TECH
11/06/2014 04:20 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2014

Amazon's Latest Effort To Get You Shopping Is This Speaker

Amazon wants to make it as easy as possible for you to buy every single thing it sells, from diapers to groceries to streaming movies.

The company's latest effort to get you shopping comes in the form of a voice-controlled wireless speaker, called Echo, that's always listening for you to utter the phrase "Alexa." When you do, the speaker perks up and awaits for your question or command. The company quietly announced Echo on Thursday.

Echo costs $199, but it's $99 for members of Amazon Prime, the company's free-shipping loyalty program. But it's not even for sale yet -- you have to request an invitation. Kinley Pearsall, an Amazon spokesperson, wrote in an email that the company will start sending invitations and shipping the speaker "in the coming weeks."

Think of Echo, which connects to your wireless network at home, as similar to personal assistants like Google Now and Siri. In the promotional video, Amazon shows Echo responding to questions -- from multiple members of the family -- like "how tall is Mt. Everest" and "how do you spell cantaloupe" as well as commands like "play rock music" and "add wrapping paper to the shopping list."

When you ask Echo to add something to your shopping list, it shows up on the companion smartphone app, according to Pearsall. You can then search for it on Amazon or the web and buy it there, of course, though Pearsall noted that you can also use it as checklist when you're at the grocery store.

The Echo app will be available on smartphones and tablets running Android and Amazon's Fire OS at launch, and for Apple's iOS soon, according to Pearsall.

Echo is equipped with seven microphones so it can hear you from any direction, and has noise cancellation so it can pick up your voice even when the speaker is playing music.

The speaker is connected to Amazon Web Services, Amazon's cloud service. Echo gets answers to question from the company's own database as well as Wikipedia, AccuWeather and other third parties, Pearsall said. Amazon says on its website that Echo gets to know you and your speech patterns, so the more you use it, the better it works.

Pearsall wrote in an email that the phrase "Alexa" is a nod to the ancient library of Alexandria.

Some smartphones have similar hands-free technology that's always listening for a certain phrase. Some handsets that run on Google's Android operating system are activated by "Ok, Google," while the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system enables iPhones that are plugged in to respond to "Hey Siri."

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Echo, which was codenamed Doppler or Project D, has been in development for at least four years.

Echo is just the latest gadget from the world's largest online retailer. Already this year Amazon has unveiled a streaming media box, a phone, a streaming media stick, a new Kindle eReader and a new lineup of tablets. The company is also testing Dash, a wand that allows you to scan items around the house to add them to your shopping list, in some areas of California and Brooklyn.

The Fire Phone, the company's first smartphone, has largely been a failure for the company. Just weeks after it went on sale, the company cut the price by $200.

"We ... heard it from customers that they expected more value," Dave Limp, senior vice president of devices at Amazon, said of the Fire Phone's price in an interview in September. "We had had a plan to reduce the price. To be perfectly honest about it, it was going to happen a little later."

Amazon said during a call with investors last month that it took a roughtly $170 million charge related to the phone.

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