If you thought the Amazon Echo rumor mill had shut down for 2016, you're wrong.
That's because word of a new Amazon Echo with a 7" touchscreen has surfaced, an interesting potential development given how focused the company has been on the voice interface.
I wrote about the rumored device over at The Spoon, focusing on the early indications this device might be a kitchen-focused Echo. For those who have been following Amazon's digital home machinations for a while, you'll remember that last year there was a rumored "kitchen computer" project called Project Kabinet. My guess is this is the evolution of that concept.
But let's step back and ask why Amazon would include a touch screen on an Echo device. After all, if Amazon believes voice is the interface of the future, why include something like an old-fashioned touch screen?
Here are my thoughts:
Visual interface: The reality is consumers are still very visual, and the ability to be able to see content, whether that's a recipe, cooking video or new product on Amazon, that's extremely helpful. Our research shows that a substantial number of consumers are using touch screen devices in the kitchen, whether that's for searching for something to cook or just catching up on the news. Amazon figures why let that go?
Automatic Content Recognition: ACR, or automatic content recognition, is becoming increasingly commonplace with our over-the-top TV world. For those of you who don't know what ACR is, it's the ability to sync content based on audio fingerprinting. If you are, for example, having a conversation about Italian food, you can instantly have visual content surface on the screen like a recipe for risotto. I'm not sure if Amazon is planning on having some form of ACR-enabled visual content recommendation, but it's a possibility.
Apps: While voice will continue to be the focus for any Alexa-based system like the Echo, many consumers still use touchscreen apps for a variety of things. Because Amazon has not performed nearly as well in the smartphone category and their Kindle Fire products are seen as commodity alternatives to the iPad, they could see a touchscreen enabled Alexa as a more defensible and differentiated entry. They could also become the go-to touchscreen for the growing number of connected kitchen devices.
Visual Skills: One of the great benefits of Alexa is it's the most robust voice app ecosystem today. There are over 3,000 skills, and new skills are being added at a dizzying pace. But what if they were to add a media-rich Alexa skill option for content providers to create interesting new visual skills that sync well with an integrated touch screen? One example could audio-synced cookbook. Remember, Amazon also has a robust e-book platform that they've begun to make much more media-rich (I am reading an e-book now that has embedded movie clips).
Video-conferencing: One of my favorite new devices of 2016 is the Nucleus home conferencing system. It's intuitive and straightforward. I think Amazon could make a video conference feature similar to Nucleus (which is, interestingly, Alexa-enabled).
Bottom line, Amazon has possibly surprised us again and, if the rumors are true, is showing they continue to innovate as they try defend their early lead in the home digital assistant category.
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