article is about. The Echo does amazing stuff but it isn't something that Google or Apple or anybody else couldn't easily duplicate. Hell, Siri already has direct access to Hue lights (although she sucks at it)
  • I believe the author's point is that others could implement an Echo-like device. Why do you believe that others cannot do this easily? What are their technical limitations or why does their strategy not support such an action?
  • I've almost pulled the trigger on buying Echo a couple of times, especially when the price dropped, but I haven't done it. I like the write up here and may reconsider when the price drops again. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Do it, you won't regret it. Device is great N6/9
    Posted via the Android Central App
  • Didn't read the whole article, but there's at least 2 possible reasons why there hasn't been any significant and/or direct competition to Amazon's Echo with Alexa. The first is that there's relatively low demand for such a functionality (at the moment, anyway). The second is that it's likely Amazon is somewhat insulated by patents surrounding the concept's implementation.
  • But the other companies are already doing the "concept", albeit on phones rather than an AC-plugged home device. I think a big reason that no second-tier manufacturers (i.e. Amazon sellers) are interested is that Amazon would likely remove their listings (as they have done with the Chromecast and some others who compete with certain Amazon niche/flagship devices)
  • I have found the echo a similar experiment to Google glass (which I own and still use) as it has had a limited audience (is expensive albeit cheaper than glass) but agree there is relatively little demand. It is a shame its not available globally given Amazon's global reach but as you mentioned patents and more than likely licensing agreements with companies such as pandora and iheartradio will need to be sought in other markets which could be holding it back.
  • Cortana is coming to Xbox One and that will probably be a pretty good competitor. I was able to give it a preliminary try when there was a glitch that allowed it to be enabled on the Xbox One and the potential is there.
  • Except that currently the XBox requirement is that it is powered on in order for Kinect to listen or else it only listens for "xbox on". Also, that's a lot of money for what Echo now offers if you dont already have an xbox. I agree about potential, I'm really hoping it does come to Xbox would really like to see integration out of the xbox for Philips hue.
  • I love my Echo. There's not a day that goes by where we don't use it multiple times per day for hours at a time. I think my 8 month old thinks Alexa is his sister... N6/9
    Posted via the Android Central App
  • I don't know about the cost because I don't know how much I will use it. Almost had one last week when there was a discount to $99 for Prime members. Oh well, bought other stuff instead that I know I will use.
  • I use mine constantly, and for everything. to-do, shopping, research, weather, traffic, news, music, lighting, and integration into Wink.
  • Only half of those are things I would use it for, and thus my reservation at $180. Don't live somewhere I need or can probably even get traffic updates, hate having the news read to me, and as much as I would like to automate my home, it hasn't happened yet. I was ready to buy it at $99, but couldn't complete the order at the time and when I got back to it the price was back up. Maybe it'll drop again in the future.
  • Hear hear! I am very interested in a product like this but have held off on the Echo expecting Google to bring something out at any moment. Can't understand why they haven't yet.
  • My hesitation is buying into the Amazon market. I want echo to be able to stream to my Chromecast or send information to my device.
  • Echo can send some things to your phone using IFTTT. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Can an Android phone with the "Always-On" feature be paired with a miked Bluetooth speaker to bring Alexa-like functionality? Basically wondering if the mic on a Bluetooth speaker can be set to always-on as well.
  • Yes and no. With those types of devices you are going to have a problem with response. When you ask it a question, it will respond fine, but you will miss the first part of the statement as the BT connection kicks in and you get the command response. Case in point; when you are in your car and tap the search function, and your bt speaker kicks in mid way after the response, so you hear "...ust south of Berkely, Ca".
  • There are a few big issues with that. The first is the microphone on the Echo is incredible. It can understand voice commands from across the room, while play music at a moderate volume. It really is the foundation on which the entire concept is based. Further more, Everything on Echo is very contextual to what you are doing. A song just finished, "Alexa, play it again" "Playing Hello again". "Alexa, I like this song" "Adding this song to your liked songs list". "Alexa, order more dog food" Alexa, volume higher, lower, etc. It also has a daily briefing feature that combines news headlines from sources you select. Very hand in the morning while getting ready. In short, google now connected to a BT speaker would be a hodge podge of half baked features. Echo, is very purpose based and polished for what it does, and does it really well.
