Amazon's dystopian plan to be anywhere and everywhere

There's no escaping Alexa

When most tech companies host a launch event, it is to unveil one or two major products. Not Amazon. For the past couple of years at its launch events, the company has bombarded tech watchers with a torrent of new products. And so it wasn't all that surprising when it announced a full 15 new products at a hardware event in Seattle last week. That's more products than most big tech companies launch all year.

But if the glut of stuff was expected, what was perhaps less predictable was the variety of what was on show: smart night lights, a smart oven, and most surprisingly of all, smart wearable devices like eyeglasses and a ring.

The sheer number of hardware products has in the past made Amazon seem a bit like it was throwing absolutely anything at the wall to see what sticks. And to be sure, there was definitely that feeling this time around. But with an increasing push to get its Alexa voice platform absolutely everywhere, Amazon's plans finally seem to be coming into focus: The company believes voice will supplant the smartphone as the next big platform.

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If that sounds a bit far fetched, it's because up until now, the actual business case for voice products like Alexa, Google's Assistant, or Apple's Siri have been a bit vague. Yes, they are extremely helpful, but what was never quite clear was how they were supposed to make money.

In the case of Google, it seemed like Assistant was mostly a branding exercise meant to associate the search company with having the answers you wanted. In Apple's case, as with everything Apple does, Siri was simply another play to make the company's walled garden more appealing. But Amazon's interest was always a bit baffling: Shopping by voice never really caught on and despite selling reasonably well (the company doesn't release specific sales numbers), its Echo devices are priced so low that they're hardly a profit-generating machine.

But with this week's announcement, things seem clearer, especially considering Amazon's move into augmented reality. Amazon's Echo Frames are smart glasses that essentially direct audio through their arms so that a user can hear things like notifications, directions, and so on. There is no visual component here. The same can be said for the Echo Loop, a ring that contains microphones to wake Alexa, and also provides haptic feedback for notifications.

These products are what the company is calling Day One Editions, which is a fancy way of saying they're experiments more than full-fledged new categories. But the idea here is that Amazon's voice assistant is not only with you everywhere, it is also on everything: your smartphone, your appliances at home, your car, and of course, in your ears: Amazon's new Echo Buds are their answer to Apple's ubiquitous AirPods, and can also raise Alexa.

With Alexa everywhere, Amazon's voice platform becomes the layer between hardware and the internet. Appliance and car makers can integrate Alexa to give them voice-controlled capability far better than they would be able to come with on their own. Alexa in glasses or headphones allows the service to deliver updates and notifications about things you've bought from Amazon, your Amazon-controlled home security, or even track things as part of Amazon's new Sidewalk wireless standard.

If this all sounds a bit dystopian or worrying, that's because it probably is. Amazon's plan to become the voice layer would give it even more power. It also paves the way for Alexa to become a revenue machine. In much the same way Apple makes its billions simply because you need a smartphone to do all the things a smartphone can do, Alexa becomes the analog for voice.

Whether or not this actually plays out all depends on a number of factors, like how consumers react to these so-called Day One experiments, and also how Google, Apple, and others respond.

But for now, Amazon's vision of the future — in which our bodies, homes, and selves are intertwined with a series of connected, smart, voice-controlled devices — is certainly the most comprehensive vision we've seen so far. With Google's Glasses having disappeared and Apple's augmented reality plans seemingly still years away, Amazon has taken a bold first step.

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