Is there a mainstream consumer-tech hardware manufacturer more delightfully weird than Amazon? I don’t think so. This afternoon, almost without warning and certainly without the kind of hype we’ve come to expect from mainline tech companies, Amazon announced a handful of new devices in its Echo line of home-assistant speakers: a big Echo! A small Echo! An alarm-clock Echo, with a screen! It had the sensibility of a robot randomly generating new Echo ideas, all for the purpose of creating devices that you will place all over your home, so you can yell from any room and get Monster Energy drinks with free two-day shipping.
Apple in general, and the iPhone in particular, created a Silicon Valley culture of meticulously curated and highly streamlined product lines. The uniformity and consistency of Apple’s products helped rocket the company to incredible success (“There’s only one new iPhone”), and Microsoft and Google have generally attempted to follow suit with devices like the Pixel phone (framed as the purest Android phone) and the Microsoft Surface (the purest Windows tablet). Amazon … has not. In an era where large tech makers follow the Apple mold and attempt to exercise meticulous self-control, Amazon’s attitude appears to be “AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH fuck it.”
There are nine devices with the Echo label attached. They are the Echo, the Echo Dot (smaller, cheaper), the Echo Show (it’s got a screen), the Tap (portable speaker with Alexa capability), the Echo Look (a camera that you put in your closet so it can judge your fashion choices), the Echo Plus (works as a smart-home hub), and the Echo Spot (alarm-clock-like). There’s also the Echo Connect accessory, for using your landline with the Echo to make calls, and the Echo Button, which is just a button that API developers can use as another method of interaction (today’s example used the Button as a trivia-game buzzer).
Each of these gadgets is almost certainly good, in the sense that it works well at its functions. What they are not is cool. Apple, whose business model is high-margin luxury electronics, may have made it compulsory for gadgets to be cool; Amazon, whose business model is to draw families into their logistics network to sell as many diapers as possible, does not care. It will pump out Echoes in an infinite number of form factors and not once wonder if it should focus on streamlining its product line.
And as uncool as it is, it’s sort of … catching on? Apple, once the king of our-product-or-the-highway, now offers at least six different iPhone models in its stores. The kitchen-sink approach to technology and consumer choice is truly back, in that you can choose which uncanny future-tech method with which you’d like to interface with Amazon, the virtually incontestable dominant force dictating the future of retail in all of its many forms.