I’ve had my Echo for a little over four years now. When I originally got it, I was enthused:
I think it’s really great. It doesn’t do much, but it does what it does very well.
Back in 2015, when smart speakers were The Next Great Product Frontier, a lot of the excitement was about where the landscape was heading and how it was going to evolve:
- Was spoken-word purchasing going to become a thing? (Turns out, not really.)
- Was Apple going to make a heavy play? (Turns out, the HomePod is more of a Siri-enabled speaker than a nice-sounding Echo.)
- What does one of these things look like with a screen? (Turns out, it’s not compelling.)
An answer I was certainly not expecting was: in four years, you will use the Amazon Echo in exactly the same way but it’s kind of worse at everything.
The Echo has gotten worse at the things I want it to do:
- when I ask it to play a song, there’s a fifty percent chance it mishears me or prompts me to use a different streaming service
- when I ask it to set a timer, it unhelpfully prompts me to do follow-on services
- when I ask of it the weather, it prompts me to continue the discussion by seeing if I care about tomorrow or the next week’s forecast.
- wake-word functionality in general seems somehow less accurate
I get how this happened! Amazon wants Echo to be more than just the three things (weather, timer, music) I ask of it. Discovery is hard; you get folks to poke beyond the small surface area they’re used to by prompting them to do more things. But I don’t want to do any of those things, and so on net the Echo has gotten worse for me over time.
Compare this with the Kindle.
I am so thankful for the fact that Amazon realized the Kindle was essentially finished. Look at the past four years of Kindle SKUs: they are asymptotic iterations, with the 2019 Kindle being functionally identical to the 2015 Kindle. This is merciful: Amazon realized the product is essentially perfect under their set of constraints and stopped meddling with it for the sake of meddling with it, forfeiting the bounty of yearly upgrade cycles. My Kindle is probably the cheapest, oldest digital device that I spend more than an hour a week on; it is perfect.
There is something to be said for deciding a product is not an ecosystem or a frontier or a future, and that it is just a tool to be made as well as possible and then merely maintained. I hope Amazon decides to do that with the Echo. (That being said, I still kind of want an Echo Loop.)