Wednesday, June 16, 2021
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Hey, Alexa, Defrost My Peas

If you’re one of the millions of people without a smart speaker in your home, Amazon wants to talk to you.

On Thursday, the company announced not one, not six, but more than a dozen devices for its Alexa voice assistant — all meant to solve problems in your life that you may not have even known you had.

There’s even a microwave.

“If you have ever tried to defrost peas, it’s a number of clicks,” said Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president for devices and services.

Mr. Limp said the $59.99 microwave, made by AmazonBasics, the company’s house brand, was a way for Amazon to try out the smart home tools it is building out. The company wants the devices to be easier to set up out of the box and for other companies that make kitchen appliances — from rice makers to ovens — to tap into the Alexa platform.

“When we imagine a future with thousands of devices like this, this is going to become essential,” Mr. Limp said.

The microwave was perhaps the cheekiest in a blizzard of announcements at the event inside Amazon’s headquarters.

“We took advantage of the hands-free moments,” Tom Taylor, senior vice president of Alexa, said in an interview. “How do we continue to expand? Where else are those opportunities?”

So far, Amazon’s answer appears to be “everywhere.”

The company has a long history of introducing products and services at a rapid clip, in sharp contrast to competitors like Apple, which focuses on a few very refined releases at a time. Some of Amazon’s ideas work, like its Kindle e-reader, and the company keeps building on them. But many of them fail, like its Fire smartphone, and the company quickly drops them.

On Thursday, Mr. Limp also introduced an Echo Auto that plugs into cars; Fire TV Recast, a DVR recording device that lets users record live TV and watch on a variety of devices; and an analog wall clock with a voice-controlled timer.

Another suite of devices announced on Thursday is aimed to appeal to audiophiles. Echo devices can now be used for individual left and right channels, meaning a pair can create stereo sound. And the new Echo Sub provides rich base sounds, which Mr. Limp showed by booming Lorde’s “Royals.” The new Echo Input is the first Echo device without a speaker so users can connect their speakers to the brain of the Alexa.

Since it introduced its Alexa smart assistant four years ago, the company has not shied from trying out new forms and uses. First it had an Echo speaker, a tall cylinder, then an Echo Dot, a version the size of a hockey puck. Then it added a screen, too, with the Echo Show. At the same time, developers wrote thousands of apps — or skills — for the devices. There are now more than 50,000 skills.

The strategy helped Amazon quickly take the lead in the voice-controlled device market — a market it practically created. But it now has some stiff competition.

A device from Google, the Home Mini, is now the top-selling smart speaker worldwide, Strategy Analytics, a research firm, wrote in a report this week. Google offers fewer types of devices, but has an advantage because millions of customers already have access to its voice assistant through the smartphones that use its Android operating system. Apple has also introduced its own high-priced voice-controlled speaker, focused on pristine audio quality, which Amazon looks to now be challenging head-on.

“The earlier days were more inventing on behalf of customers,” said Mr. Taylor. “Now we have a chance to invent by listening to customers.”

The announcements Thursday show Amazon trying to flood the field, not just with its own devices but with products intended to model a way for outside manufacturers to build off Alexa’s interface.

“It’s overwhelming — that’s the risk for the consumer,” said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Creative Strategies. “They have been so early in the market that they need to make sure the geeks that jump into the smart home early have something, but at the same time, they need to make it really simple for people who haven’t yet.”

Not all of the announcements were products. Amazon introduced new ways Alexa will try to anticipate the needs of users, not just respond to questions. The Alexa Hunches function, which will be public later this year, tries to provide suggestions; for instance, if a user says good night to Alexa, the voice assistant might note that a porch light is on and offer to turn it off.

And users can turn on Alexa Guard when they leave their home, and the device will notify them if it detects a smoke alarm alert or the sound of a burglar smashing a window.

Amazon also said users would no longer need to sign up individual skills to use them. Instead, they will be able to speak to Alexa, which will automatically pick the best skill.

“That was a big barrier, you learning how to talk to Alexa versus Alexa learning how you speak, which is how it should be,” Ms. Milanesi said.


An earlier version of this article misstated the name of an Amazon voice assistant function that anticipates users’ needs. It is Alexa Hunches, not Alexa Hunch.

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