May 30, 2018

Amazon has designs for your voice beyond Echo

BYShadma Shaikh

E-commerce giant Amazon grabbed public attention with the October launch of its Echo line of smart speakers in India last year. Pre-launch discounted pricing and TV ads helped push sales into tens of thousands topping internal expectations. That early magic may have worn off – reviews point to an experience that is still work in progress for English speakers with Indian accents.
But that hasn’t stopped Amazon from taking the next step in its strategy for voice search in India, more or less mimicking its approach for the technology in other markets. It is working to introduce devices embedded with Alexa, the artificial intelligence engine that powers the Echo device, in India. In the coming months, the company expects Indians to be able to buy several voice-controlled devices ranging from smart switches to televisions, from set-top boxes to home controls, from mobile phones to automobiles.
These products, the company expects, will build it a critical mass for its voice search and voice-controlled devices and services. Amazon looks at the Alexa ecosystem in three legs, said Adam Berns, Director of Business Development, Alexa Voice Service. The first leg is its own devices: Echo Dot, Echo, Echo Plus, and Echo Spot that begin retailing at Rs 4,099 and go on to Rs 14,999.
The second leg is about so-called skills and how to enable more use cases through the devices. For instance, integrating with music streaming app to play your favourite songs or asking for a live cricket game update.
And, the third is its global ecosystem of third-party devices using Alexa Voice Service, or AVS, a software kit that allows devices to use Alexa’s voice assistance software on any compatible hardware device. Some popular third-party devices include Sonos’ voice-controlled smart speaker and Ecobee’s voice-controlled thermostat.
In India, tie-ups announced include with set-top box maker Mybox Technologies, consumer electronics brand BPL, and Bengaluru realty company Embassy Group.
Embassy wants to build Alexa-enabled smart homes with pre-installed Amazon Echo devices that will allow residents to control smart home appliances by voice. These devices will also enable residents to interact with each other, monitor movements, and help optimise energy consumption.
BPL has announced a series of speakers called VoiceOne smart speakers with Alexa’s voice integration.

Partnership is the key

Other devices the AVS team is looking to target in India include speakers, wired headphones, and automotive products. Global brands such as Jabra and Harmon Kardon are looking at introducing their Alexa devices in India.
“We believe that Indian customers prefer more value in a $100 speaker,” said Berns in an interview early May. “So it’s important for us to have partners in India to reach to a bigger market, customize products according to market needs here, get Indian manufacturers who know the roots in India, and understand the Indian market.”
“The real strength of your technology is not to hold and do it all yourself,” said Berns. “It’s to figure out how to quickly get your partners to market. For us, scale is all about third party.” Alexa has more than 12,000 smart home devices across 2,000 unique brands including marquee names such as Philips, Zigbee and Emerson.

The voice assistance market is the new battleground for tech giants Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft. The jury is still out for whether Indian consumers will warm up to Amazon’s Echo devices and Alexa-enabled products and services or plump for Google’s smart home speakers, launched here last month.
India specific sales numbers of Echo or Alexa-powered devices and Google Home devices are not available but the latter has the edge globally. According to a report by analyst firm Canalys, it sold 3.2 million of its Google Home and Home Mini devices in the first quarter of 2018, while Amazon shipped 2.5 million Echo devices. Since its launch last October, Google claimed early this year that it was shipping more than one Google home per second.
Like Amazon, Google has a partner programme for the proliferation of its voice-based services and recently announced its list of partners covering lights, TVs, ACs, security cameras, and air purifiers. To its advantage, Google has a deeper integration into user’s activities thanks to products such as Android phones, Chrome browser, Gmail, calendar etc. finding wide use.
Amazon is fighting back by introducing and encouraging developers to build on Alexa, thus increasing the usability of the product. Alexa has around 30,000 skills in the US and about 15,000 for India.
“If you look at Amazon’s global play, their main aim is to add more users to its ecosystem and build the stickiness for these users. By partnering with different manufacturers and democratizing its own platform, Amazon is taking a good horizontal strategy to acquire more users,” said Neil Shah, research director at Counterpoint research. Google, on the other hand, has a tight control on its Android ecosystem and isn’t dependent on support from original equipment manufacturers as much, he added.

Mass market approach

Mybox tie-up to launch Alexa voice services is illustrative of AVS’s strategy in a price sensitive market like India. When the feature rolls out by the end of July, Mybox set-top box users will be able to use all the features on Echo devices – voice command-based shopping, booking cabs, and playing music as also control the TV screen.
Delhi-based Mybox, which has over six million customers in the country, will begin with a few users for trial before opening up to all subscribers. Mybox managing director Amit Kharbanda said the company is in talks with other set-top box makers to make the service available.
Mybox has two plans: one, through Alexa integration, a cable operator using Mybox’s set-top box will be able to give subscribers an Alexa experience. Two, customers can activate the set-top box using an Amazon kit that will have a WiFi-based dongle with a voice-based remote. The kit will be priced at around Rs 999.
Kharbanda said the cable operator approach makes sense in India given how cable TV networks have been looking for ways to increase revenue per customer. “The existing skills that you have on an Echo device will all work with the set-top box. But considering this will have an added video card advantage, we will see some more skill sets being developed for this platform as we start selling,” he said.
“Technologically, the product is changing the way Amazon is looking at things. In a way it is the fastest way for the proliferation of Alexa in Indian market,” said Kharbanda.

Households in India accessing television programming over cable TV networks number some 106 million – about 2.5 times the number of satellite-based direct-to-home TV connections (42 million), according to 2016 data. Public broadcaster Doordarshan accounts for some 30 million TV homes.
Globally, set-top box makers have started looking at voice integration as a plausible use case. E.g.: EE TV set top box maker in the UK and Verizon’s FiOS TV boxes in the US that have been introduced as an Alexa skill for Echo users. Both these, however, require an Echo device for smooth functioning.
“Voice is a great enabler in the Indian TV market that has so many spoken languages that limit user interaction with a dumb remote,” says Shah of Counterpoint. “If Amazon’s Alexa can crack multiple language support in deep content search, it could be a game changer and also help advertisers, content creators, and cable guys analyse user data that they have no means of doing today.”

Elsewhere in the world

Globally, Amazon has partnered with many devices such as speakers and home automation switches (e.g.: Switch+ connected light switch from ecobee) for Alexa voice services. Alexa is also available on Toyota car models including Avalon, Rav4, and the popular Corolla.
“We look at Alexa and think we need a billion AVS devices in the world that people interface within every part of their day,” Berns added. That is only possible through an active partner programme.
FactorDaily earlier reported that Amazon is looking to launch Alexa in cars as an infotainment device.
If Amazon and Berns have their way, all gadgets and utility devices in your house will be Alexa-enabled – mobile phones, lights, television, microwaves, coffee maker, toaster… you name it.

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Shadma Shaikh is a writer of FactorDaily.