Amazon’s Vision of Computing’s Future: An Information Appliance

Amazon’s new Echo Show smart speaker, which comes with a touch screen, represents the model for a new kind of communal, household computer.

Comments: 84

  1. I haven't heard the speakers, but I'm sure they are competent but underwhelming. I have an Echo Dot, and the main problem with it is that the digital-to-analog converters in it are substandard, so even though I hooked up the Dot to a pair of high-end JBL speakers, the quality of the sound was not great. When I compared the same material streamed over Spotify by the Echo and by my Macbook Pro, the Mac won in a walk.
    Granted, Spotify uses a substandard compression scheme, so the sound is compromised at the source, but that doesn't mean that a playback device should scrimp on digital-to-analog converters.
    Professional audio people like me are hoping that someone, maybe Amazon, will put out a device with a high-end audio section. Many people would gladly pay extra for this - the Echo Show Pro, for example. Then, it's up to some provider to offer Hi-res digital streaming (again for a small premium).
    Internet service providers are offering much higher bandwidth than even a few years ago - could we please take advantage of that and reverse the trend toward lower quality audio in the name of convenience?

  2. The Echo Dot sells for less than $ 50 . A 15" Macbook Pro sells for $ $2,799.00.

    What did you expect ?

  3. Apple's device is meant to be the audiophile's version of this sort of thing. Or so they say! I'd rather play outdoors!

  4. The $35 Google Chromecast Audio (which can be controlled by the Google Home smart speaker or by apps on your phone/tablet) has an optical digital audio output. You can use your own digital-to-analog converter. Works great.

  5. Hallelujah,
    This is what most consumers want. Computers for most of the people I know from PhDs to High School students want computers for a couple of hours a week. This is the 24/7 machine of the 21st century. Life is far too complex and filled with anxiety and if your computer crashes it is devastating. Why would anyone want to need a backup when they can have a spare?

  6. An entire article on these gadgets for the unimaginably lazy, and no mention of the massive downside? Namely, that Amazon & Google are quite literally, listening (watching, with a camera) everything that happens within earshot (sight) of these gadgets. I would like to see an article about why so many people are OK with having their every word, movement, and body function recorded by a massive for-profit corporation that profits by selling their "users'" information?

  7. Understood and all should know that up front

    Let me ask you a question-do use any loyalty cards at Starbucks or a grocery store? your doing the same

  8. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.

  9. A loyalty card can track my coffee expenditure and thats it, this can track anything inside my own home, you do realize that it listens 24/7, I hope?

    Giving that information out for free is bad enough, paying your own money to give your information for free? Priceless, I guess.

  10. I am a deaf person who uses American Sign Language. This technology as currently constructed will not work well for folks like me. I would like to see a version of this that offers the option of not relying on voice. At the end of this article there is a prediction that this might evolve into a TV interface in a couple of years. A version of this TV interface that has the option of turning off the use of voice and which allows the use of ASL or gestures instead might work better for deaf signers. Perhaps Kinect, a technology where one has gesture control in front of a console or screen, could be merged with this TV version of Echo Show to make a version of Echo Show that is deaf-friendly?

  11. We love Alexa/ Echo here. She commands Roomba easily, Sirius Radio, Changes channels on DIRECTV. Makes shopping lists, sends voice texts to other users, etc. soon to be able to control our blinds. It it just getting started so I am sure it will wow us even more soon enough.

  12. It's easy to underestimate the seductiveness of these things until you have one. I bought a Dot for its ability to keep track of multiple named timers for me in the kitchen, and soon found that I want to use it all the time. I agree with Farhad. When Jeff is finished improving and extending this product line, it's going to be as ubiquitous as the toaster.

  13. as ubiquitous as the toaster.
    which is IT DOES ONE THING WELL. Burns bread. Maybe they should rename it
    the New Ubiquitos Communicator Over All. (R).

  14. Multiple named timers?

  15. Aside from the novelty of it I don't see that it does anything truly useful that I cannot do now just as easily, and believe me, I am an early adapter. I got my first computer in 1983.

  16. War, racism, and chauvinism still exist, but hey, at least the Echo Show can access that video of pandas rolling down a hill.....

  17. Remember waaaaay back around 2000 when internet appliances were the next thing. I do and always thought the 3Com Audrey was a neat idea. The hardware/software/internet speed just needed to mature. Looks like they matured into this device from Amazon.

