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Amazon's end goal for the Echo is letting you order anything on Amazon by voice

"The end goal ... is to get to the point where you can order anything on Amazon" on the Echo.

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Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

The Amazon Echo helps you do a lot of things beyond shopping, which is a big reason why it has become an out-of-nowhere sensation. But for the Echo to “achieve the long-term vision,” according to Amazon’s devices head David Limp, it’s going to have to become an all-out shopping machine. And it has a long way to go.

When Amazon first released the Echo voice-controlled speaker in late 2014, the only shopping feature it included was the ability to ask it to add an item to a shopping list. Early last year, it started allowing users to reorder past purchases by voice.

Soon thereafter, Alexa added the capability to let you order some items you haven’t previously ordered, as long as you were cool with Amazon deciding on which brand and variation to purchase for you. (This feature worked for me when I tried ordering an HDMI cable, but not for Cheez-Its.)

“I think you’ll see us continuing to add more layers of those kinds of features,” Limp told Re/code in early March, at an event in which the company unveiled two new Echo devices. “But the end goal — it may take a long time — is to get to the point where you can order anything on Amazon.”

The obstacles to get from here to there are immense. If you want to shop for clothing, for example — one of the product categories Amazon is most focused on growing today — how does Echo do that without showing you? What about something from another fast-growing category like Home and Kitchen — say, oven mitts or a teapot?

You could make the argument that if you’re ordering something you need to see, you should just take out your phone or computer. Limp knows a lot of people will just do that.

But if you think that Jeff Bezos’s vision for the Echo’s shopping capabilities stop with ordering commodity items you don’t need to see, I’ve got a big, long bridge to sell you.

Limp declined to give any hints on how Amazon plans to close the gap between the ordering capabilities available today and the long-term shopping goals of tomorrow. One far-out idea? Pairing the Echo with a virtual reality headset to show an Echo user an item as they ask Alexa about it, all without the need to take out a phone or laptop.

In the meantime, there are still plenty of improvements to make on Alexa’s current shopping capabilities. One particularly hits close to home for Limp.

“We still have work to do on the reorder,” Toni Reid, director of Echo and Alexa, told Re/code, “and do we take into account things like frequency and recency? Dave drinks lots of variations of Vitamin Water and flavors, for example, so is it that he wants a certain flavor or a change in a flavor?”

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