Online retailer Amazon is set to launch its smart, wireless speaker Echo along with Alexa, the artificial intelligence powered virtual assistant, in India this Diwali, marking an early dive into voice-assisted computing in the world’s second largest Internet market.
“(The) earlier plan was to launch it around December but it looks like they will be out sooner,” a company source told FactorDaily, asking not to be identified. Diwali, falling on October 18 this year, marks the beginning of the festive shopping season in India.
Amazon is already testing two variants — Echo and Echo Dot — with some of its employees. The wait for other variants of Echo like, for instance, the touch screen version, will be longer.
Echo sells for $179 and the Echo Dot sells for $50 in the United States. The devices are likely to be priced around Rs 11,000-12000 and Rs 5000- 6000 respectively, a second source told FactorDaily, also preferring to stay anonymous.
Besides English, Amazon’s language scientists are working on Hindi and Tamil support as well. “Echo may not support most Indian languages at launch but those will be rolled out as updates,” said the source. FactorDaily had reported in February that the device will be introduced in India later in 2017.
“Amazon does not comment on rumours and speculation,” a spokesperson said when asked to comment on Echo’s Diwali launch.
Virtual assistant Alexa has been picking up skills that are local to India. “Earlier, it would give generic answers but it’s starting to get more specific to location,” said the first source.
Besides a Wifi network, Alexa connects to various services on a user’s phone and smart devices in the house. For instance, it can book you an Uber, talk you through a recipe, or even control the lighting in the house.
Amazon, which has earmarked nearly $5 billion to invest in India, has been lately focusing on launching its global services in the country. The Kindle and its variants were introduced in India in 2013. In April this year, video streaming device Amazon Fire Stick was launched here.
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Global tech giants realise that the next wave of internet users in India will be native language speakers. To that end, Google and Amazon spend a considerable amount of time localising their products like search and shopping.
Nine of every 10 new internet users in India are likely to be Indian language users, according to a KPMG-Google report in April 2017. Indian language internet users have grown from 42 million in 2011 to 234 million in 2016. By 2021, this number is expected to go up to 536 million, the report said. India has about 175 million English internet users.
Amazon has been trying to increase its presence in smaller cities and towns in India and voice will likely play a crucial role in the long term.
As a Wall Street Journal story pointed out earlier this month, voice and video are the most used by the ‘next billion’ users. Gartner predicts that by 2020, 30% of web browsing will happen without a screen. “By the end of 2017, watch for room-based screenless devices to be in more than 10 million homes,” says Gartner.
Voice is the new app
“Voice is the new app,” says Deepak Ravindran, the founder of Lookup, a messaging app that connects users and businesses. “Voice is definitely going to be the UX for the future it’s the most natural way humans can talk to machines. Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are attacking each other.” Ravindran had plans to launch Lookup (acquired by Hyderabad headquartered Nowfloats) on Alexa.
There’s a land grab going on between the four tech giants: Google has Google Assistant, Microsoft has Cortana, Apple has Siri, and Amazon has Alexa. “The next wave will be voice based apps. You’ll see Ola, Zomato, Uber coming up with voice,” Ravindran says.
Currently, voice-based apps do basic things like setting up your calendar or reading out your emails. However, soon there would be apps that are native to the voice interface.
“I still know many who are not comfortable with apps and touch screens. They get their job done by telling someone else by giving their smartphones,” says Bahubali Shete, who has just launched a smart stove knob called Klove. The $29-device, integrated to Alexa and Google, can provide voice guided assistance to users while cooking.
Still, making voice interfaces work for Indian languages will be a challenge. India has thousands of dialects and dozens of languages. This is where Google scores over Amazon. The search giant recently announced support for eight new Indian languages including Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. Google now supports 119 languages globally. “It requires a lot of investment and bigger team with language experts,” says Shete.
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Update (16 August 2017, 11.26 AM IST): Changed the sentence "Ravindran has been looking to launch an app on Alexa after Lookup was acquired by Hyderabad headquartered Nowfloats." to reflect a more accurate picture.
Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.