Amazon launches Voice Interoperability Initiative -- without Google, Apple or Samsung

Amazon's new initiative aims to make it easier for customers to interact with multiple voice assistants on a single device, but some key players are missing.

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Amazon on Tuesday announced a new initiative enabling Alexa to play nice with Cortana, Einstein Voice and other AI-powered assistants. Some key players, though, are conspicuously absent. 

The Voice Interoperability Initiative is bringing together more than 30 companies who are committed to letting customers interact with more than one voice assistant on a single device. However, the effort apparently does not include Google, Apple or Samsung -- all major device makers with some of the most popular voice assistants. 

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Along with Amazon, companies participating in the initiative include Baidu, BMW, Bose, Cerence, ecobee, Free, Harman, Microsoft, Orange, Salesforce, SFR, Sonos, Sound United, Sony Audio Group, Spotify and Tencent.   

Whether they are building their own voice-enabled devices or developing their own voice assistants or services, these companies are committed to supporting different voice-based services via their corresponding wake words. For example, you could use your Amazon Echo to speak with Amazon's Alexa or access Salesforce's Einstein Voice to check your CRM records. 

"Multiple simultaneous wake words provide the best option for customers," Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in a statement. "Utterance by utterance, customers can choose which voice service will best support a particular interaction. It's exciting to see these companies come together in pursuit of that vision."

The move makes sense for a company like Salesforce, which has integrated its Einstein AI into effectively all of its services but doesn't have any of its own devices. 

Apple, Google and Samsung, however, have their own devices on which to promote their own voice assistants. They've succeeded to varying degrees. Google, for instance, said in January that its Google Assistant was available on 1 billion devices globally. Just a week earlier, Amazon announced that Alexa was available on 100 million devices. 

Unlike Amazon, Google, Apple and Samsung make their own smartphones -- and according to Juniper Research, smartphones are the biggest platform for voice assistant access. However, Juniper says the fastest growing voice assistant categories over the next five years will be smart TVs, smart speakers and wearables -- categories in which Alexa is already the established leader. 

According to the Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP), the installed base of US smart speaker ownership rose to 76 million in the second quarter of 2019, with the Amazon Echo taking 70 percent market share.

Amazon is making the case that customers will ultimately want more flexibility from their devices. 

"They don't want to be locked into using a specific voice service," Mariana Zamoszczyk, senior analyst for Smart Living at Ovum, said in a statement provided by Amazon. "That means we're going to see more households become multi-assistant environments. This trend means that device makers and AI developers need to prioritize interoperability with other services, and work to deliver differentiated, personalized experiences through their own products or assistants."

The Voice Interoperability Initiative is built around four priorities, Amazon said: 

  • Developing voice services that can work seamlessly with others, while protecting the privacy and security of customers. 
  • Building voice-enabled devices that promote choice and flexibility through multiple, simultaneous wake words. 
  • Releasing technologies and solutions that make it easier to integrate multiple voice services on a single product. 
  • Accelerating machine learning and conversational AI research to improve the breadth, quality and interoperability of voice services

To make it easier to  integrate multiple voice services on a single product, Amazon has recruited hardware providers to support its initiative. That companies include Amlogic, Intel, MediaTek, NXP Semiconductors and Qualcomm Technologies. The initiative also includes original design manufacturers (ODMs) like InnoMedia, Tonly and SGW Global. It also includes systems integrators like CommScope, DiscVision, Libre, Linkplay, MyBox, Sagemcom, StreamUnlimited and Sugr.

These companies have committed to developing products and services that make it easier and more affordable for OEMs to support multiple wake words on their devices. Currently, Amazon noted, device makers that want to support multiple, simultaneous wake words often face higher development costs and increased memory load on their devices. 

Meanwhile, to advance the state of the art in machine learning and wake word technology, Amazon says Initiative participants will work with researchers and universities. They'll work on challenges such as developing algorithms that allow wake words to run on portable, low-power devices, or improving the encryption and APIs that ensure voice recording are routed securely to the right destination.