  18. Does anyone remember the movie '' Demon Seed '' with Julie Christie from 1977 ? ( way ahead of it's time )

    On the flip side of that, I just watched the last episode of '' Silicon Valley '' where a massive amount of info was spread out and stored across a large amount of smart fridges.

    My point ; I wonder where the intersection is between convenience and giving over control to some sort of A.I. overlooking our surroundings ? Have we passed it already ?

    Are we all destined to become Homers ( a la Simpson ) and completely oblivious to anything other than donuts ? Mmmmmm Donuts.

  19. I want Amazon out of my life completely. I don't want it in Whole Foods, or in my bookstore, or in my living room or my closet. The problem is that Amazon is inserting itself into every area of life so that I have no choice. I don't consent to this invasion of my lifestyle. I wish Mr. Manjoo would write an article on how to keep Amazon out of people's lives. Clearly "Don't buy Amazon products" isn't going to work.

  20. Specialized on doing one thing very well: spending your money on Amazon products and services.

    The Instamatic camera, updated.

  21. It should be mandatory to read 1984 before purchasing any of these home invasive monitors.
    In 2 years when they have been hacked and private conversations becomes the next hot meme, i hope no one is surprised.

  22. I still have no idea what it does or what you would do with it.....

  23. Next up: the Fitbit-Echo partnership, saving us all the hassle of having to take any extra steps around the McMansion just to check our stats on the Fitbit.

  24. Why???

    Why waste money on something that sounds, from your article, that it is perfectly useless unless you are a tech nut who wants another toy/thrill?


  25. What's brilliant is the Doug Chayka's image - applying RCA Victor's iconic image to a modern analogue.

    "His Master's Voice." Painting of a terrier done in 1895, gone back to the future 122 years Later.

    Very nicely done.

  26. My first reaction to someone selling something to people who just really do not need it and --- like everything else these days --- it can be hacked.
    And I almost forgot --- think NCC 1701 better known as Enterprise.

  27. The original image had Nipper (the dog) on his master's coffin listening to a phonograph, the idea being that the sound reproduction was so clear that the dog couldn't tell it wasn't his master's voice. To me the inference here is that now the coffin holds the personal computer.

  28. I already have a computer that doesn't move around. Everyone else can use it too. It's called a desktop. It doesn't take much to make the device remote controllable either. Bluetooth and smartphones make for wonderful creativity in deployment. With basic networking, you can also use the machine as a file server, web server, any kind of server really. One general device used to create many specialized subsystems. One computer to rule them all.

    As for Echo, I don't understand the impulse to place a networked microphone in the center of your home. People hack cell phone cameras now. Let's also mention that echo is intentionally black boxed. You can't control the hardware or the software. That might sound benign right now but think about systems like Sonos. One relatively small purchase can lock you into an expensive brand decision as technology expands throughout your home.

    You should also remember that security updates are entirely Amazon's prerogative. I remember Boxee Box had a glaring loophole that was never fixed. A little prep and some basic knowledge of SSH and your entire network was open game. Don't forget: You also just paid to sell your multimedia use to Amazon as intellectual property as well. In that case, your network privacy is willingly violated.

    Finally, Amazon is providing a service no one really needs unless you're terribly lazy. If I really need to make digital toast, I'll either use the digital oven or invent my own digital toaster. Thanks.

  29. You state that the Echo is ahead of its competitors, but you don't give any reasons why.
    "What’s more, Amazon is far ahead. The Echo is much more useful than Google Home, which was released two years after Amazon’s device, and the Apple HomePod speaker will not ship until the end of the year."

  30. Amazing! Just another tool to put in your home, to report back to the mothership.

  31. Anyone who has an iota of common sense would turn away from such a device. Its a privacy nightmare and you are actually paying money to acquire it, good lord, are people truly that gullible?

  32. Yes.

    For my part, I'll happily turn down and give back any "smart speaker" gift.

    It would be somewhat less of a nightmare if its software could be replaced with your own free software that can be built from scratch to connect it to a more trusted, less...*Amazon* server. From my quick check right now, it is unclear, at best, if this can even be done without rooting and general jailbreakery—and even less clear if that'd make it truly trustworthy.

