Your Next Essential Gadget

Cell Phone. iPod. Smartphone. Tablet. . . . and now?
Once upon a time I didn't think I'd have much use for an iPad. Hah! Still, I remain deeply skeptical about every new expensive electronic gadget, because so few prove to be truly useful.

"A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."
---Steve Jobs

 
Yet every few years, a whole new category of device emerges, and consumers find that it fills some unmet need in our lives. It’s not just the latest model of a something; it’s a completely novel creation, and if it proves to be a flexible, multi-purpose tool, it becomes ubiquitous rather than gathering dust in a cupboard (think Cuisinart, not electric yogurt maker).
 
Enter Alexa, Stage Left
The latest contender is a “voice-enabled wireless speaker,” the Amazon Echo ($180). Be honest: from the description, aren’t you thinking “why do I need that?” Despite pretty dumb ads, Amazon has reportedly sold THREE MILLION Echos, and Google has announced plans for a similar device, the Google Home. So "smart speakers" are, apparently, THE new new thing. 
 
For Why Do I Need You?
What can you do with an Echo? On command (call it "Alexa"), it will play radio stations ormusic, set alarms and timers, add things to your calendar or shopping list, call an Uber, order things from Amazon (of course!), or control the volume, compatible lights, thermostats or watering systems, and more. And the voice recognition is remarkably good, even from across the room when music is playing.
 
Pros and Cons
Setup is dead simple with an Amazon account and WiFi. And Amazon is capitalizing on the Echo’s success, both by extending the line with two smaller devices (one of which you can plug into your own speakers, the other battery-operated for portability), and by allowing developers to create new "skills" for the Echo family. Want yoga coaching or recipes read aloud? You can enable those skills in your Alexa app now.  And with a few minutes of fiddling, I was able to teach Alexa to email me my shopping list. You can try it yourself on Amazon's Echo simulator page here

There’s plenty of room for improvement: the app store is disorganized and wildly uneven (cricket news, but no NY Times?!); and i thought being able to set a timer verbally would be great when I was cooking, but unlike my old-fashioned wall oven timer, the Echo doesn't show me how much time is left. Hmm.
 
Not just for the usual techies
But after playing with the Echo, I thought of a friend’s very intelligent and well-read mother who lost her sight in her 90’s, too late to adapt easily.  She can now order Alexa to update her on the news, report the weather, read her a book, or play her favorite music. For someone like that for whom most technology is impossibly daunting, the Echo can be life-altering.
 
The Echo has been a runaway success for Amazon and it's likely that Apple and perhaps even Microsoft will follow Google in to the fray, but Amazon has a big head start with this imperfect, but highly engaging, new toy *ahem* device.