  • You are absolutely correct. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Can anyone comment on the actual quality of the speaker? Could it replace a soundbar in your living room, for example? Posted via the Android Central App
  • Speaker quality is surprisingly good for a mono speaker. I cannot comment how it compares to a sonos or other high quality speakers but have found it to be loud and is great for background music for example when you say play x on pandora.... As it i does not have stereo I cannot see it replacing your soundbar (I still have my LG hooked up) but the ability to speak to it whilst it is blaring out music to either perform an action or even turn down the sound is useful. It is expensive, not as flexible as Siri or Google Now but then I just view it as an internet enabled radio that has additional digital assistant facilities with the added bonus of a bluetooth speaker. I use mine with my hue light bulbs and the internet radio feature so i don't have to fumble with the phone.
  • The speaker cannot replace a soundbar, it's not designed with any respectable amount of bass, it also has no inputs unless you want to crack it open and hack it. I have a Sonos soundbar setup, and an Echo in the same room. The Echo is great for playing music on demand, it does a great job of playing Cello when you are in a quiet room such as a bedroom at night, but it does not replace anything that can be paired with a sub. It excels at voice, so the qualities you expect in a voice call are exceptional, music that is heavy on strings sounds good, but music that is heavy on low strings like Cello or anything with more punch like well anything with more punch, it is not very good for.
  • I think that it does have a respectable amount of bass. Certainly not to compete with a soundbar but quite good. Posted via the Android Central App
  • You actually can do some equalizer features. If you say, "Alexa, more bass," for example, it will increase the bass. Same with treble. I had been using Mini Jamboxes set up in stereo, and I would say Echo beats them quality-wise. More bass, richer sound, even with a single speaker.
  • Doesn't matter if there is audio out, right? Posted from my Nexus 6/Nexus 7 2013/Surface Pro 3
  • Doesn't have audio out. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I know something that can compete: anything sold outside the USA
  • I see the OnHub as being Google's entry into this space. Otherwise, having the Onhub front and center in your living room and purposefully making them with only one LAN port would be a design flaw. There is a reason why those things have a speaker, advanced mesh networking and bluetooth that is not "activated" yet. Moreover, a reason why it looks "similar" to Alexa is in my opinion because they intend it to directly compete. That said, I have two Alexa in the home, one in my great room and one in the bedroom. The only thing I want to see them do is synchronize when playing music. The two act as completely separate devices and it can be annoying. when I tell Alexa to turn off the lights, both of them can respond depending on how loudly I speak or where I am in the home. Fortunately, the action I request is executed properly. It is exceptional though. I have Prime, so when I ask Alexa to play me a specific song It starts to play within seconds. If my request is vague, Alexa will ask me to confirm the track in natural language. "You meant X by X, right?", then once confirmed, starts to play the track.
  • And being Google released it without that functionality is a very googley thing to do that screams confidence in their dedication to the concept.
  • iPhone 6s has always on Siri too. You say a downside is having to have your phone with you - which it is like 90% of the time. This echo device is going to be put in one place - home/office and never moved.
  • I have been saying this since Echo was a thing; love the idea, just wish Google made it.
  • I have to say that Echo really blows me away! It is the perfect system for a Star Trek like computer. It does hear you even when the music is loud. I love the fact that I can turn my lights on and off simply by telling Alexa to turn the on and off. Play music, listen to news and play audio books. The ITTT feature really makes things work better. It was just on sale for the first time for I think $30 off. I'm sure it will again for the holidays. I highly recommend it!
  • I've had an Echo for almost seven months, I am listening to it now. One of the things I enjoy is being able to listen to sports talk on Tune In and during a commercial, say, "Alexa, play IHeartRadio" and I'm listening to music. Few minutes later, "Alexa, play TuneIn Radio" and I'm back to my sports talk. And our Echo is in the hallway, off our bedrooms and just upstairs from our kitchen. So if my wife is baking cookies, she can easily set a timer for the oven. Or I can ask it for the weather as I get ready for work.
    The key thing is after the novelty wears off is to get in the habit of using it on a regular basis. If you can do that, it's worth it.
  • No competition = nobody might be interested in a spy private life always turned on??? Posted via the Android Central App
  • Possibly a factor. The "competition" likely has surveyed the masses for their need/desire for such a device. Non-geeks would mostly not see a use case, and the paranoia factor would no doubt add to the disinterest.
  • Yeah that's much more terrifying than having a smart phone that is on your body almost 24/7. Seriously, the notion that the Echo is some kind of existential privacy threat is overblown.
