Amazon's new dock turns its tablets into an Echo Show

With Show Mode, Amazon's agent will bring the heat as the company brings Alexa closer to the Fire.

With their pocket-defying sizes and typical common lack of integrated cellular connections, tablets are often used within the home rather than outside it. Indeed, the first iPad included a photo frame feature for presumed use while the product was inactive in the home. Since those days, though, the tablet business has become much tougher. Apple has increasingly pushed iPads more to institutions such as businesses and schools and Samsung's latest Galaxy Tab comes coated in plastic armor for use in settings that come just short of combat stress.

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But Amazon has been one company that has kept the glass heading to homes. An outgrowth of its Kindle e-reader success, Amazon was able to build the Fire tablet business due to the strength of its content-related offerings. A tablet was the perfect platform for the Kindle bookstore, Prime Movies, Prime Music and FreeTime for kids. Furthermore, a tablet platform didn't suffer as much by not having access to key mobile apps like Google Maps from its longtime rival.

After the launch of the Fire tablets, Google tried competing more directly with Amazon's content offerings on the Fire tablets with the Nexus 7, which had the same screen size as Amazon's first tablet. But as it shelved Nexus collaborations in favor of its own first-party hardware, Google has become yet another Android device maker with little appetite for the tablet market.

Meanwhile, with no mobile phone business to focus on, Amazon pushed forward with differentiators such as the recently retired Mayday tech support and origami-like tablet covers. Even after the breakthrough success of the Echo, Amazon has kept at the tablet game, releasing a 10-inch edition last year that featured Alexa.

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Now, the company has brought Alexa closer to the Fire than ever before, announcing two docks that allows the 8-inch and 10-inch Fire tablets to act as smart displays, e.g., the contextual display elements integrated into the Echo Show to accompany Alexa's narrative. It calls this state "Show Mode." The docks ($39 for the 8-inch version and $49 for the 10-inch version) have no speaker and are little more than cradles with power connectors and a Surface-like adjustable kickstand; Amazon suggests connecting Bluetooth speakers to enhance the sound. (It has over 20,000 listings for them.).

Amazon isn't the first to recognize that tablets can complement voice agents when they're not being held in the hand. Lenovo showed off a speaker dock for its Tab 4 that gave it Alexa Show-like capabilities. (At Google I/O this year, Lenovo also was one of the first companies to show off a fixed Smart Display using Google Assistant, a direct competitor to the Echo Show.) But Amazon has, unsurprisingly, created a tighter Alexa integration than Lenovo did, giving the docked Fire tablet the kind of visually-aided responses in Show Mode that the Echo Show provides while enabling the Fire tablet to behave more traditionally when not docked.

Voice agents have long used displays to augment the information they've provided. For the Echo, though, the value is a bit different. The Echo began life and gained momentum as a display-free device, a deliberate alternative to the smartphone as a means of digital interaction and one that is, as I noted last year, free from the constant barrage of attention traps that smartphone OS vendors are now trying to quash.

Also: Which Amazon Echo to buy? How to pick the best Alexa device for your needs

If the value of a visual complement to Alexa's voice UI has become important enough that Amazon feels it can sell it as a value-add, it shows that Alexa is increasingly moving beyond an agent tied to voice, helping to bridge a competitive advantage that Apple and Google can deliver with the smartphone's integrated display. That's an important capability as Amazon seeks to integrate Alexa into a wider array of products.

Finally, there's the legacy of Amazon's media pads. That tablets would become a semi-permanent home display brings things full circle from the time that they stole the thunder of digital picture frames. Given that the dock has the same footprint as an Amazon tablet, it's doesn't make a case for a more space-efficient smart display; Amazon already has the Echo Spot for that. But it does allow for a less expensive and more versatile one given that an 8-inch Fire and Alexa dock bundle will, at $110, cost less than even an Echo Spot at $129. Amazon is betting that the Alexa halo will lend some light to a Fire it refuses to let fade.

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