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Amazon’s Touch-Screen Smart Speaker Solves a Big Problem with AI Assistants

And it also reasserts the company’s dominant position in that sector.

Amazon has added a screen to the latest iteration of its Echo smart speaker—a move that acknowledges some of the limitations of voice-only smart devices and will allow users to discover content more easily.

The new $230 Echo Show is far larger than the smaller speakers that have gone before it, because it features a seven-inch touch screen positioned above its speaker panel. The concept is pretty simple: the voice assistant Alexa will now show you how it’s responding to questions, rather than just telling. That means it will, say, show you the weather forecasts for the coming week, display a recipe, or offer up related music suggestions.

It solves a problem that others have already pointed out. Earlier this year, Andrew Ng, who was then chief scientist at Baidu, explained to MIT Technology Review that while speech input is three times quicker than typing on mobile devices, “the fastest way for a machine to get information to you is via a screen.” By displaying search results, for instance, Alexa will be able to impart information to a user far faster, rather than reading long lists out loud or simply not providing the information at all.

The screen will obviously also allow the device to offer functions that have previously been impossible. Users will be able to watch video clips or monitor video feeds from smart home equipment such as door cameras. Amazon is also adding calling to its Echo range—in the case of the new Show, allowing users to make video calls, but users of older Echo speakers will also be able to make voice calls. This function is enabled by proprietary software; sadly, it’s not possible to use Skype.

Amazon hopes that the prospect of making calls on its devices will make the hardware an even more vital part of the modern home than it already is. Combined with its already impressive first-mover advantage, it looks likely to cement the firm’s strong position in the sector.

Indeed, the news serves to highlight just how far ahead of the pack Amazon is with its AI assistants. While Google launched its own Home smart speaker late last year—some two years after Amazon’s first Echo speaker was launched—Microsoft’s first take on the technology was launched just yesterday (no screen included). Meanwhile, Apple has strongly hinted that it’s working on a similar device, but for now it’s little more than rumor.

Meanwhile, an analysis of the AI speaker sector published just this week shows that Amazon dominates, with a weighty 71 percent market share. Now it’s on its second iteration, solving problems with the hardware before some firms have even entered the race. At this point, it’s Amazon’s to lose.

(Read more: The New York Times, “What’s Next for AI Home Assistants,” “In 2016, AI Home Assistants Won Our Hearts,” “Alexa Gives Amazon a Powerful Data Advantage")