  33. Jeff Bezos is your friend. He will take us to the moon. Be not afraid. He can keep a secret.

  34. To the caveman, a Zippo lighter would have been literally "a godsend". fire in a box. WOW. Now the technophiles just can't wait to spend 2 bills on what their phones,pads and laptops can already do---but it is different and therefore worthy of our attention and bucks. It is really REINVENTING the wheel and that is largely what tech does everyday and people flock to the stores to buy newer versions of what they already have--just like CDs and DVDs. People tossed away billions of dollars worth of vinyl records only to turn around now and pay premium dollars for some of the things they tossed 20 years ago.
    If we could just get some high school graduates to be able to perform some of these basic tasks maybe society would move on and come up with some really novel uses of technology.

  35. Ambient connectivity is absolutely the future... even Apple has acknowledged that you probably won't need a phone at all one day soon. Sensors and transmitters are cheap. And if there's one or more embedded into every room and vehicle you enter, and on every street corner, why carry hardware around?

  36. Sensors? Eventually, we'll be able to request a microchip implanted in our skulls that sends and receives information and projects images onto our retinas, and be done with it.

    And who knows? The way things have been going lately with the internet, you may to your surprise wake up one morning uncontrollably speaking in fluent Russian.

  37. Maybe because you're one of the lower class workers living in the slum and that's all you can afford to contact the ones you serve.

  38. From the comments we can conclude that Apple lovers hate it because it does not come from Apple. People who do not have it fear the loss of privacy because they do not understand it. And the people who actually have one love them.

  39. Alan, I'm an IT professional, and I understand it very well. It's a complete and total loss of privacy. It's not fear. It's a real thing. Read the fine print. All of the audio that these things picks up is the property of the respective companies.

  40. Yes, the Apple people will buy it in a year when Apple comes out with theirs and then they'll suddenly love it because, after all, look at the amazing device that Apple has created!

    Sadly, because Apple has given us so much, including the original personal assistant Siri, Apple's delay in introducing a device is an indication of how far the company has fallen since Steve Jobs died.

    Had Steve been alive, Apple would have been the first to have a friendly, usable device. It would have been a hit for Apple, as it has been for Amazon.

    It's sad to see this formerly creative company leading from the rear.

  41. That picture is gold. Well done.

  42. "It's becoming the model for a new kind of communal, household computer..."

    "...sells for $230, but you get $100 off if you buy two."

    So, if it's a "communal" computer...why would you buy two?

  43. So you can send one to your mother, that's what my son did!

  44. Here we have innovative, exciting new technology. And the comments? Paranoid obsessive laments about privacy and imagination-less gripes about doing things the old way. What a cranky old lot you are!

  45. What about it is innovative and exciting?

    a) that it can play music
    b) that it can play videos
    c) that it can make video calls
    d) that it can tell you the news
    e) that it can tell you the time and weather
    f) that it can shop at Amazon and spy on your private life in order to support Amazon business?

  46. I hate to say this, but this view that seeking to protect some basic forms of one's privacy are "paranoid obsessive laments of cranks" is why we are such sitting ducks for hacking, malware, phishing, etc. By the likes of even punks in podunk places like N. Korea and Ukraine.

    Forget the stolen identities, stolen credit cards, the stolen IP, and the inconveniences of getting one's corporate and personal life back in gear, but as an economy, we lose many tens of billions of dollars annually because of casual attitudes such as yours.

    You're welcome to knock yourself out with this kind of penny-wise, pound-foolish behavior. Leave the rest of us out of it.

  47. I agree

  48. It's an "information appliance" alright.

    Information about you.

  49. That's my grandma's computer. Will it control my robotic astronomical observatory? Run Photoshop and Lightroom and Final Cut Pro? Sync my iOS devices? "... play music and videos, make video calls, tell you the news, tell you the time and weather, and shop at Amazon..." My iPhone and iPad do all of that and they are highly portable.

  50. I'm not ready to become part of the Matrix, be it maintained by Amazon, Apple or Google, and this endless cheerleading only strengthens my resolve. People have already outsourced an alarming percentage of themselves, including their personalities and interests, which now must fall within a narrow, social media sanctioned range. Will the Times ever publish countervailing voices to Fanboy Manjoo?

  51. It seems to me they just did. But as it happens, he got things right. Many of my esteemed fellow commenters are rather amazingly Luddite, always condemning new technologies that younger people (we are by and large an older crowd) take to like ducks to water.

