Amazon's new microwave: 'Alexa, please defrost my chicken'
SEATTLE—In a bid to control the smart home of the future, Amazon.com Inc. is offering makers of electronics a small chip that would let people use their voice to command everything from microwaves and coffee machines to room fans and guitar amplifiers.
The online retail giant is hoping big manufacturers will sign up to incorporate the Alexa-enabled chips — which cost a few dollars each — in lower-end, everyday household devices.
The plan, if successful, could give Amazon an advantage over other tech companies such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp., which are all racing to use voice assistants to control everyday devices to promote their services, as well as glean consumer data.
The announcement came Thursday at a press event in Amazon’s new Spheres building, where executives revealed a flurry of new Echo speaker devices and other electronics powered by its Alexa voice assistant. The products, which included a $50 (U.S.) Echo for cars and a new home security system, shows Amazon’s intention to put Alexa at the center of people’s lives. It also unveiled a raft of improvements to Alexa, highlighting capabilities that allow it to whisper and hold conversations.
Amazon’s effort to turn Alexa into the home’s central operating system is full of challenges. For decades, the vision of a Jetsons-like connected smart home to remotely open the garage, turn on the porch lights and fire up the oven has been slowed by gadgets that are too expensive, too difficult to configure and are incompatible with other products.
Amazon is looking to unite a scattered industry where many manufacturers have chosen to develop their own connected devices and rent space in the cloud to power them. The company must prove it can push Alexa into the mainstream beyond its Echo speaker devices, and lure more than just the early adopters who outfit their homes with smart devices.
“The response we’re seeing from customers is indicating that there are now many cases where voice is a simpler interface,” such as using a light switch, said Daniel Rausch, vice president of smart home, in an interview. It is “as basic as coming home with your hands full of groceries and being able to turn on the lights. No one likes to walk through a dark house.”
To demonstrate its technology, Amazon has incorporated a circuit board and a button to access Alexa into its private-label microwave. Amazon said customers could either press the button or use an Echo speaker — which connects via Wi-Fi — to command the microwave to do things like defrost a half-pound of chicken, or set it up to automatically to reorder a favorite type of popcorn on Amazon.
“What this microwave does is keep track of how many times you cook popcorn and make sure you never run out,” Mr. Rausch said.