By Greg Bensinger
Amazon.com Inc. — having conquered online retail and cloud computing — has set its sights on another audacious
goal, ripped from the pages of science fiction: an automated, voice-controlled world.
In the past year, Amazon has made it possible to dim the bedroom lights, summon Uber rides, play song lists, check
bank balances and, yes, order merchandise simply by speaking. Alexa — a robotic voice assistant — is the power behind
Amazon’s quirky, cylindric speaker called Echo.makeAd(‘4′,’300×250′,’mktsnews’,’article’,”,”);
The groundswell of support from developers for Alexa is giving Amazon a powerful weapon against Apple Inc.’s Siri,
Alphabet Inc.’s Google Now and Microsoft Corp.’s Cortana. Google is working on a voice-activated device of its own,
according to people familiar with the matter, and news reports indicate it could release it in the coming months.
Alexa is still a work in progress. The software doesn’t always understand prompts, and, for now, most devices using
it must be tethered to Echo. Some users have also expressed concern that Alexa is always listening for its name, though
Amazon says Echo only listens when prompted by the wake-up word, Alexa.
“Voice is just so natural, it’s much quicker than typing,” said Howard Morgan, a partner at venture firm First
Round Capital, whose investments include Uber Technologies Inc. and food-delivery startup BlueApron Inc. “We’re
encouraging our portfolio companies to consider using Alexa; simply, it removes one barrier to getting people to use
Released in late 2014, the Echo, with a price tag of $180, can pick up voices from across a room and respond to
queries like traffic reports or trivia in less than two seconds.
Amazon’s engineers were spurred by Chief Executive Jeff Bezos’s vision of a living room that was equipped with a
device like the spaceship computer on his favorite “Star Trek,” according to people familiar with the matter. That
conversational computer helped control the ship’s critical functions and answered complicated questions.
Amazon secretly developed Echo for roughly four years. Engineers used technology acquired from startups like text-
to-speech system Ivona but made much of the device in-house including microphones that can discern voices from 10 or
more feet away.
After Echo launched, Amazon executives were surprised by the immediate demand from software developers, said David
Limp, senior vice president of devices. Amazon initially limited its release, and many critics and consumers were unsure
of its purpose.
But as Amazon added more services to Echo like music-streaming site Pandora and Domino’s Pizza, the device gained
steam. While Amazon doesn’t release sales figures for the Echo, research firm Consumer Intelligence Research Partners
estimates Amazon has sold about 3 million units. Amazon recently doubled down by offering less expensive versions
including the hockey puck-shaped $90 Echo Dot meant to be placed around the house.
Amazon’s Lab126 hardware unit is working on an Alexa-powered device featuring a tablet-like computer screen known
internally as “Knight,” designed so that users can summon Web pages, videos or images when, say, their hands are covered
But Amazon is thinking beyond its own devices, and is unleashing Alexa the way Google gives away its Android mobile
software to install in phones and spawn countless apps and services.
He declined to say how Amazon plans to make money directly from Alexa. Alexa does simplify ordering from
Amazon.com, and prompts customers to sign up for the $99 Prime unlimited shipping membership. And presumably, Amazon
could charge companies to be the preferred provider for certain answers, like the weather, sports scores or recipes.
Amazon also stands to profit if any of the startups it is funding succeed. The company’s $100 millionAlexa Fund
has invested in companies like home-security firm Scout Security Inc. and wireless doorbell maker Bot Home Automation
Scout began offering voice functionality for its home-monitoring devices last summer so customers with an Echo
device can tell the alarm to turn off or ask if a window is open.
“Voice wasn’t top of mind when we launched,” said CEO Dan Roberts of the two-year-old Chicago company. “But when
you use it, it just makes sense.”
Bot Home aims to integrate voice services directly into its Ring video doorbell, which allows users to monitor
their homes and speak with visitors, said CEO Jamie Siminoff. Other startups using the service include Wi-Fi router
company Luma Home Inc. and Web-connected plush doll maker ToyMail Co.
“Someday in the future — that might be years or decades away — it could answer everything that you would ever ask
it,” Mr. Limp said.
Jeff Blankenburg, of Westerville, Ohio, says he relies on his Echo speaker to open his garage door, track his car
and turn on or off lights around his house.
“I could walk over and turn on my lamp, but it’s way cooler to ask it to do it,” said the 39-year-old software
Write to Greg Bensinger at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
Copyright (c) 2016 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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