The Amazon Echo Wall Clock Takes a Simple But Profound Strategy
Among the bevy of seemingly endless new Echo devices Amazon announced in September was one seemingly innocuous gadget: The Echo Wall Clock. It’s a simple enough device: just two white hands placed over a black clock face. But there’s also a ring of LED lights on the edge of the clock face that will be able to show multiple active timers (which, of course, you can set with voice commands). The clock itself doesn’t have any microphones, so it’ll pair with your existing – or perhaps new! – Echo device over Bluetooth. Perhaps most important, it’ll automatically adjust for daylight savings time, saving you those painful few minutes twice a year when you have to pull a chair over to the wall to take down the clock and “spring forward” or “fall back” an hour.
While it’s easy to mock a “smart” clock, it does seem to have some immediate utility. For all the hype about Alexa and its leading competitors, Siri and Google Assistant, the smart home has in large part failed to identify its “killer app” (I know, I hate the phrase too). To be frank, I ask my Alexa roughly three things: 1) what’s the weather, 2) play my favorite NPR podcast, 3) set a timer, usually while cooking. My grandmother had a radio for the first two and a fairly capable apple (not Apple) timer for the third. The Echo Wall Clock may substantially improve my experience with the third use case, at last putting it on par with my grandmother’s apple-shaped timer; currently, I too often find myself asking how much time is left on a timer I set a few minutes ago.
Indeed, research has supported that these are some of the smart speaker’s most common use cases. A recent study found that listening to music, asking for the weather forecast, and “asking fun questions” were the three most popular uses of smart speakers. Setting alarms or reminders was just below, at fifth on the list. Really, the Echo Wall Clock might be a clever way for Amazon to partially solve the Echo’s main hindrance of not having a screen. But what most intrigues me is the strategy Amazon is using to transform our understanding of a traditional wall clock.
Amazon v. Apple: Different Smart Device Strategies
In a recent analysis of Apple’s evolving Apple Watch strategy, I wrote:
“While the first three series of the Watch seemed to wander through the abyss looking for an actual purpose, the Apple Watch Series 4 has finally found its true calling: health and fitness. In 2014, Apple introduced the Watch by highlighting its various functionalities, without focus on any particular one. Four years later, Apple's focus is decidedly on the Watch's fitness capabilities (just look at the main page for Apple Watch). Additionally, Apple has clearly been putting its R&D money where its marketing mouth is: two of the Apple Watch's biggest technological leaps – the ECG and fall detection – are health focused.”
From the beginning, Apple never made a “watch” that actually looked anything like a watch. It’s really a small iPhone strapped onto the wrist. This is not to sell its capabilities short: strapping it to the wrist gives the Apple Watch a point of contact to the body, opening up a world of health and fitness possibilities that Apple is only just beginning to explore. But, it’s not clear Apple recognized health and fitness as the primary selling point of an Apple Watch at launch. The other potential selling point –which Apple seemed initially enticed by – was to position the Apple Watch as an always-on smart device and assistant. Siri, whenever and wherever you need it. Basically, what the Echo and Alexa are in the house, Siri and the Apple Watch could have been to your entire life.
But, Siri sucks and people still aren’t that into smart assistants, so it wasn’t meant to be.
For years, companies have been trying to find a way to get people to wear a gadget that doubles as an always-on assistant, perhaps most exemplified by Google Glass’s prodigious failure. These devices never look like the traditional accessories people have been sporting for generations. Surely, this is a big reason they fail. Google Glass never had anything close to a cool factor. Luka Sabbat, a well-known influencer, is being sued because he refused to wear Snapchat Spectacles, even when he was being paid to do so.
With the Echo Wall Clock, Amazon has taken a decidedly different approach. On its surface, the clock looks like any other wall clock that you might pick up in the clearance section of Target for $15. The simple analog design doesn’t attempt to break any new ground in design or style, and while it won’t be featured in Architectural Digest anytime soon, the clock face is functional and familiar. And that’s exactly the point: the analog face of the clock resembles what people have been hanging in kitchens and living rooms for decades, long past the point of utility, when every kitchen device now has a glowing digital clock. Amazon isn’t attempting to break any new ground. It’s not trying to get you to purchase something you wouldn’t purchase otherwise; it’s attempting to replace an item people still feel they should buy, if only for nostalgia’s sake. And by the way, Amazon’s wall clock competes with even the cheapest of these offerings from budget decor retailers like Target or Ikea.
In this way, Amazon’s smart device strategy is decidedly different from Apple’s strategy. Amazon is attempting to build items that simply blend into your room. Even the Echo takes this approach: notice how the third generation Echo Dot is covered in a (supposedly) calming felt, making it stand out even less than its previous iterations.
Meanwhile, Apple’s calling card (not to mention the cause of much of its $1 trillion market capitalization) is its beautifully designed products. Apple’s Chief of Design, Sir Jony Ive, is one of the most respected industrial designers in the world. He was heavily influenced by legendary designer Dieter Rams, most known for his work designing many of Braun’s consumer products (by the way, Rams puts the entire tech industry on blast in a new documentary about his life’s work, Rams. It’s a film certainly worth your time).
Much the way Apple redefined what a phone was by introducing the iPhone in 2007, it’s now redefining what a watch is. Amazon seemingly wants no part in such existential questions, content with selling you a smarter version of the device you already own.
This is not to say one approach is better than the other. We need companies that innovative on both planes: companies that make what we have better (Amazon) and companies that are rethinking the products we already use (Apple). Humans have developed a sentimentality for the old and vintage, even when such items have long outlived their utility. There’s little practical reason for wall clocks or wristwatches, but many people still own one or both. It’s because at their best, these products are beautifully designed and engineered, evoking a connection that no product distantly manufactured by the disparate modern supply chain could ever elicit. When I flip over a fine Swiss watch to look at the movement through its sapphire case back, my mind wanders to the foothills of the Swiss Alps, conjuring up an image of a bearded Swiss watchmaker hunched over his work bench, meticulously lining up a gear train. Whether or not this image is accurate is beside the point. The fact is, I feel connected to something, and the mechanical nature of a fine watch means there’s still a human, not a machine (for now) putting the finishing touches on the timepiece I’m looking at.
Amazon’s Vintage Bet
The reality is, when I own a hand-finished mechanical timepiece, I feel more connected to the designers, engineers, and watchmakers that worked on that watch than I do to anyone who throws me a like or follow on Instagram. In a world so defined by sameness – look at any Instagram influencer’s feed and you know what I mean – nostalgic physical products built by the meticulous hands of an individual making an actual living wage are one way to truly connect to individuals half a world away.
It’s ironic that in a generation where our greatest technological advancements have been marketed as a way to become more connected or “build a global community” (shut up, Mark) – I’m talking the Internet, the iPhone, social media – we feel increasingly disconnected from each other. And to remedy this we look to the past: vinyl records, vintage furnishings, and of course mechanical watches, led by a huge boom in the vintage watch market.
Amazon is hoping it can take what humans already love – in this case, analog clocks – and make them smarter for us. And from a company that’s already redefined old-school industries from books to retail, there’s no reason to think it can’t do it again.