Part of what made the original Amazon Echo such a surprising and original product was how it completely removed the touch-screen, which has become our default way of interacting with digital devices.
But recent leaks point towards the next generation of Amazon Echo speakers coming equipped with a touch screen of their own, a dramatic change of direction for Amazon’s home-based voice assistants.
Amazon isn’t the only company reportedly considering combining a screen with a non-portable voice assistant since Apple’s rumored will also reportedly feature a screen.
But wouldn't the move negate entirely what Amazon has attempted to accomplish with Alexa? Releasing a piece of consumer electronics without a screen was a bold move, and it came with some significant challenges, but until now we’d expected Amazon to persevere with improving its audio-based interface.
Since the very first computers we’ve relied upon screens to provide the majority of their output, so it’s going to require some significant work to provide the same functionality through voice.
In spite of the challenge, I was always hoping that Amazon would struggle through and do the hard work required to make it work. Releasing a device with a screen seems to imply that the company has, at least partially, thrown in the towel.
Except Amazon has already conceded that certain actions will require a screen. Attempt to manage a to-do list using your Echo, for example, and you still currently need to use the Alexa companion app on your smartphone to tick off tasks as ‘done’. Want to change the default music player? You’ll need to dig into Alexa’s settings, on your smartphone.
So where's this heading?
It can be hard to think about the end-goal of an initiative like the Amazon Echo because nothing like it has ever existed.
But it might be helpful to think of it as being having the equivalent of personal butler sitting in your living room, waiting to help you out with your day.
Ask a butler what letters you’ve received and you’d never expect them to read out each of your letters for you, you’d hope that they’d show you the most important ones directly. In a similar way, it would get frustrating quickly to have an Echo read out your entire inbox, but an Echo with a screen could pick the most important emails to show to you.
Similarly if you were asking a butler for traffic advice, rather than them trying to describe exactly where the congestion is, it would be much for convenient for them to show you a map, and point to the difficult roads so you can avoid them. An Echo with a screen would be much better in this regard.
Although entirely voice-based assistants seem like a cool future, the truth is that there’s certain information that will always be easier to display visually, and having to rely on pulling a smartphone out of your pocket simply isn’t as convenient as simply showing you directly on the device.
Although Amazon has yet to officially confirm the existence of the product, the quality of the leaks, combined with the existence of the recently announced Amazon Echo Look, makes this a convincing direction for Amazon to take.
And, frankly, I’m ok with it. I love my Echo, but only part of that is because it’s a smart device I can control with my voice. Mostly I just like having a mini computer set up in my kitchen to deal with occasional queries that it’s not worth fetching my phone to do.
So ultimately an Echo with a screen isn’t quite the change of direction that it had originally seemed. If handled well it could be just a better way of presenting you with the information you need without overwhelming you with minutes of lengthy audio explanation.
All that we need now is for Amazon to actually officially confirm the existence of the device, but given how finished the leaked shots look, I can’t imagine it’s far off.