Even though a late entrant in the e-commerce space in India, Amazon is one of the top player competing against the likes of Flipkart and Snapdeal. The company is not just focusing on the ecommerce platform but has been constantly introducing its hardware in the Indian market. After launching Kindle ebook readers, Fire Tablet and the Fire TV Stick in the past, Amazon India has now launched its popular voice-controlled speakers. India is the fourth country where Amazon has launched its Echo smart speakers. Puneesh Kumar, Country Manager - India, Alexa Experience & Devices, talks to Business Today about how long it took Amazon in customizing Alexa software, the reason behind invite-only model and more.
How did Amazon come up with the idea of a smart speaker?
Kumar: A few years ago we set out with a goal to build a computer in cloud that is completely controlled by voice. The foundation of our vision was the Star Trek computer - where you could walk around your home and get information or anything else you need just by asking. Nothing like that existed for customers at that time, so we knew we had to invent it. At Amazon, we always talk about inventing on behalf of our customers and our ability to invent stems from our ability to foresee big movements in technology and innovation. We took the progression of Machine Learning and the power of the AWS (Amazon Web Services) Cloud and married these with the most simple and natural user interface - 'voice' and created Echo and Alexa.
What is the idea of having three different speakers and how are they different from each other?
Kumar: Amazon Echo is the first device that we had launched. It connects to Alexa-a cloud-based voice service-to play music, set alarms and timers, provide information, check your calendar, weather, and sports scores, manage to-do and shopping lists, control smart home devices, and more-instantly.
The Echo has powerful speakers that fill the room with immersive, 360-degree omni-directional audio, and deliver crisp vocals and dynamic bass response. Echo is a great hands-free speaker that allows you to interact with Alexa from anywhere in the room with far-field voice control and comes with interchangeable covers for Rs 9,999.
When we first introduced Echo, we heard that our customers wanted to have Alexa in multiple rooms of their house. Additionally, some customers already had speakers that they loved and used often, and we wanted to make sure they could use those speakers while also getting all the benefits and intelligence of Alexa. That's why we came up with the Echo Dot. It allows customers to be able to voice control their existing audio entertainment systems at an affordable price of only Rs 4,499. Echo Dot can work as a standalone device or can connect to compatible external speakers through Bluetooth or using a 3.5mm stereo cable to enable voice control of your home entertainment system.
Some customers were also interested in setting up a smart home with Alexa. Echo Plus does everything Echo and Echo Dot do, with the added benefit of a built-in smart home hub. Priced at Rs 14,999, Echo Plus makes it easier for customers to set up and control their smart home using the built-in hub and compatible ZigBee devices.
With other leading technology players announcing smart speakers, how to you plan to take on the competition?
Kumar: We are completely focused on our customers, not our competitors. The Alexa service is getting smarter every day and we're working hard to continue to increase Alexa's knowledge graph.
Why did you opt for an invite-only model for the Echo devices in India? When do you plan to go for an open sale?
Kumar: While the hardware and firmware design are finished, Alexa is built in the cloud. While we have a great team working hard to build the experience, we need more customers in India, using Alexa to help shape and improve her. Over time she will continue to develop, get smarter, and add more functionality for users in the country.
In this invite-only phase, our focus is on finding customers who want to help Alexa get smarter as she evolves.
It's been close to a month since you started accepting bookings for the Echo products in India. Of the three models, which is the most popular?
Kumar: We have been receiving requests for invites, to purchase the devices, from hundreds of thousands of customers across the country. It's great to see the initial response and excitement for the products. The Echo Dot has turned out to be the most popular model followed by Echo.
Since how long you have been customizing Alexa to understand Indian accent and context?
Kumar: A lot of work goes into expanding Alexa to other countries and languages. We have worked hard for over a year to evolve Alexa for our Indian customers, particularly when it comes to ensuring her voice, accent, knowledge, services, and features are locally relevant. We want to make the Alexa voice service appealing to our Indian customers.
In the last one year we have taught Alexa Hindi and regional language phonetics so she can pronounce names of important places, people, events, and phrases. It currently supports English with an Indian accent. We have expanded Alexa's natural language understanding to fully comprehend context and intent, even if the sentences include Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malyalam or Punjabi proper nouns. You can even do things like ask Alexa to add 'atta' to your shopping list.
Since Alexa is fetching information from the cloud, how much data does it consume?
Kumar: Since Alexa uses the Internet only to transmit audio files, it uses very less data. Data consumption purely depends on the amount of content streamed. To stream music, audiobooks, and other content through Alexa, your Internet connection needs to be at least 512 Kbps for the device (0.51 Mbps). A 2Mbps or above last mile Internet speed to your home router is recommended.
As the Echo Plus can be used for controlling smart appliances, how many compatible products are available in India yet? Which all standards does the Echo range support?
Kumar: Echo Plus makes it easier for customers to set up and control their smart home using the built-in hub that is compatible with Zigbee devices. It's as simple as saying "Alexa, discover devices," and in less than a minute, all your compatible smart home devices will be connected. Currently, we have Philips Hue, LIFX, SYSKA LED, Dlink, and TPLink that have committed to supporting Alexa in India. We expect that list will continue to grow rapidly as more developers use our free tools to create skills for Alexa.
Supported smart devices can also be connected over wifi and controlled using the partner skills on the cloud with the entire range of Echo devices.
What kind of skills does Echo support? Are there any specialised skills for the Indian audience?
Kumar: Our Indian customers can enjoy more than 10,000 Alexa skills on their Echo devices. We have skills from Indian developers available across sectors like Travel (Ola, Goibibo, ixigo, Jet Airways), Food & Recipes (Faasos, Box8, Freshmenu, Zomato, Sanjeev Kapoor, Tarla Dalal), Sports & Entertainment (Saavn, ESPNCricinfo, Bollywood Hungama), News and Education (Times of India, NDTV, ABP Live, AajTak, Byju's) Homes Services and Smart home (UrbanClap, Housejoy, Syska, Silvan). Global developers are also bringing skills to customers in India including Uber, The Wall Street Journal, Phillips, Reuters, Ted Talks, and more.
We are working closely with developers across India and from all around the world to bring their skills to the Alexa service. We think now that we have opened up the Alexa Skills Kit to developers building for Indian customers, our skills selection will grow quickly.
Why can't Echo control Amazon's Fire TV Stick yet?
Kumar: We are working on it. Our goal is to have Alexa everywhere where Amazon is, and on a variety of devices. However, we will not be able to share details on our future roadmap today.