On Wednesday Amazon officially released the Echo Show, the retailer’s first speech-enabled, Internet-connected speaker with a built-in touch screen.
The original Echo was already a hit with consumers; with the addition of a display, it comes into its own. The screen allows for richer experiences for core applications like music (it displays lyrics), communication (it enables video calls), and videos. Amazon also announced a programming interface to allow for the development of new “skills” that make use of the screen.
The Echo is always plugged in, so the screen is always on. Even when you are not using the device, it shows upcoming calendar appointments, breaking news, tips, and other information. This concept may remind some of the pioneering PointCast Internet-connected screensaver. It reminds me of the early days of my company, Cozi, when we offered a PC-based photo screensaver that displayed upcoming appointments.
It’s easy to imagine that the Echo Show will eventually become a live digital picture frame displaying pictures from extended family and friends. The current version seems to be limited to one relatively static home-screen image.
But it’s not really the display that’s the most important attribute of the Echo Show. (Nor is it the shape, which is squat bordering on awkward. And the speaker is average-sounding.) It’s not even Alexa, the voice-enabled digital assistant that all Echo devices have in common.
The most important aspect of these devices is that they are “cloud-first.”
Right out of the box my new Echo Show was pre-configured to my Amazon account. When I set it up, Alexa already knew who I was, had my favorite “skills” enabled, knew my commute, could control my lights and thermostat, had contact information for people I communicate with, had my music, knew my favorite sports teams, and knew my upcoming appointments. (And that doesn’t include the more well-known Amazon services: Video, Audible, Kindle, and, of course, shopping.)
How? Because Amazon built its device around the account you likely already have. The company’s pitch to developers is that Alexa, and by extension Echo, is always getting smarter. “The more customers use Alexa, the more she adapts to speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences.”
That dynamic allows Amazon to continuously update its Alexa-enabled devices with new services, capabilities, and improvements. The same goes—to varying extents—for Apple and its Siri-enabled iOS devices, Google’s Now-enabled Android devices, and Microsoft’s Cortana-enabled Windows devices. Even Tesla’s over-the-air updates for its vehicles reveal a mentality that changes both product development and customer experience.
And that’s where it gets exciting. As technology platforms increasing update themselves, the pace of innovation speeds up, too. Companies in nearly every industry need to be agile in evaluating the new opportunities that these technologies represent. They need to embrace those opportunities quickly and in some cases before the business models are completely clear—even if it means becoming your own competitor in a classic Innovator’s Dilemma.
That’s hard to do. But history shows that companies that embrace new technologies early are the ones that reap the benefits.
Will Friedman is the President of Cozi Inc and the General Manager of the Cooking Light Diet. Cozi is owned by Time Inc, the publisher of Fortune.