  52. It's amusing to read the usual "it will never fly" remarks. I have a couple of Echo Dots, and they're handy and useful and getting better with time. If I'm in bed or my hands are full, I can tell them to turn out the lights. If it's a bit chilly, I can tell the thermostat, which is a floor away from my bedroom, to raise the temperature by a couple of degrees.

    Mr. Majoo is quite right that appliances of this kind will be pervasive in the future. We're still in the very early stages, akin to the first PC's or automobiles. As artificial intelligence becomes increasingly powerful, so will our digital assistants. Right now, they're still pretty scripted: You can tell them to play a song, but you can't say "Make travel arrangements for my trip to San Francisco" the way you could a secretary. But that will change in the coming years, and we will interact with them in much the same way we interact with other people.

    The screen is still only marginally useful, but as with the voice assistants, we'll soon find purposes for it -- checking on the baby, say, or seeing who's at the door, or checking the 10-day weather forecast as we now do on our phones, something that is better done visually than on the phone. Larger displays will allow us to watch TV or view a web page.

    I don't think the PC is going away for some years, though. These are intelligent appliances, and eventually will interact fully with other computing devices and the cloud, but we still need spreadsheets and Photoshop.

  53. The main difference between the Echo and the toaster is that the toaster is not reporting back to corporate America on my activities, behavior and buying.
    Not yet, anyway.
    I see that privacy questions are the first reactions of most of the commentators. Where are the defenders, explaining the delights of it?

  54. I don't want it in my house! It has a microphone that could be on at any time, listening to our private conversations! A nasty loud ringer that could wake me up from my sleep. A cord carrying electricity which we know to be TOXIC!

    In this country we have a wonderful national postal service that delivers letters to our loved ones across the state, in just a few days. Why would people want this contraption to TALK to people who aren't even there!

    This is just a conspiracy by the government and the nasty telephone monopoly to put a listening device in all our houses. If we just wait, I'm sure this evil will pass. Now back to my parchment and quill.

  55. Be not afraid of the microphone. As I drink my coffee and review news, I can initiate a convo w Donald Trump. You know that he is not listening, but it is still satisfying to get things off my chest.

  56. I have Echo in the living room mostly for music, my preference Jazz, and Dot in the bedroom for the same. I can ask for a wake up call and that is helpful. Also, a number of computers running Mac and Windows software, and I post to Flickr using a Mac Pro. I embraced Amazon because of the speed of its delivery after have suffered a total home loss in a fire. Mostly I talk to my cat and I'm not worried that my vocalizations will be recorded and used to undermine my life. It works for me.

  57. I need this why, exactly?

    Exactly, I don't need it.

  58. Unlike these others, I love how technology helps makes my life easier by cutting trips to the mall, provides all my media at my fingertips, and gives me the widest selection of goods at the best price when and where I want it. I don't care what they do with my boring personal information. What I do like is the fun of new gadgets and the freedom it gives me to live life the way I want to.

  59. How sad.

  60. We have an Android tablet that sits permanently in the kitchen and does all this. I don't remember exactly how much it cost but it wasn't expensive, about €120. It plays videos in the many different languages spoken in our house, shows recipes, allows for shopping from Amazon. It doesn't listen unless told to but I can't think of anybody ever telling it to; the keyboard's it shows in English, French, and Cyrillic are easier than talking to it. Privacy concerns aside I'm not seeing the point.

  61. Tech obsessive, who's previously written about how he's rigged every room of his home with cameras, effusively praises device for which he can cite no compelling use case.

  62. We have one of each of the devices, just to check it out. After 6 months, they are essentially unused...the echo streams spotify and the Google plays jungle sounds in the bathroom when I'm taking a shower...thats it. Our phones could do the same thing...
    The tech really isn't that impressive and we've found we don't really want to verbalize commands to turn on lights, shopping, etc.

  63. Whoever came up with the graphic accompanying the article must have a long memory. Substitute an old RCA Victrola record player for the Amazon box, and the graphic is a dead ringer for the RCA Victor ads of Nipper the dog listening to His Master's Voice.

  64. I do believe that was the intention.

  65. I had both the Echo and the Google Home given to me as gifts. Google Home was just plain superior because it was able to give a lot better information, plus it could do translations. Echo back in the box in the closet.

  66. While it may seem clever to compare the Echo Show as an appliance to Jef Raskin's information appliance, it's inaccurate and the statement that "Mr. Raskin's information appliance is here" is ridiculous.

