Tech Transformers

Amazon launches its AI-powered speaker Echo in Europe

Amazon has announced that Alexa, the brain that powers Amazon Echo, is coming to the UK, along with two Alexa-enabled devices: Echo and the all-new Echo Dot.

Amazon launched its voice-controlled speaker, Echo, in the U.K. and Germany on Tuesday as the e-commerce giant looks to place itself at the center of consumers' homes.

Echo is powered by Alexa, Amazon's digital personal assistant, which is like Apple's Siri or Google Now.

Echo is available in the U.K. for £149.99 ($198.01) and in Germany for 179.99 euros ($202.01). In Germany, Amazon is selling Echo by invite only. Amazon Prime members get £50 or 50 euros off.

Users can ask Echo questions, use it to control smart home devices like thermostats, or even use it to order something from Amazon. The device comes in black or white.

Amazon said Alexa now has over 3,000 "skills" or apps, which users can download for Echo via the Alexa mobile app. The software developers' kit for Alexa is also being opened up to U.K. and German users.

Smart home devices from companies including Samsung and EDF Energy are able to be controlled by Echo.

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The U.K. and German launch comes two years after Amazon unveiled Echo in the U.S. The company has been credited with inventing this category of product.

Amazon does not break out sales for Echo, but a report in April from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners suggested that 3 million units had been sold since Amazon unveiled the product two years ago.

Martin Garner, an analyst at CCS Insight, said Amazon has earned around half a billion dollars in revenue from sales of the product since the U.S. launch.

"Amazon wants a touch point in every room. Echo is one way to do this," Garner told CNBC by email. "It's also a vehicle for more Amazon content services, such as a music-streaming service to rival Spotify and audiobooks."

Amazon is also hoping that usage of Alexa becomes more widespread. Last year, the e-commerce titan started the "Alexa Fund", a $100 million pot of money it is investing in companies developing tech using Alexa. In August, for instance, Amazon poured $35 million into connected thermostat maker Ecobee, which has integrated Alexa into its device.

On Tuesday, Amazon also unveiled a new version of the Echo Dot, a small circular device that can be connected to a speaker to turn it into an Alexa-powered device. ‎It is being launched in the U.S. for $49.99, in the U.K. For £49.99 and in Germany for 59.99 euros.

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Digital personal assistants are seen as a key technology for the world's biggest tech firms and all have been working to make them work across different devices. Apple has integrated Siri into its new wireless headphones called AirPods.

Amazon's senior vice president, David Limp, said Echo was inspired by the Star Trek television series, in which characters would speak to the Enterprise spaceship and get a response. During a press conference in London on Tuesday, the executive said Echo uses technology that recognizes where a voice is coming from and then turns off all of the microphones in Echo apart from the one facing the source of the voice. This allows Echo to clearly hear the voice.

Limp also said the device had a number of privacy features, including the ability to mute microphones and even access the cloud to delete any instructions made to Echo.

Garner said Echo faced challenges, with Amazon needing to bolster its search capabilities and make it localized as it launches in new regions.

"Amazon will face two key issues as it launches Echo across countries," Garner said.

"First, rising expectations of web search results, where Google is doing a very good job, and will be launching its own smart speaker soon. Second is localization of the voice control – adapting it to different languages, dialects and accents, plus catering for local interests and sources. To do this well is a huge amount of work for each country," he added.