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What Amazon's Alexa will tell us in 2019



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At Amazon's Alexa stand at CES 2019.


Sarah Tew / CNET

A motorcycle helmet? Yep working with Alexa. Rachio 3 sprinkler controller? Also that. What about that guy in there playing a Roland keyboard? Okay, we'll be here all day if we stop it.

Amazon's Alexa stand at last week's CES technology show in Las Vegas highlighted one point to death: If electricity runs through it, it can work with Alexa Voice Assistant. The centerpiece of the Alexa in blue-blue cabin was an Audi e-throne then under a large circular billboard filled with voice commands, including "Alexa, how is airport traffic?" and "Alexa, buy air freshener for my car."

Adjusted around the corner in Sands Expo, in a far less flashy meeting room, Pete Thompson, vice president of the Alexa Voice Service, highlighted some of Amazon's plans for the digital assistant in the new year, including making Alexa a standard feature in new devices and appliances.

"I am thinking of the child who is going up now on a screen and touching it because they just assume it is a touch screen," he said. "They will go up to units and just start talking to them. And if it doesn't respond, they will be like," What is it? "Is it broken?" Http://www.cnet.com /"

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To meet this vision, Amazon has to convince many more people that they need Alexa, which dominates the smart speaker market worldwide. 32 percent of Americans now own a smart speaker that is massive growth from near zero only four years ago when Amazon's Echo Speaker and Alexa first launched. But it is far from ubiquitous. And as Alexa pushes deeper into the common market, it can withstand the opposition of customers who don't want to talk to their machines, don't see a point on voice assistants or rely on enough technology companies to connect devices with always-Microphones.

"There really isn't a clear value project that jumps out," said Jack Narcotta, a strategic analyst from Analytics Analytics, "the killer product you're just saying, man, I must have this."

Also as CES showed, compete to Amazon, where some analysts predict Google will eventually steal its crown. Google, currently the No. 2 player in smart speakers, stuffed his assistant into a CVS receipt long list of new products at CES, including a KitchenAid smart display a Gourmia multicooker and a Moen smart shower. All these new products, along with Google's carpet advertising and over-the-top trade show at CES, show how aggressive the search giant is planning to be this year shaking up the voting hierarchy.

Samsung's Bixby, Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana are much smaller players in the digital assistant battle, but they could also find targeted ways to steal Alexa's customers. 19659006] Amazon's Thompson offered a positive spin on Google and other rival's push in voice.

"It's great to see all the energy and activity and investments of many companies," he said. "It drives customer awareness, it runs credibility, it drives people to learn more about it."

Alexa gets more confident

Along with making Alexa a constant presence, says Miriam Daniel, vice president of Echo and Alexa units, said Amazon this year is planning to make the voice assistant more proactive and ambitious.

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At the Alexa stand where the company showed off laptops, pet feeds and a lot of other things working with talassistenten.


Sarah Tew / CNET

Hints about these efforts have already come up. An example is Hunches who makes Alexa offer friendly reminders that suggest you lock the door when you tell it "good night". Another concept is Alexa Guard who warns you that it catches the sound of breaking glass or a smoke alarm that goes out while you are out of the house.

"Alexa will be able to look at your patterns and suggest things to you," she said, adding that the company primarily tests these features with beta customers to make sure they are concepts people will be familiar with and actually want. "Surrounding Alexa stuff will be things you allow Alexa to do."

Since Alexa continues to grow, it needs to digest several kinds of customer data, including location information. When asked to protect all of this data, Thompson said: "Data security and security have always been fundamental to Alexa. It won't work if we don't get them right."

Amazon used CES to tout its leadership in the voice, saying there are now more than 28,000 smart home devices from more than 4,500 brands working with Alexa. It's up from over 20,000 and 3,500, since September . Also, more than 150 products have now Alexa incorporated, including headphones, thermostats, PCs, cars and light switches.

Google said it is also working to make its assistant more conversational and said it is expanding to 80 countries by 2018, up from 14 the previous year.

