Alexa builds a growing army to invade the digital home

As Apple and Google prepare new home products to compete with the Echo, Amazon is exploring new categories in an effort to shore up Alexa's head start as the leading domestic voice agent.

Amazon unveils new Echo gadgets for your home

If intelligent voice agents such as Alexa ultimately aspire to be proactive assistants, they fell down on the job in anticipating the half-dozen new Echo products Amazon announced last week. The company's new Echo lineup sees its most well-known, parody-ripe

Echo device morph into the Echo Plus, which adds a home networking hub, while the baseline Echo has become smaller and softer with a fabric exterior, putting price pressure on the passed-over Echo Tap. The Fire TV has also seen a major form factor shift into something that's more like a square version of the Chromecast.

But three new products take the voice agent into new terrain not only for Alexa, but represent forays into new or at least undeveloped product categories. They are, in ascending order of abstraction:

Echo Connect, a simple bridge device that connects to the -- gasp -- analog phone line in order to enable direct voice calling via Alexa.

Echo Spot, a small nightstand-ready "smartclock" with a circular face similar to last year's still-in-development Bonjour Indiegogo project. The Spot uniquely addresses areas where one wants a bit of visual context such as that provided by the Echo Show but for where the Show's sonic might and footprint are overkill. The Spot continues to push the boundary of smaller screens around the home, which is enjoying a renaissance with the Show, Loop device, and even a newly formed digital picture frame company.

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(Image: CNET)

Echo Buttons, a number of inexpensive wireless single-function buttons that can be used as, for example, game show buttons. Higher-functioning standalone game controls were pioneered by the Sifteo Cubes and paid homage to in more mass market products such as Simon Flash. Amazon has released the least amount of information about the Echo Buttons. They could be a mere accessory to the Echo aimed at gaming sessions or perhaps evolve into something that could achieve a range of the simplest notification and activation functions around the home, a more versatile version of Amazon's Dash Buttons.

Together with the novel Echo Look and Echo Show, they demonstrate how Amazon is willing to push the envelope on the kinds of objects Alexa can inhabit. Indeed, having established a foothold in the home with the first Echo that took everyone by surprise, it's clear that Amazon wants to not only find a way into homes that don't yet have an Alexa product but also fortify the homes in which it is ever listening.

This is a good target for Amazon, because, with Apple and Google using competing agents in their leading mobile operating systems, Alexa has been forced to play second (or third) fiddle in mobile. A few weeks ago, I touched on the possibility that Alexa could be the basis for a new smartphone and rumors abound that Amazon may be working on some Alexa-powered smart glasses. Either of those would represent a break from existing Echo products that are all designed for the home.

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