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Amazon's virtual home assistant Echo comes to the UK

Lynsey Barber
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Amazon Echo on bookshelf
Echo is powered by an AI voice assistant (Source: Amazon)

Amazon has launched its virtual home assistant Echo in the UK and Germany, its first markets for the device outside the US, which lets users control their home and do tasks online via simple voice commands.

The device, priced at £149.99 or £99.99 for Prime members, is powered by Amazon's Alexa, an artificial intelligence voice assistant similar to Apple's Siri, and is available for pre-order from today, going on sale from 28 September.

Speakers on the small device, which will come in a new white colour option, can identify people's commands such as asking to play a song or what the weather is like today. Users can simply tell the Echo to add an item to a shopping or to-do list which they can then see later on their phone.

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Alexa responds in a British accent and significant development work went into adapting Echo for the new markets, Amazon said.

It has also been trained to understand British spellings and measurements, as well as references to culture such as Blackadder and Monty Python.

What can you ask Alexa on Amazon Echo?

Developers can build services on the platform and in the UK, Sky Sports, Uber and the Guardian are among those working with Amazon for launch. For instance, integration with Just Eat allows users to order takeaway with just voice commands, while you can ask what the latest football score is.

A partnership with Hive means the British Gas smart home system for controlling heating and lights works via Echo. Hive's smart plugs can also be used with Alexa to control other electrical items with just a voice command.

The device is likely to spur greater adoption of smart home technology among Brits, an industry expected to be worth $100bn (£76bn) by 2020.

“Creating a connected home doesn’t require strong technical skills, spending lots of money, or major home improvements. A connected home will be easily achievable for most in a few years,” said Jessica Ekholm, research director at Gartner.

In addition to the Echo, Amazon's Echo Dot device, which can turn any speaker into a voice assistant, will be available in the UK. It has been hugely popular in the US where it has been sold out since July.

The updated version of the Dot will go on sale in the UK, US and Germany priced at £49.99, a lower price than the initial product. It will also come in six and twelve packs with one of them thrown in for free to encourage buying in bulk and putting them in each room of the home.

“This is an important launch for Amazon. It has become a market-maker for the smart speaker category since the launch of the Echo two years ago. It has become somewhat of a cult gadget in the US and Amazon will be hoping it can replicate this success in Europe," said CCS Insight analyst Martin Garner.

“Amazon had a bold vision for Echo and its voice assistant Alexa. It wants to be the primary touchpoint for households be that easily controlling music, spontaneously ordering goods or accessing a whole range of other services via its ‘skills’ capability that acts as the bridge to numerous other platforms.”

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Garner added that while the Echo itself would unlikely be a large revenue driver for Amazon, even if it is hugely popular, positioning Alexa as the interface for everyday life would put it at the heart of the ecosystem of the connected home and encourage users to adopt other Amazon services such as Prime shopping, which can be used via Echo.

Amazon is facing competition for people's homes from the likes of Google and Apple, however.

Google announced plans for a smart home assistant called Google Home earlier this year, while Apple has unveiled HomeKit, a platform for building connected home apps in its latest operating system update, iOS 10.

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