Many of the world’s largest technology companies have spent the last five years searching in vain for the holy grail, a machine to succeed the smartphone as the next must-have gadget.
They have made digital watches and fitness trackers, all manner of computerized glasses and goggles, and more doodads to plug into your TV than there are shows to watch on it.
Yet at the moment, the most promising candidate for the Next Great Gadget isn’t made by Apple, Google, Facebook or Microsoft. Instead, it is the Echo, a screenless, voice-controlled household computer built by Amazon — a company whose last big foray into consumer electronics, the Fire Phone, was a humiliating flop.
This time it may be different.
A bit more than a year after its release, the Echo has morphed from a gimmicky experiment into a device that brims with profound possibility. The longer I use it, the more regularly it inspires the same sense of promise I felt when I used the first iPhone — a sense this machine is opening up a vast new realm in personal computing, and gently expanding the role that computers will play in our future.
What is most interesting about the Echo is that it came out of nowhere. It isn’t much to look at, and even describing its utility is difficult. Here is a small, stationary machine that you set somewhere in your house, which you address as Alexa, which performs a variety of tasks — playing music, reading the news and weather, keeping a shopping list — that you can already do on your phone.
But the Echo has a way of sneaking into your routines. When Alexa reorders popcorn for you, or calls an Uber car for you, when your children start asking Alexa to add Popsicles to the grocery list, you start to want pretty much everything else in life to be Alexa-enabled, too.
In this way, Amazon has found a surreptitious way to bypass Apple and Google — the reigning monarchs in the smartphone world — with a gadget that has the potential to become a dominant force in the most intimate of environments: our homes.
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