Photographer: Spencer Soper/Bloomberg

Amazon Bets on Bigger Market for Voice-Enabled Echo

The Web retailer is betting that the voice-controlled gadgets will keep customers inside its retail and digital universe.

Amazon.com Inc. is doubling down on Echo, a voice-controlled gadget that can stream music, control lights and order merchandise, seeking to wedge itself even deeper into consumers' digital lives.

Two new versions were unveiled Thursday. The $90 Echo Dot, which looks like a hockey puck, lets customers hook up their own speakers to access Amazon's online services. Amazon Tap, which sells for $130, is a portable battery-powered version of the Echo, which debuted in 2014 as an intelligent home assistant that can respond to utterances such as "re-order paper towels," "play Kanye" and "turn on the lights."

Source: Amazon

"We believe the next big platform is voice," said David Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president of devices. He sees such functions as the newest way for people to interface with machines, complementing the mouse on a desktop and touchscreens on smartphones. The company has opened the technology to outside developers, speeding up the debut of new features such as controlling thermostats and hailing a ride from Uber Technologies Inc.

So far, it's working—the current version of Echo is Amazon's third-best-selling electronics product, behind the company's own Fire tablet and Fire TV stick. For the past few years, the Seattle-based company has been trying to repeat the success it had with its Kindle e-book readers (and looking for a hit product to tie people more closely to Amazon's services and Web store) with some casualties along the way—most notably, the Fire Phone and a collection of high-end tablets that never caught on.

The original Echo and two new products, which tap into Alexa—Amazon's online brain—are also the company's answer to the growing popularity of voice-operated intelligent assistants like Apple Inc.'s Siri and Google Now. All of these tech giants are trying to keep people within their own universe of digital services and products, as voice-recognition and artificial-intelligence computing continue to improve.

Source: Amazon

Amazon's Echo Dot connects to speakers and uses Wi-Fi to access information over the Internet. With sensitive microphones designed to detect voice commands from up to 25 feet away and a lower price point, it's designed to be used in more areas of the home.

The Amazon Tap, which is about the size of a soda can, runs for about nine hours on a charge and is meant to be taken outside the home. Unlike the Echo, which is voice-activated, users have to push a button before delivering voice commands. The gadget comes with a charging cradle.

Amazon has kept up a steady pace of enhancements for Echo, such as adding the ability to order pizza from Domino’s, and get news briefings from National Public Radio and the BBC. The gadget even tells jokes. The new devices are available to order, with shipments arriving later this month.

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