Long before the Echo Show, the rabbit was reimagined as an internet appliance.
Here’s a steaming hot take for you: With the Echo Show, Amazon is playing Apple’s game by taking something that has existed in many forms before and owning it as though it’s an original idea.
That’s right, the groundbreaking device that Amazon just dropped on everyone has been around for almost two decades, in various forms. It was just waiting for the emergence of high-speed wireless internet and the right software agent paired with a an online ecosystem to make it all a viable reality.
No one would blame you if you didn’t know that these arcane devices ever existed. They were mostly aspirational, too-early attempts to pull of what Amazon is now uniquely equipped to do: provide a genuinely useful, easy-to-use internet appliance.
And while some might think the Echo Show is not the most visually stunning piece of tech design work, a look back at some of the earlier attempts to popularize internet appliances may help you appreciate the conservative design approach of Amazon’s newest piece of hardware.
Although not the very first such device, it’s definitely one of the most famous early attempts in the history of internet appliances. Released by the now defunct 3Com in 2000 (nearly two decades ago!), the Audrey was distinctive in that it looked as though it was truly designed from the start to serve as something you might put in your kitchen as a staple for everyday use.
Image: Alessandra Cimatti via flickr
Back in the day, Oprah showed off its ability to send access the internet, receive email, provide news and weather, and sync to your Palm OS device (a kind of precursor to the smartphone that allowed you to use a range of mobile apps). It even had a cute little light that blinked when you got new email. And yes, Oprah even did the "And YOU get an Audrey, and YOU get an Audrey!" to her studio audience. Alas, the $499 device didn’t survive, despite its simplicity and sleek design.
Because some thought maybe a screen on your internet appliance might somehow be too techie, in 2005 a company called Violet debuted the Nabaztag. The rabbit-shaped device actually waved its ears and lit up when you received email and delivered weather and new information via its Wi-Fi connection through embedded speakers. It was incredibly cute. So, of course, everyone ignored it. (Though it still has a tiny, devoted fan base online.)
In 2006, the Chumby emerged as the heir apparent to the Audrey. The mission of the Chumby was the same: to serve as the ultimate internet appliance. And it seemed like it might be time for something like the Chumby to succeed since the 2006 version of the internet was a much more hospitable environment for such devices following the rise of "Web 2.0" internet sharing culture and increased internet connectivity.
However, for many, it turns out that the Chumby was perhaps a little "too" geeky. Using the open source Linux operating system, its makers encouraged users to modify the device, which came with a touch screen, a USB port, audio input and output, Wi-Fi connectivity, widgets for a number of functions (displaying photos, delivering news, etc.). It managed to get a bit of traction among Silicon Valley tech insiders, but never really took off, despite its cute name and gumdrop design.
Finally, in 2010, Sony, a company more accustomed to successfully introducing new hardware to mainstream consumers, debuted the Dash. Featuring a seven-inch color touchscreen, the device is a dead ringer for the new Echo Show, housed in a simple black frame meant to sit upright on a flat surface.
Like its predecessor, it offered internet apps for news, weather, photos, and had a USB port and stereo speakers. It was perhaps the most polished internet appliance released until the Amazon Echo. Soon after, similar devices like the Motorola Xoom came on the market, but despite their major brand pedigrees, neither has become a true mainstream hit.
Ily on Kickstarter
And in case you’re thinking Amazon simply jacked Sony’s design for the Echo Show, there’s recent evidence hinting that the consensus (for now) is that the black picture frame design is the preferred way to go.
In 2016, the makers of Ily, an internet appliance targeted toward children, successfully raised well over a $100,000 from backers. Sure, Kickstarter interest isn’t an exact science, but this is at least one data point that indicates that the "uninspired" design of the Echo Show may actually be what people want.
After all those attempts, is the Echo Show just another incremental swing at the long pursued internet appliance of the future that always "just around the corner"?
Perhaps. But the combination of Amazon’s massive, robot-staffed warehouses, and the reassuring voice of Alexa give this "better mousetrap" the best shot we’ve ever had at an internet appliance that’ll stick around.