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Amazon targets kids with a candy-colored Echo and a version of Alexa that rewards politeness

  • Amazon is launching an Echo Dot Kids Edition on May 9 that costs $79.99.
  • It has kid-friendly content and lets parents control when and how kids can access Alexa, Amazon's voice assistant.
  • A new version of Alexa for Kids ships on the Echo Dot for Kids but will also be available for other Echo products.
The Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition
Todd Haselton | CNBC
The Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition

Amazon is launching a new Echo Dot Kids Edition and a special version of its voice assistant that's aimed at getting 5-to-12-year-olds used to using Alexa earlier in life.

The changes to Alexa are particularly compelling.

Echo Dot Kids Edition

The Echo Dot Kids Edition looks the same as a regular Dot but features a colorful case and comes with a two-year warranty that lets you replace it at no cost if the unit is damaged.

You also get a year of FreeTime Unlimited (which costs $2.99/month otherwise) that lets parents schedule when the Echo can be used and when it can't, and provides access to more than 300 kid-friendly Audible books, TV shows and more. More on that in a bit.

It launches on May 9 for $79.99 — that's $30 more than the regular Echo Dot — and will be available in red, green and blue. You can preorder one beginning Wednesday.

Alexa for Kids

Amazon's smart voice assistant, Alexa, is also being tweaked for children. It's technically called "FreeTime on Alexa," but I'm calling it "Alexa for kids." It's a clear effort by Amazon to get kids using its voice assistant instead of the Google Assistant or Apple's Siri.

It's similar to the Alexa you're used to, but replies differently and delivers child-friendly content.

If you ask a regular Echo how many planets are in the solar system, for example, it will say eight. If you ask the kid-friendly version, it'll name every planet and explain that Pluto is now considered only a dwarf planet.

With FreeTime, mentioned above, your kids can access more than 300 children's books from Audible, listen to family radio stations from iHeart Radio and play trivia games from partners including Disney and National Geographic.

Your children won't be able to use Alexa for Kids to shop with their voice or to place phone calls outside of the house (although it still works as an in-home intercom). Nor will they be able to link with other apps, such as Uber or Spotify.

Also, following criticism that Alexa might be making kids rude, Amazon has added a "positive reinforcement" feature for politeness. If your child says "please" or "thank you," for example, Alexa will thank them for being polite.

There are other features that will cater to children, too, such as an alarm clock with a SpongeBob Squarepants character waking them up. Parents can use the Alexa app on their phone to see all the questions their kids have asked Alexa, or see all of the music and books they've requested and read.

The kid-friendly version of Alexa ships by default on the Echo Dot Kids Edition but can be activated on an Echo, Echo Dot or Echo Plus that's already in your home.

Do kids really need Alexa?

Amazon wants this to be a safer way for kids to use Alexa without them accidentally buying goods on their parents' credit cards or accessing content that's not suitable for children. I get that, and I think there's room for this sort of product if a parent wants their kids to play with it instead of a regular Echo.

On the other hand, it seems a bit strange to me to cater a smart voice assistant to kids so young, especially as society becomes more concerned — or at least aware of — privacy.

I asked Amazon if Alexa for kids will allow the company to create a profile of a child, and if that would allow it to collect valuable data about what a child likes and doesn't like long before they're of an age to be a full-fledged Amazon customer.

The company said that it doesn't think kids will like the same things 10 years after using Alexa for kids, so it doesn't plan to gather individual data. Still, questions and requests to Alexa are sent to Amazon in order for the company to answer them.

It's a compelling — if not a bit concerning — strategy, and one that will get kids used to (or even addicted) to Amazon's Alexa instead of Apple Siri or Google Assistant.