Amazon unveils Voice Interoperability Initiative to speed adoption

Amazon.com has gathered a broad coalition of companies in an effort to speed up the widespread adoption of voice-activated assistants, including its own Alexa.

The e-commerce giant on Tuesday announced the Voice Interoperability Initiative, a group of some 36 companies committed to ensuring voice software made by different companies works seamlessly together.

However, notably absent were two of Amazon’s biggest rivals in voice technology: Apple and Alphabet’s Google, two companies that hold keys to a smartphone market that Amazon has yet to crack.

The Seattle company, whose Fire-branded smartphones were a commercial flop, is the leader in voice software for the home. Its Echo devices accounted for 25.4 percent of global smart speaker shipments in the second quarter, according to Canalys, a researcher. Plenty of home appliance makers link their products to Alexa, and Amazon is expected to announce new capabilities and devices for its assistant at a press event this week.

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David Limp, senior vice president of devices and services at Amazon.com Inc., speaks as the new Fire TV, from left, Echo, and Echo Plus devices sit on display during the company's product reveal launch event in downtown Seattle, Washington, U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. Amazon unveiled a smaller, cheaper version of its popular Alexa-powered Echo speaker that the e-commerce giant said has better sound. Photographer: Daniel Berman/Bloomberg

But Alexa has a small presence on mobile devices, which could threaten its long-term future, analysts say. Software built by Google and Apple powers virtually all of the world’s smartphones, giving the two companies a captive audience, thanks to the versions of Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri installed by default on new devices. Currently, users can’t make Alexa the default assistant on an iPhone, although that’s possible on Android handsets.

Dave Limp, who leads Amazon’s devices business, told The Verge that the company didn’t see voice assistants as a winner-take-all market. “This isn’t a sporting event,” he said. “There’s not going to be one winner.”

Limp also told the technology news site that the idea for an industry coalition went from casual conversations to a more formal effort in the last six weeks.

A Google spokesman said Amazon reached out about the idea over the weekend. “We just heard about this initiative and would need to review the details,” the spokesman said in a statement. “But in general, we’re always interested in participating in efforts that have the broad support of the ecosystem, and uphold strong privacy and security practices.”

Apple didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Under the goals set by the new group, users will be able to summon multiple digital assistants from a single device, a concept that already links Amazon’s Alexa with Microsoft’s Cortana workplace-focused assistant. In addition to Amazon, backers include Microsoft, Baidu and Salesforce.com, chipmakers Intel and Qualcomm, and Sony, Spotify Technology and Sonos.

“I think this is very smart from Amazon,” says Carolina Milanesi, a technology analyst with Creative Strategies. Giving users the option, say, to invoke Google for maps and Alexa to control smart home gadgets, “will give Amazon a better chance to get picked for those tasks that matter to Amazon.”

The new group’s priorities include developing voice services that work seamlessly with others, building devices that can be activated by multiple wake words, developing technology that makes it easier to embed multiple voice assistants on a single device and accelerating research into conversational artificial intelligence to improve such software’s ability to work together, according to a statement.

“It’s early days,” says Richard Mack, chief marketing officer for Cerence, which makes voice software for cars and joined the coalition. So far, the group is more of a call to action than a standards-setting body of the sort that spawn working groups and conferences to guide the development of new technologies, he adds.

“I don’t know exactly who’s been invited to the party,” he said of Google and Apple’s absence. “But they haven’t signed on yet. I think it’s a good representation of large and small and innovative across all of these different industries.”

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