Amazon.com Inc., girding for competition from Apple Inc. and Google in the race to equip homes with smart devices, unveiled a slew of consumer gadgets, including an Alexa-powered digital-home hub, a smaller and cheaper Echo speaker and a new mini Echo with a screen called Spot.
Though hardware products aren’t key to Amazon’s bottom line, they serve as important conduits for popularizing and expanding the Alexa voice-based digital assistant, which is integrated into the latest devices. The gadgets with screens also provide a platform for customers to view content like movies and books from Amazon Prime, the $99-a-year membership that does contribute to profits. As an e-commerce giant, Amazon aims to give consumers the ability to buy items on its website from any of their devices, and without its own smartphones Alexa drives that effort.
It’s especially critical for the company to keep pushing Alexa as Apple and Alphabet Inc.’s Google begin to market more devices with their own voice-based services – Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant. Earlier this month, Apple debuted the iPhone 8 line and iPhone X, which are expected be in high demand this holiday season. Apple is scheduled to release its HomePod speaker in December. For its part, Google is expected to debut a smaller Home speaker and a pair of upgraded Pixel smartphones on Oct. 4.
Amazon’s new smart home device, called the Echo Plus, has better sound than the existing Echo speaker and costs $150, down from the current $180, the company said at an event Wednesday at its headquarters in Seattle. It has a built-in hub that lets users more easily connect and control other accessories, including lights, thermostats and locks.
The new, smaller Echo also has better sound and an improved ability to hear users, said Dave Limp, who runs Amazon’s Alexa and Echo lines. The $99 speaker has a dedicated woofer and tweeter for sharper music playback and new microphones to let the device understand users at a greater distance, Limp said.
The device that has received most of the attention is the Echo Spot, a minispeaker with a 2.5-inch color screen. It acts like a miniature version of the Echo Show from earlier this year, and it can show information like the time, weather, news and web videos and has a built-in camera for video-calling over Alexa. The device, which costs $130, can serve as a video intercom.
Amazon’s connected-home devices fit the company’s ambitions to be thought of as a one-stop shop for any consumer need, anytime, anywhere. Making gadgets gives the company a chance to remove Apple and Google devices from its connection to customers. Amazon is even going beyond the internet to reach shoppers with its $13.7 billion purchase in August of Whole Foods Market, operator of hundreds of high-end grocery stores.
At its event Wednesday, Amazon also introduced a revamped Fire TV set-top box that will support higher-resolution 4K video at a faster frame rate than the previous versions, matching the capabilities of Apple’s recently updated model. Amazon’s new box is smaller than the current device and can plug into the back of a TV via its HDMI port. The product continues to integrate with Alexa, allowing users to speak commands into their remote control or to their Echo speakers. Netflix and Hulu will begin to support Alexa voice control within their respective Fire TV applications, Amazon said.
The company also unveiled a speaker phone accessory, called Echo Connect, that plugs into existing home landline telephone jacks. The other end of the $35 device connects to an Echo speaker so people can use their voice to make calls and chat hands-free. The device will be released in the U.S. in the fourth quarter and in the U.K. next year. Amazon also introduced the Echo Button, an accessory that can be used for games.
Amazon said that its voice-calling and messaging service on Alexa would expand to the U.K. as well as to infotainment systems in some BMW cars by mid-2018. Amazon already has deals for Alexa with Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen AG.
The items follow a procession of new Amazon products in 2017. The retail giant launched the Echo Show, a version of its speaker with a tablet-sized touchscreen; the Echo Look device, with a camera for giving users wardrobe advice; cheaper tablets; and a third-party television set with built-in Fire TV streaming capability. The company doesn’t disclose how many of each device it sells, nor does it break out revenue or profit from hardware.
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