Echo Show Has Great Local Search Potential — Emphasis on ‘Potential’

About a week ago, I received my Echo Show — the new Alexa device with a touchscreen — and have been using it regularly for the past several days. The experience has been interesting and frustrating. In a way it’s a first-generation product, even though it’s the fifth piece of hardware in the Echo-Alexa product line.

The big difference between it and the other Echo devices is obviously the screen. However the unit is something of a disappointment because it fails to fully utilize the screen — as though Amazon was uncertain or ambivalent about what role the screen should play. That will hopefully change and evolve over time.

The potential is obvious; it’s like a small Fire tablet plus a virtual assistant plus a solid bluetooth speaker. But therein lies the problem: the screen creates a set of new user expectations that go mostly unfulfilled. As a video-calling device it works relatively well (within the Alexa universe that is). You can also watch YouTube and Amazon videos on it. And generally images enhance the content being presented.

However interacting with the screen is not entirely intuitive. You want to be able to do the same kinds of things you can on a tablet or smartphone: you want menus and back-button functionality. You want a search function. You want to be able to swipe and “click” and navigate as you would on your other devices. These capabilities are mostly absent at this point.

Focusing in on local, you can ask for local restaurants, businesses and movies. The movie content (descriptions, showtimes and trailers) is provided by Amazon’s IMDB. The restaurants and other local business content comes from Yelp. If you ask for “Mexican restaurants near me” or in a specific place, you get results that are displayed visually and can be scrolled horizontally. The content is thin however: NAP info and Yelp stars; you can’t read actual reviews. It’s the same for local service businesses.

As a consequence, the Show is mostly useful for branded or “name-in-mind” searches or as a way to look up phone or address (or hours) information. Echo and Echo Show can make calls to other Alexa users but not businesses at this point. Google Home will have broader calling functionality and so will Cortana powered devices. I expect that eventually you’ll be able to command Alexa devices to call businesses and be connected, either directly or via a call connection to your smartphone.

Almost none of Echo’s 14,000 skills currently take advantage of the screen, which makes sense since the Show is just out. Most Alexa skills are not very useful or interesting. But that could change if developers make use of the screen and transfer some of their smartphone app functionality to the Echo Show. There’s enormous potential.

(The screen is full of prompts and messages that can’t be removed, laying the groundwork for ads and offers potentially.)

The screen also implies transactions. You can currently shop on Amazon but you want to be able to buy movie tickets or place online food orders or make reservations. You can use Alexa to make restaurant reservations through OpenTable via voice, but it’s relatively awkward and inefficient right now.

There are many ways in which the screen makes the Echo Show much more compelling than the Echo and Echo Dot. The combination of a voice-first device with a touchscreen, in some sense, offers a “best of both worlds” opportunity. However, Amazon (and its developer ecosystem) will need to add content depth and functionality to make the screen’s role more meaningful. While I can understand why Amazon might not want to provide a full web browser, it has to go much further in the direction of a tablet. The screen shouldn’t be simply a novelty, as it almost is right now.

You naturally want to be be able to use the screen to search and browse the web as you can on an iPad. But you can’t. There’s a kind of half-hearted approach to the screen, which needs to change if the Show is to fully realize its potential. Indeed, there’s enormous potential for the Echo Show as a powerful local search device but it remains to be seen if Amazon will deliver on that promise.

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