Amazon is bringing a big update to its Echo devices: voice calling and messaging. The update was announced today alongside the launch of the touchscreen Echo Show, but the features will also work on the standard Echo speaker and Echo Dot — for some reason, third-party Alexa devices aren’t included. Voice calling and messaging are available now on both devices.
Alexa’s voice calling feature works more or less how you’d imagine: you ask Alexa to call one of your contacts, and that person’s Alexa device will begin ringing. The only catch is that both contacts have to have Alexa devices — you can’t call a regular phone number. Fortunately, Amazon isn’t requiring everyone to buy an Echo: it’s also adding calling into the Alexa app for iOS and Android.
The Echo Show will also be capable of doing video calls. Video calls will work with the Alexa app, too, though there’s one feature unique to the Show: “Drop In,” which lets approved contacts automatically start a video call, which seems to, in some cases, include automatically turning on the recipient’s camera and mic. This has a lot of potential for abuse, so Amazon is being pretty clear that this is meant for limited use cases, like “[checking] on an elderly relative.”
The other new feature is voice messaging, which will let your call-phobic friends and family members avoid actually having a conversation with you. It’s kind of just a nice name for voicemails, but they’re a bit more useful because you’re able to send a voice message without actually calling someone first — you just tell Alexa to message someone instead. Messages can be sent and received from Echo devices or the Alexa app. The Echo’s light will glow green when there are new messages waiting on the device.
These are all pretty obvious feature additions, but they should go a long way toward making the Echo line more useful. Amazon is offering a simple, hands-free way of calling family members who have bought into the same line of devices. That’s pretty similar to the formula that helped Apple’s FaceTime take off, and it’s easy to imagine the convenience being a big hook here, too.
Update May 9th, 5:20PM ET: Amazon has clarified that voice calling and messaging are only available on its own Alexa devices; third party products aren’t supported.