Coronavirus lockdowns made Alexa vital, and Amazon knows it – CNET

Amazon event 2020 scho speaker

The new orbicular fourth-generation Echo smart speaker.

Amazon

Amazon's Alexa is more relevant than it's ever been because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The giant retailer's hardware execs hammered that point over and over during a Thursday event, emphasizing the value of smart home features for those of us who are stuck at home. And they doubled down on gear and services to entertain us, help us connect and keep an eye on our homes.

"Nobody anticipated the pandemic, and we certainly didn't plan for it," Dave Limp, Amazon's hardware chief, said in an interview after the event. "But I think our homes are now our offices, they're our schools, they're our movie theaters. A lot of our products became even more applicable in this environment."

Obviously, Amazon is OK with this development because it keeps people hooked to its portfolio of services and products. Limp said video streams are way up and billions of hours are watched each month through Amazon's Fire TV devices. The same goes for book reading on Kindle gadgets and listening to music on Echo speakers. Toss in the all the stuff people are buying online on Amazon.com and quarantine has worked out fairly well for the company.

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Some might say Alexa's growing influence is a bad thing. It's troubling that one of the biggest and wealthiest corporations on the planet has so many connections to our home life, giving it even more ability to collect plenty of data about us. There's a lot of security problems -- such as an Amazon-brand Ring camera being hijacked by a hacker -- to give consumers pause.

But there are reasons to be grateful too. These types of products won't replace visiting loved ones in person, but they sure are helpful for communicating when we have to be remote.

Ultimately, consumers will decide how much or how little Alexa they want in their lives. If history provides any clues, they will want a lot more, especially as the pandemic prompts interest in video conferencing, security systems and streaming services.

Life-from-home features

Amazon is banking on that happening. At its event, the company introduced plenty of new ideas that could work well during the altered reality the pandemic has caused. 

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The Echo Show 10.

Amazon

The company unveiled a new program called Care Hub, an Alexa feature that lets people watch over their family members from afar. After you and a family member agree to set up a Care Hub connection, you'll be able to monitor that person's activity feed with Echo devices. If your family member doesn't make any Alexa queries by a certain time of day, you can get an alert. The family member can also set you up as an emergency contact and reach you by saying, "Alexa, call for help."

"We can all relate to the idea that there's a lot of family that we can't see right now. Even if they were nearby, we wouldn't be able to see them. I'm in that situation," said Daniel Rausch, Amazon's vice president of smart home. He mentioned that he's testing out the service now with his mom.

Alexa hardware executive Miriam Daniel said her team wanted to help with remote learning, so it created Reading Sidekick. The feature, which works with hundreds of books, allows Alexa to read along with children, encouraging them if they are doing well or offering support if they are struggling.

Amazon also worked to make its devices useful for video conferencing and communication, allowing video calling on your TV through a Fire TV Cube device and a Logitech webcam. The $250 Echo Show 10 smart display provides a 10-inch screen for video calls and is equipped with Skype and group calling. It'll get Zoom later this fall.

A new set of Eero router devices should also help people get more reliable connections at home.

Surveillance tech

Because the pandemic has us spending more time at home, Amazon's Ring unit was sure to get a prominent spot at the hardware event. Ring's surveillance equipment and police partnerships are already a worry for privacy advocates. Their concerns are likely to get directed at the $250 Ring Always Home Cam, an autonomous drone that flies around inside your home to keep an eye on many rooms on a set flight path. It will even automatically fly somewhere in the home if it's triggered by a suspicious motion.

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The Ring Always Home Cam.

Amazon

That concept may be too much for plenty of customers. But the $200 Ring Car Cam probably won't be. The Car Cam flips the script on Ring's relationships with the police. The dash-mounted camera will record your traffic stop if you say, "Alexa, I'm being pulled over." That device could provide a valuable layer of transparency at a time when police brutality and excessive force have become a leading social concern. In June, Apple introduced a similar feature on its iPhone.

Privacy advocates have called out Amazon for creating a bevy of devices with cameras and microphones built into them. When asked about these concerns, Limp noted his team has done a lot to make its products more secure, including adding two-factor authentication and stronger passwords for Ring.

"We're going to have to continue to invent in the privacy front and the security front," he said. "You're never done."

With the holiday season coming up, Amazon will find out soon enough if customers agree with Limp's sentiment. And they'll decide how many of these new devices they want to bring into their quarantined lives.

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