The Amazon Echo that sits in my living room. It is still one of the most important things happening in tech, as CES underscored.
The Amazon Echo that sits in my living room. It is still one of the most important things happening in tech, as CES underscored.

I asked the four Internet-of-things executives on a panel I was moderating how many of their companies used Amazon Web Services for back end functions. All four raised their hands. It was just one of many revelations at the just-completed CES show in Las Vegas about how a sometimes surprising group of companies are gaining strength as the result of society’s quickening pace of interconnection.
Not that Amazon’s ongoing success is in itself any sort of surprise. But add a growing prominence in the Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem to the assets of the company we still too often think of as just a retailer. By the last days of CES everybody’s always asking each other “What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen?” My answer was an announcement not a device–Amazon’s deal with Ford to put the Echo technology inside of cars.
Amazon’s Echo–one of which sits quite happily in my living room–was one of the few groundbreaking consumer technology products of 2015. After you say the keyword “Alexa” and bring it to life, you can issue commands or ask questions ranging from the weather in Cancun to how old Willie Mays was when he died (it reads from Wikipedia). It will time the steeping of your tea, wake you in the morning, or play the Beatles on its surprisingly good speakers. Alexa taps into Amazon’s own search engine and over time gets smarter. At a CES dinner one of my tablemates described how even though he has a gigantic Sonos music system in his house he now plays most of his music out of Amazon’s Prime Music service via Echo, simply because verbally invoking Alexa is so much easier a way to control it.
The Ford announcement showed just how limited had been my understanding of Echo’s potential. In the near future you’ll be able to ask Alexa from the driver’s seat whether you left your garage door open, or tell it from your living room to start your car. You’ll also be able to get all that other Alexa functionality like music, weather, wikipedia, etc. from the car. This is the first such deal Amazon has made. By liberating Alexa from its original cylindrical Echo container it becomes clear that Amazon is, among other things, turning its vaunted cloud computing capabilities into a control mechanism for a wide range of things–potentially a large swath of the Internet of Things. Echo may be headed towards becoming a sort of ambient intelligence–an information and management service we could utilize in all kinds of places.
CES otherwise was for me a gigantic, if predictable, letdown when it comes to “consumer electronics.” (It used to be called the Consumer Electronics Show.) I found little to excite me on the show floor. Flipping one day through the thick “CES Daily” magazine that arrived on my hotel room doorknob each morning, I saw not a single ad for anything that struck me as groundbreaking. There were plenty of incremental improvements to product categories we all know about. But much of what was there underscored why consumers appear to be losing their excitement about the next big thing in tech. Accenture released a survey of 28,000 consumers in 28 countries just prior to CES. Here’s part of the report summary: “Consumer demand is sluggish across all traditional categories from smartphones and tablets to laptops. Unfortunately, demand for the next generation of devices enabled by the Internet of Things isn’t growing fast enough to offset declines in traditional categories.”
Consumers just haven’t signed up for a connected home. All that IoT stuff seems too hard to manage. Who wants to figure out how to control a blender from an app? The one genuine locus of consumer IoT excitement has been so-called “wearables,” especially fitness measurement tools sold by industry giant Fitbit. It dominates the phenomenon also called “quantified self.”
Fitbit launched an impressive and inexpensive new watch, the Blaze, at CES. It’s not piled full of features, but that may be a virtue. “Smart watches haven’t really taken off because they do too many things,” Fitbit CEO James Park told me and my colleague Josh Kampel over coffee in a cafe tucked away on an upper floor of the mammoth Venetian Hotel. “What do people actually do with a watch? They look at the time, see notifications from their smartphone apps, and see their fitness stats. The whole feature set is focused on fitness. The number of swipes it takes to get fitness data is fewer than on the Apple watch.” The Blaze’s battery lasts several days–a major plus compared to that other product–and will sell for a quite reasonable $199. And it’s not positioned as some kind of luxury item like you-know-who’s watch. But it can control your music, too.
I asked Park how he accounted for Fitbit’s singular success in the consumer Internet of Things. “We’ve always had a focus on simplicity,” he replied. “People are interested in how these devices help them, not in the process of buying them and setting them up.” I know the main reason I’m a longtime user of Fitbit devices, after having tried those from multiple other companies, is that they are easy to use.
For all Fitbit’s impressive progress with the Blaze, its most evolved product yet, Park had a tough week. The company’s stock plunged even more than the broader market. And the week also brought news of a class action lawsuit complaining that the heartrate monitoring on several Fitbit devices was inaccurate.. But Park told those who asked that he was focusing on the company and its products and not the stock price. He seemed relaxed and upbeat when we were together.
What excites me most, in the end, about IoT doesn’t have that much to do with what is showable at CES. It has the potential to bring massive new efficiencies to larger systems of society–traffic monitoring and control, energy and pollution management, food production, and systems that contribute to the collective wellness for entire communities and nations. Measuring what we all do and making better decisions as the result should enable us to build a healthier and happier society. But consumers won’t achieve that on their own. One place you could have heard some talk about that bigger potential was that IoT panel. I’ll tell you more in an upcoming column.
Techonomy’s theme for the entire year 2016 is “Man, Machines, and the Network: How the Internet of Things Transforms Business and Society.” It will figure prominently at our first New York conference May 26 and at Techonomy 2016 on Nov. 9-11 in Half Moon Bay, California.