Amazon is adding voice calling and messaging to Echo devices and the Alexa app

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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.”

Photo: Amazon

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.

Comments

My dad had Alzheimer’s and he couldn’t answer the phone. I setup a computer with Skype that automatically answered my video/phone calls that way he wouldn’t have to do anything. The "Drop In" feature could really be great for those that want to contact their loved ones. I am interested in trying it out.

This is wonderful. Could be what facetime is except in peoples homes. I really would not be surprised if this takes off.

How does it differentiate between which device you are calling? Does it simultaneously ring all of them? That would be annoying.

I mean… that’s how landline phones worked in most people’s homes. Rang on all of the phones. It’s annoying for some, sure, but many demographics are already conditioned for it and find it useful.

Fair point. I wonder if you can use "drop in" from within your home. That would make it a defacto intercom system which would be awesome and something I’d like to see.

You can, they list checking in on the baby, or informing family it’s dinner time as use cases.

I feel somehow that this is a big deal. Apple’s iMessage had such a hold in the US because it was one of the easiest of the first generation of messaging apps. If Amazon can do something similar here with Alexa, they could hold the market.

I guess I have a home phone now.

Yeah, so the usual questions apply.

  • Does Amazon’s text, voice, and video messaging offer end to end encryption?
  • What protocol does it use? How is it secured?
  • Does Amazon retain copies after we read/listen to it? Are these copies encrypted at rest? Does Amazon have the keys to decrypt this data? Will they give it up without a valid court order?
  • Will Amazon datamine our communication and use it for their own marketing? Will they sell it to third-parties? If either is true, is our data aggregated and anonymized before being used or sold? How is it anonymized, are they using differential privacy like Apple?

Just watched Amazon’s promo video on this feature. There is no caller ID on the echo/dot – that’s a massive fail imo. It’s like going back 20yrs to not know who is calling before you decide to pick up. Also, I can’t find any demos of the voice calling or drop-in features. I’m curious to see how the drop in feature works as far as a type of intercom. I’m pre-ordering b/c I have time to cancel before I get billed. hopefully I’ll have answers to those questions soon.

Well, as someone who owns an Echo and multiple Dots, that’s just flat out wrong. The update went out earlier today, and the Echo clearly says who’s calling.

After updating your Alexa app, I had to sign back in, get the short promotional blurb about Alexa calling, opt in by verifying my phone number and giving Alexa access to my contacts, and then stumble around the internet looking for the voice commands associated with Alexa calling (primarily, how to end a call):

When you receive a call, your Echo(s) will have a green light, then your Echo(s) will say, "ContactName would like to talk" and a chime. The chime will occur every few seconds until you answer ("Alexa, Answer"), or ignore ("Alexa, ignore"). If you give no input, it alternates between "ContactName would like to talk" and some chimes, and "It’s ContactName" and some chimes for 20-30 seconds before ending on its own.

Messaging works differently. When your Echo(s) receive a text message, it says nothing, but does make one musical badabing. The light will pulse green as an indicator you have unread messages available. You access them by saying "Alexa, Play My Messages". It then says "Number of messages for YourName", then goes through them via telling you number of unread messages from individual contacts, then recites those messages per contact, and when the individual messages were received. Once you have no unread messages, the green pulsing light turns off.

You can send texts/calls via the Alexa app. You can also send voice messages, rather than a live call, via "Alexa, Send a message to ContactName". Of course, that person has to have an Echo/Alexa, and have opted in. Playing received messages works the same as text messages.

Both voice/text messages are also transcribed in the Alexa app.

Anyway, it largely works smoothly from what I experienced (I only have two contacts who have this enabled, and if one of them wasn’t my GF, I doubt this new functionality would be something I’d ever use in practice). Call quality was very good. There’s a lot of potential here, and I’m already quickly being converted to the idea of the Echo Show for video calling if it ends up being as smooth. Though I remain steadfast in my belief that it’s ugly as sin, and will need a quick jump to gen 2 and a nicer aesthetic.

Some first gen quibbles:

  • Doesn’t differentiate between Echos if you own more than one. I imagine Amazon will allow differentiation, because this seems like such an obvious one…but at the same time, it’s so obvious that it’s a bit odd it isn’t already a basic function. Especially since the entire premise of the Smart Home controls with your Echo and Alexa revolve around differentiating between all your individual lights, etc, as unique devices.

Ok, that was really about the only real quibble I had.

The change to the logo certainly indicates this is going to be a focus of theirs moving forward. As much as I dislike the idea of having yet another messaging app in my life to wall off communication with certain people, there are a few things you’ve said here that make me interested enough to opt in.

Based on how terrible Android’s messaging evolution has been, if we assume all the various people who’ve taken a stab at it aren’t horrendously stupid, and there are simply untold tech hurdles around using phone numbers directly, rather than routing them through proprietary apps, then it’s probably a pipe dream to think Amazon will manage to do this without everything requiring the Alexa app, and as long as it requires the Alexa app, it’s never going to be the primary method of communication-in the USA at least.

But, viewing it as a potential ecosystem of communication between one’s family/close ones is certainly realistic, imo. I can already see myself using Alexa as a sort of analogous system just to keep in touch with the gf, as she’s got an Echo as well and the experience yesterday as we tried it out was fairly positive (except having to hunt down the voice commands; oddly, they weren’t available in the app itself with all the other voice commands). It’s almost teen/20s late 90s/early 2000s AIM days nostalgia, where two lovebirds might have made separate AIM accounts just to text sweet nothings to each other uninterrupted by others. A bit saccharine of an analogy, perhaps, but you get the idea. Hopefully.

Oh yeah, you just transported me back to my dorm room in 2000!

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