Amazon is rekindling the landline

Starting them young.
Starting them young.
Image: Amazon
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Today, Amazon unveiled a new version of the Echo, called the Show, which adds a tablet screen to its line of smart speakers. The new device can make video calls through a small camera above the screen, and anyone who downloads the Amazon Alexa app can message or call anyone with a Show.

Amazon also announced that regular Echoes and Echo Dots will also be able to make voice calls in the near future, meaning even those who don’t want to upgrade to a Show will be able to speak to friends and relatives through their devices, and message them through the Alexa app. You’ll just say, “Alexa, call mom,” and it will be so.

Landline telephones have been decreasing in popularity for years, and earlier this month, a survey by the US Centers for Disease Control stated that the majority of households and adults only have cellphones in their lives. But today’s news seems to run counter to our changing relationship with telephony. Amazon is envisioning a world where parents can ring up their children from a device that stays in one physical spot in their home, that someone working from home wouldn’t have to lift a finger or take their eyes off their work to jump on a conference call. It’s the future that so many corny advertisements and TV shows suggested the future would look like:

There’s no guarantee that Amazon’s new devices (which look about as dated as this video) will take off, or that people will use them as the company intends, but the Echo has proven to be a sleeper hit, likely selling millions of units in the last few years. Other companies have tried to make telephone-shaped video calling devices over the years (and any old iPad on a stand could achieve something similar to the Show if you trust Siri to do your bidding), but few have become so entwined with our lives as Amazon to necessitate buying the product for reasons beyond the video calling feature.

All Echo devices will also get a new function called “Drop In,” where users can select, if they so choose, certain people who can ring or video call them unannounced. This might work well if Echo Shows are being used essentially as intercoms through one house—whoever is making dinner in the kitchen could announce to the rest of the family that it’s ready, for example. But it could get awkward if family members could automatically drop in on whatever you’re doing at any given time. Both parties have to agree to Drop In, however, so it’s likely this is not something many users would activate lightly.