Bob Rankin Newsletters - November 10, 2014 Amazon just tossed a strange bone to the ever-ravenous tech media pack -- the Amazon Echo. Pundits have been scuffling over it, gnawing at it, and running with it eagerly. I’m going to worry at it in a moment, but first let’s see what it is...What is Amazon Echo? The Amazon Echo looks kind of like a dog’s toy. It’s a black cylinder about 3 inches in diameter and a bit over 9 inches tall. It’s perforated on the sides, hinting at its function as an audio speaker. It plugs into an AC power source, so you don’t have to worry about batteries. It’s also equipped with Bluetooth for connecting to handheld devices and WiFi for linking itself to the Internet. Oh, and it contains seven microphones that enable it to hear what you say anywhere in a room, even over the sound of music or a running shower. But don’t worry about privacy, says Amazon; Echo doesn’t start listening until it hears the “wake word” that you teach it. (Wait, what? “Doesn’t start listening until it hears…?”) In the 4-minute infomercial that highlights Echo’s capabilities, the wake-word is “Alexa,” as in: Are you wondering why I chose the image of the woman to accompany this article? Fans of the Twilight Zone television show will remember this famous clip from the surprise ending of "To Serve Man." “Alexa, what time is it?” “Alexa, how do you spell ‘cantaloupe?’” “Alexa, wake me up at 8:00 a.m.” “Alexa, play rock and roll music.” “Alexa, add ‘eggs’ to my shopping list.” “Alexa, read my morning news summary.” You get the idea: the Amazon Echo is a personal digital assistant, a robotic butler, like the Star Trek computer, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, or all that Google is trying to be. In a can. But you don’t have to click or type anything; Echo and you can just make polite conversation verbally. I haven’t seen any “hands-on” reviews of Echo yet. You can’t purchase one right now, but it’s going to cost $199 – or $99 if you’re an Amazon Prime member. The closest you can get to an Echo just now is to request an “invitation” to buy one. There is no guarantee that you will be granted an invitation. Just watch your email inbox for the next several weeks. An Experiment? This is not your typical product launch. Compared to the recent ballyhoo of the Amazon Fire TV Stick, which is already back-ordered until January 15, the Echo’s “launch” is little more than a press release about an “intended” product. The only times I’ve been unable to give Amazon money have been when products were unavailable. So what is the e-commerce giant up to? I agree with the pundits who call the Echo an “experiment,” something like the endless stream of “beta tests” that Google churns out. Amazon is throwing the Echo’s “framework” out there to see if there’s any interest in it. If so, a limited number of carefully selected beta testers will get invitations to buy an Echo. No doubt, they’ll be a representative sampling of hard-core geeks to clueless computer novices. The important thing is that their number will be limited, and that will limit potential criticism and reputation damage during Echo’s early days. The Echo will add items to your shopping list but it won’t place orders for them yet. It can tell you when the next bus arrives but it can’t call a taxi for you… yet. If the Echo proves popular for its ostensible purpose of “digital personal assistant,” then these and other ways to give Amazon money will become part of that “assistance” mission. Right now, you can (in theory) ask Echo for recipes that use beef and it will recite what it can find on some recipe-serving Web site. But I can imagine Echo adding “suggested” ingredients and specific brand names; ads, in short. So Echo could become an ad-delivery platform. I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me Listening The more you use Echo the better it can serve you, according to Amazon. That’s because every question you ask and every command that you give to Echo tells it more about your needs, preferences, lifestyle (what time do you get up on Saturday?), health, hobbies, family members, etc., etc. So yes, as some critics already warn, Echo could be yet another way to invade your privacy. You're inviting a sophisticated array of directional microphones, high-tech software to understand spoken language commands, and a computer with access to the Internet into your home. And it sits there, always listening. What could go wrong? There is a microphone mute button on the top of the Echo. That's supposed to stop Echo from listening. But who can guarantee that Evil Hackers or Men in Dark Glasses won't find a way to listen in to everything that's happening in the living room, kitchen, bedroom, or wherever you decide to put your Echo? I wouldn't be surprised if the government decided to give these things away for free. Will consumers cotton to Echo? The fictional family in the infomercial seem a bit too unreal in their reactions to Echo. They look and act like a marketer’s dream of how consumers should behave, eagerly embracing the product without question or concern. I’m sure there are such consumers out there, but I doubt there is enough of a market to make Echo worth delivering.