    I knew Jef and I spent time (not much) using the Canon Cat and the SwyftCard in an Apple II. You can look at the Archy project to see where Jef's vision was aimed, and it was not in the direction of anything resembling the Echo Show.

    This isn't to take anything away from what either Jef did or what Amazon has done here. They're just not related.

  67. there are at least a couple of main play here
    1st is the natural tendency to refine ..evolve ..and make more fluent..
    ...the interaction.. between a user and a computer...
    ie: punch cards to magnetic tapes mice ..then touch screens.. now verbal interaction..
    2nd...well that`s Amazon... and it`s buddies..
    and that`s a whole nother story
    ..and a very large ..can of worms

  68. Sure, buy something that listens to everything you say and what goes on in your home, stores it on a company server with unknown security and who knows who has access to it, and sends unknown reports on your buying habits and requests, to the company. Oh, and by the way, it is hack-able by outside parties.

    Yea, go ahead, buy it, bring it home, set it up in your living room or kitchen, what could go wrong??!!

    Like my pappy said: "You can educate ignorance, but there is no cure for stupid."

  69. --Alexa Show, please unlock the front door.
    --I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that.

  70. The perfect appliance. One that's always on. One that's always watching. One that's always listening. One that's always stealing. Perfect.

  71. Today, the Cooking section of the NYT's announced it was going behind a paywall. How long until Mr. Manjoo's technology column is sponsored by Amazon, Apple or Google?

  72. "The main difference between the Echo and the toaster is that the toaster is not reporting back to corporate America on my activities, behavior and buying"
    Bravo ! And your toaster is not vulnerable to NSA hacks either. (well, not directly that is).
    It is good to see a few folks here not succumbing to the same trick pulled on everyone over & over again regarding music /Video - Oh, this is SO much better than that - Vhs / Hi-Def / MP3 / Blu-ray /Etc Etc.
    HOW many times are you going to buy the same thing over & over ? All pushed by Tech "Writers" / Sales Hacks.

  73. Sounds alot like the Chumby and Sony Dash internet assistants from 5-7 years ago. They were killed off by the iPad that came out soon after. They were only missing one thing: everything Amazon can sell you.

  74. It won't do the web.... whoopsie! No need for it then. Why not just add voice activation to the tablets? Come on...

  75. Good to see Nipper getting some work.

  76. NSA leaks, ransomware, government monitoring, genius hackers, open mikes in every room... Be afraid, be very afraid.

  77. I'm surprised by the negativity of the comments here. The Echo music player I've added to my home is fantastic - it's revolutionary; it is also providing easy options and information on traffic and weather and so on - we're just starting to learn how much it can do. We love it - I made the mistake of putting my music system years ago in a room I don't spend much time in any more, so the Echo has provided music again to our living space through Amazon's service millions of songs and playlists to choose from, our Sirius stations and Pandora. As Baron von Trapp says to Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music" - "You've brought music back to our house..."

  78. Kudos to the writer for an article which goes to the heart of the subject and explains in very human language the essence of a technology which was made for human beings. Even as an electronic engineer I very often have problems understanding the type of institutionalized psychobabble used by writers as they try to explain the simplest of technology and, more often than not, their goal is to impress their peers and completely shut out a huge swath of the population who are being asked to purchase these products.

  79. Yeah, but does Amazon's box do middle-out compression?

  80. "It is well on the way to becoming the operating system for suburbia." Interesting comment. I find it is my millennial friends, who tend to be childless and urban, who get the most out of Echo. Particularly with their penchant for ordering just about anything you can imagine for delivery to their doorstep.

  81. My wife doesn't talk to machines.

  82. Mr. Manjoo writes, "In fact, let me go out on a limb: Within a couple of years, I bet Amazon will make its own TV that will work just like the Echo Show. Because if you are trying to create the perfect home appliance, there is no better target than the biggest screen in the house."

    It is not going out on a limb when there has been news of this for some time, and the "predicted" product, an Amazon Alexa TV, is already available on Amazon's website (and the version that is always listening is also coming out soon):

    I think, as other commentors have pointed out, the New York Times should have higher standards, including pointing out the downsides of useful technology and doing the most basic research before making predictions.

  83. Golly, I wonder what all these people are talking about in their homes that they are so afraid might be overheard ...........