  • I bought one last week when they were $99 for prime members/prime credit card holders for 1 day. I also bought a hue starter kit, a couple GE Link Bulbs, and the Smartthings starter kit. We already had Sonos in 3 rooms and Harmony in the main TV spot. Thoughts: *Voice detection is very good and works at distances you wouldn't think it would work at. It's plenty loud but it's not going to replace a soundbar IMO. I feel like my kids (13 and 7) have issues with voice control sometimes but even Alexa works well with my 7 year old. *Aside from what it does out of the box, even someone like me who is very tech savvy, had a hard time getting things to work together. SmartThings app is not very intuitive. Linking things together between SmartThings, Alexa, IFTTT, etc is clunky. Want to start sonos + turn on some lights + have harmony change the receiver to a different input + change a light color on a Hue Bulb? Well you need 4 different IFTTT's for that... and several virtual buttons in SmartThings. Want to use that trigger but variations in what someone would say? "Alexa Trigger Music" or "Alexa Trigger Sonos". Well you need EIGHT different IFTTTs for that, 4 for each variation in speech. *Things like Sonos are half baked. There is a SmartApp (Mood Music) that lets me select a song, playlist, etc to play when an action happens; but it won't show me my songs, nor my playlist, just a random list of items I have queued or favorited in the past; or sometimes it won't show but 1 item. I don't know why.... The hardware is great. The voice recognition is great. The items (few) baked into Alexa are great. But the software and coordination between all of your devices is frustrating and time consuming. At $99 its worth it to me since the software WILL grow, assuming they don't release a new one soon and make ours obsolete. I wouldn't pay the $179 or whatever though....
  • Same here, I just didn't jump on the discount as quick as I should have.
  • I've seen some good deals on , so I've set up a deal alert to catch the next sale on Echo's.
  • I love this product and so does my family. No one can compete with amazon because they go above expectations and google, apple or microsoft do not. I still cannot believe all the perks I get for my Amazon Prime membership! Playing your playlist or using prime music AND being able to say your shopping list as you need things and then having the items in the app when you go shopping is worth the price alone to me!
  • I'm surprised that no one's mentioned putting this tech in a car yet. I've only really used Toyota's voice recognition, and it's abominable. I'm always finding myself wishing that I had Alexa in my dash to handle my requests and look up information. I haven't put an aftermarket stereo in a car since 1997, but I'd do it in a second if Amazon made one that had Alexa integration. I'd even suck it up and pay the monthly fee for the cell service to make it work, since most of the magic happens in the cloud.
  • It would have to be beyond amazing for me to justify removing my OEM Microsoft Sync MyTouch system that controls everything imaginable in my car. Alexa would also have to be configured to either tether wifi off my phone, or do like Sync and call out to services from my phone. Honestly, if Microsoft could find a way to incorporate sync like functionality into the home, they might have a winner.
  • Microsoft MyTouch is an ABOMINATION and Ford FINALLY dumped it for Sync 3.
  • Android Wear + Google Now + Tasker + AutoVoice = more powerful and much cheaper...
  • Could you explain how these all work together?
  • Like the article discusses, though, noise interference still comes into play. My MOTO 360 can't hear an 'OK Google' command if there is any other noise around. Also, you are still restricted to having your watch on you. The biggest point is that the Echo is now cheaper than most Android Wear devices, so that argument doesn't really stand up, I'm afraid.
  • "As long as you're near your smartphone or desktop and there's no external interference..." To be fair, I'm much more likely to be near my phone or computer (or Android Wear watch) than I am to be in the one room in the house that has an Amazon Echo in it.
  • 1) Integrate Echo with an isy994 automation hub using this daemon.
    2) Use autovoice chrome extension to let Cortana on Windows 10 also control your Tasker routines on your phone. Not Echo related.
  • One of my favorite features is that you can upload all your music automatically to be stored on the Amazon server for $25 per year. If you have a large music collection, it is another convenient place to hear your own music. You can request, artist, album, genre, whatever you like. As others have stated, the speaker isn't the greatest quality, but for listening to a quick few songs when the thought pops into your head is a great feature. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Google now works while the device screen is off without's in the settings
  • It seems that all that is necessary is for Google Now to support a home automation interface that would accept a module for your Home Automation system (e.g., SmartThings). The home automation hub would need to support WiFi to communicate with the Google Now module on the phone. For example, you could query Google Now about the state of your home security system or ask it to open the garage door. Google Now would communicate the query or command through the SmartThings/GoogleNow module via WiFi to the SmartThings hub which would return the response to Google Now or perform the command. This should theoretically work even remotely. So if you are at work, you should be able to say, "Hey Google, show me my backyard camera view" and receive back a live video stream from the camera. I will not be holding my breath waiting for this to happen.