When Amazon in late 2014 released the Echo, a "smart speaker" powered by digital assistant software called Alexa, those who wanted one had to endure a waiting list and a $200 price tag -- and what they received was a new class of device that is always listening.
After some product missteps (you probably forgot about that phone), Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is again the ultimate disrupter, releasing a tectonic piece of home tech that removes physical interaction and encourages users to think more about "what" and less about "how," which means more listening and less searching.
The Echo not only promotes Amazon's own Prime Music store, it also connects seamlessly to Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn, providing listeners an endless array of choices while their hands are otherwise occupied ("Alexa, stream my dishwashing playlist").
Though the Echo has yet to go mainstream -- sales figures were estimated at 3 million in April by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners -- it has clearly sparked the tinder, with Google releasing its own version, Home, in the fall and Apple rumored to be working on a Siri-powered version.
Amazon's plans for the Echo to become your home's Hal 9000 supersede music, of course -- according to The New York Times, more than 10,000 developers have registered to integrate Alexa into their products -- but voice-activated music on demand may be its most intuitively enjoyable benefit. -- Andrew Flanagan
THE NEW STARMAKER
With 90 million users, Musical.ly's social network is larger than the population in Germany. A free app that allows "musers" to upload 15-second lip-sync videos, the platform's popularity has skyrocketed in the last six months, drawing 50 percent of American teens and reportedly helping the company raise $100 million.
"Musical.ly allows everyone to be an entertainer," co-founder Alex Zhu tells Billboard. It also, in theory, allows everyone to be a star. That's the case with 13-year-old Jacob Sartorius, a tween-pop personality whose 8 million Musical.ly followers helped propel his debut single, "Sweatshirt," to No. 58 on the Billboard Hot 100 this summer.
Such momentum hasn't escaped industry attention. In May, a campaign for Ariana Grande's "Into You" yielded 150,000 lip-sync videos in one day. Acts like 5 Seconds of Summer and Flo Rida have posted lip-syncs to promote singles. In July, the app announced a label licensing deal with Warner Music Group. As Zhu puts it: "Our vision [is] to make music more participatory." -- Camille Dodero
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 20 issue of Billboard.