An area Thompson was not so positive that it was creating an Alexa-enabled phone, despite rumors averting from time to time that the company would eventually build another Fire Phone. The original, which came out in 2014, flopped within months. "I don't know if it will be a major focus for us," Thompson said. Instead, he said that Amazon is pleased with its current Alexa phone app.

Worldwide, Alexa is in about 51 million smart speakers, while Google is in about 24 million, according to IHS Markit. But thanks to the global popularity of Google's Android operating system, Google is expected to take over Amazon by 2023, according to researchers from both Canalys and IHS Markit. Well, four years is a very long time in the technology industry, so much can happen before.

"It's just a matter of time," said Blake Kozak, a smart home analyst from IHS Markit.

As Amazon struggles to remain the market leader, it is pressured to bring Alexa into even more products that can begin to become a commitment.

"Alexa has somehow been too successful," Narcotta from Strategy Analytics said. "Go on Amazon and search for smart light bulbs. You're completely overwhelmed."

To facilitate more people in the Alexa world, he suggested Amazon create more gadgets with Alexa built-in to bring the voice assistant to multiple parts of home. The company should also develop more products that are dead simple to create at home, get rid of a big headache for smart home devices, he said. Amazon introduced Wi-Fi Simple Setup in September to address this issue, but the feature is just getting started.

Propagating Your Devs

Amazon's work to draw on several Alexa acolytes continued this week in Chattanooga, Tennessee, far from the bright lights of Las Vegas. This is where Paul Cutsinger, an Alexa Exec, who works with developers to design new skills, spoke to about 150 voice enthusiasts at the VoiceFirst.fm Alexa conference.

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Amazon's Paul Cutsinger at the Chattanooga Conference.


Ry Crist / CNET

His job: Help them help Alexa. After all, Amazon has created thousands of sites for Alexa to live, but these devices are not worth much without useful software from independent developers.

"I really think it's the Indian in the world that makes things happen" the crowd said. "They make it happen in music, they make it happen in movies, they make it happen on mobile."

This year, he added that Amazon will begin offering Alexa Developer Certification courses, complete with an exam. Those who survive cause the developer to match a blue "verified" check box on their resume.

A recurring theme in Chattanooga came from healthcare, gaming and storytelling speakers with Alexa sights. Everyone sees the sound as a legitimate new platform, and everyone wants to enter.

"We must constantly push the border as we see it," said Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari and now making interactive Alexa board games. "Look for new things, strange things."

Ken Sakal, Managing Director of Healthcare Start-up Vohesu and a panelist at the conference, talked about developing an Alexa skill for patients with rheumatoid arthritis who have difficulty using their fingers. "It turns out first in hands and feet, so it can be difficult to spend time on a keyboard," Sakal said.

"With patients with chronic diseases, a major challenge is depression," he added. "It is a use case that we are actively working on." A colleague from the Mayo Clinic offering an Alexa first aid competency nodded consciously as he spoke.

A room over, restaurateur and Monkey Group President Mo Asgari pointed out that while most takeout and catering orders are made via mobile, people still prefer to place their orders with a phone call. It could be a new option for Alexa, who can already take orders for Domino's, Denny's and Starbucks. Google is also working in this field and creating human bot called Duplex who can make agreements and reservations on your behalf.

"People like to talk," he told a room of developers as they wrote off on their laptops. "They like to be very specific about their order."

Much of this potential has not yet materialized, but Amazon hopes that a well-motivated army of developers can make it happen.

Back in Las Vegas, the Amazon team hoping it could also encourage even more hardware makers to build things for Alexa, ensuring that the voice assistant continues to grow rapidly this year. Amazon's Daniel mentioned how Amazon came out with about a dozen new products in the fall, but its Alexa partners came out with 100.

"We are on a tip," she said.

Ben Fox Rubin reporting from Las Vegas. Ry Crist reports from Chattanooga.

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