Technology

Amazon’s Echo conquered the smart home — what comes next?

Amazon is gearing up for its latest hardware event where it’s expected to announce its latest smart home gear. Based on prior years, we could see new Echo speakers, Alexa updates, Eero routers, Ring cameras, and more.

But looking at Amazon’s smart home lineup right now, the question isn’t whether Amazon will have new hardware to show off. It’s whether Amazon can convince its current customers to buy them.

Look at the current slate of Echos or Eeros, for example. They’re already excellent products. Smart home gear has a much longer lifespan than, say, a laptop or a smartphone, where leaps in design and new features are far more apparent. So how do you convince someone that their smart speaker needs an upgrade without a new screen or better camera to sell them on? Yes, Amazon might be able to get first-gen Echo owners to upgrade — the newer versions offer significant boosts in sound quality and design — but what about the owners of second-gen devices or the most recent third-gen wave?

Take the most recent Echo Dot, which Amazon released back in 2018, for example. The design is still sleek and elegant, and the sound quality still great. There’s even a version with a clock built in. What else is there to upgrade? Adding USB-C would make me, a gadget-obsessed tech writer who dreams of universal port standards, happy, but it’s not an upgrade worth paying for if you already own one. And while Amazon could slim down the size or improve the sound quality, it’s hard to imagine that either of those would dramatically improve the day-to-day experience of using the current model.

Those diminishing returns are precisely why Amazon’s more recent efforts have been less about getting Echo owners to upgrade and more about expanding where its Echo devices are put. Amazon might not be able to convince you to replace the aging Echo in your living room, but it could persuade you to get an Echo Dot for your other rooms, an Echo Show for your kitchen, an Echo Studio for your office, an Echo Auto for your car, even wearable Echo Buds, Loop rings, and Frames so you’re in contact with Alexa at all times.

But after last year’s slate of hardware, it’s hard to imagine where else Amazon can sell you on putting a smart speaker. Amazon’s last round of speakers was already better than ever — and in more places than ever. But even the idea of selling more types of Echos to blanket your home or person has limits. At some point, Alexa can already hear you wherever you are in your house. And attempts to draw Alexa outside the home — with things like Echo Auto or the array of personal devices, smartphone apps, and smartwatches — haven’t really caught on yet.

Amazon does have another option, though: instead of making your smart home setup bigger by adding more devices, the company can help make your existing smart home smarter with new Alexa features or capabilities.

However, that approach bears the risk of complexity. Part of the magic of Echo devices is their relative simplicity: you ask Alexa to do a thing or answer a question, and it happens. Add too many features or options on top, and it becomes a smaller, less functional computer that you have to manage. No one wants to have to remember a specific convoluted command or sequence for getting something done.

It’s a strange impasse. Amazon, in many ways, is hindered by its own success, with a product lineup that’s strong (and age-resistant) enough that it’s hard to make a compelling argument to upgrade or buy more products. Like Alexander, there seem to be no more worlds left for Alexa to conquer — so where does Amazon go next?