You may not need the Echo Show, but Amazon does

The company that pioneered the smart speaker risks falling behind as voice interfaces match up with displays.

Unlike the original Amazon Echo, its sliced-off sibling, the Echo Dot, Google Home, and the recently released Harman Kardon Invoke speaker powered by Cortana, the Echo Look is not cylindrical. Despite this, the device has a philosophically circular aspect to it. A product that was distinguished as an alternative to devices with touchscreens now has one.

With its stocky profile, the Echo Show recalls a number of unsuccessful shrunk-down desktops from the late 1990s known as internet appliances such as the 3Com Audrey Sony eVilla, a clunky product so bad that Sony offered a full refund to those who purchased it. Years later, devices such as the Sony Dash and Chumby would lose the keyboards and become inexpensive media access points for the home.

While these too quickly faded from the landscape, the Show is more of a direct descendant of them. It can summon audio and video as well as do anything else an Echo speaker can do given it shares the same kind of powerful microphone array. But the Show also provides an opportunity for additional information, offering confirmation of commands sent to many of the home networking products with which Alexa has integrated. Security cameras are among those that benefit most from this although there is no such integration with the Alexa-enabled camera just released by Amazon.com.

A category pioneer, the Echo has attracted competitors powered by other agents as well as other products that Amazon itself has pursued as partners. The Show, like the original Echo, paves the way for a voice interaction model that differentiates from these products. It also allows Amazon to better compete with rivals such as Google and Microsoft since, as I've noted, Amazon lacks their advantage of having significant installed bases of screens in the home.

See also: Amazon's Echo Show is a giant phone for your kitchen counter [CNET]

And just as Google has kept the Google Assistant a pure voice/text experience by having its Assistant hand off to other devices in the home, Amazon has taken measures to prevent the Echo Show's screen from fragmenting the voice-driven Alexa experience. The device detects presence and will use its screen for display and interaction only when someone is in front of it. Alexa needs a display far more popular than the Fire tablet or its first integrated television in order to compete more effectively with Google and Microsoft. But as the company progresses further beyond today's voice experience, it risks the same platform disadvantage challenges that helped to sink the Fire smartphone.

Siri may be strongly identified with a smartphone and Alexa (or something that sounds like it) with a cylindrical speaker. Ultimately, though, their ilk are a combination of disembodied interfaces interacting with cloud-based intelligence. Over time, they will be accessed from many different points, some of which will have screens. As a category pioneer and burgeoning ecosystem steward, Amazon has an imperative to show how Alexa interactions can function in a richer media environment.