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Why businesses are lining up behind Amazon Alexa in the virtual assistant race

Amazon Alexa has gathered considerable momentum, and not just among consumers. It is the digital assistant of choice for developers and partners. Here's why.

Video: Why developers love working with Amazon's Alexa

Imagine sitting at home, reading a book on your tablet, and reading lights turning on at precisely the right time. Your smartphone sends an alert that it's time to leave for your child's baseball game, so you head for the car, and Alexa, Amazon's digital assistant, automatically opens the garage door at your voice request. As soon as you settle into the car, you ask Alexa to continue reading your book over the speakers in your car, at the spot you left off.

This scenario is exactly how Charlie Kindel, director of Alexa Smart Home for Amazon, envisions people using Alexa in the near future.

When the sun goes down, and more light is needed in your home, "I could either get off my lazy behind and go over to the wall and flip the switch, or I could get my phone out of my pocket, unlock it, find my smart home app of the half dozen I have, and navigate to the specific light I want to turn on. Or I could say, 'Alexa, turn on the reading lamp.' What we've done with the voice being the simplest UI is we've made something simpler than the original. It's actually simpler than getting up and flipping on that light switch," Kindel said.

Alexa arrived in 2014 with the launch of the first Amazon Echo. It isn't alone in the digital assistant realm, of course. There's Google Assistant, Samsung Bixby, Microsoft Cortana, and Apple's Siri. But CES 2017 showed that Alexa is far ahead of the competition in partnerships with manufacturers. Even though Amazon didn't have an official CES booth for the Echo, Alexa was the star of the show as countless vendors touted their integrations.

"There's a lot of things we've seen over the last couple of years since Echo was first launched in November of 2014 that have delighted and surprised us. You build something with an idea of how it's going to materialize for customers and it just takes off. It's really a sign of a healthy platform when developers build things using the API you expose," Kindel said.

Why developers love Alexa

Amazon encourages developers to add Alexa skills to their products by making it a relatively open platform with a free SDK.

An Alexa skill is a request that has been developed, whether it's setting the oven temperature, turning on music, or reporting the weather. Alexa-enabled thermostats, light bulbs, and kitchen appliances can already be voice controlled, and the ease of adding an Alexa skill to a device is making it the go-to for manufacturers wanting to add machine-learning capabilities to their products. There are currently about 250 products on Amazon.com that offer Alexa skills, and there are another 4,000-plus products on the market from other manufacturers, with more added all the time.

Image: Amazon

And even if you don't buy a product with an Alexa-enabled skill, it's easy to add Alexa to your home by purchasing Amazon's Echo or low-priced Echo Dot, or the newest Amazon devices: the Amazon Tap wireless speaker and the Echo Show with a 7-inch touchscreen console.

"We have two software development kits that enable other companies that want to participate in the Echo system to do so. The first is Alexa Voice Service, AVS for short. [It's] a self-service API with documentation that developers can use to build other devices that embody Alexa. If I wanted to build a smart home device with a speaker and a microphone and enable customers to talk to it and say Alexa do this, do that, what's the weather, I would do that by using AVS. A lot of devices you saw announced at CES were built using AVS," Kindel said.

"The other API that we exposed we refer to as the Alexa Skills Kit or ASK. This is how developers can add new functionality to Alexa. There are all sorts of new capabilities they can add to make it smart... . If I wanted to teach Alexa how to order an Uber, I would build a skill," he said.

SEE: Amazon Alexa: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)

"We built AVS to be very easy to use, to be very approachable, and we built an entire infrastructure support system and documentation to make it very easy for developers to onboard. I think that's a real key driver to make it easy for developers who sense customers want Alexa to do more," Kindel explained.

"There's a thread that surprised us which is the super simple scenarios, such as turning on lights. You have to ask the question, 'why haven't these home automation products in the past taken off?'" Kindel said, explaining that the products have failed because they don't solve the main problems that people wanted.

The range of products that incorporate Alexa are vast. Prolitec, which manufactures Aera, a home fragrance system, announced in June 2017 that Aera can now be controlled with Alexa.

Richard Weening, Prolitec CEO, said it was very straightforward to add Alexa to Aera. "Our development partner, Vectorform, got the first skill done in less than a month. Our app allows control of multiple rooms. We are now adding voice control skills to mirror that capability."

The ease of working with Amazon is one of the reasons why Prolitec chose that platform. Weening said, "Voice-controlled technology is still a relatively nascent platform, so there is much to learn. Amazon does an excellent job of providing guidelines, tutorials, tools, and tips for building Amazon Alexa skills... We believe Amazon will control 70% of the voice-controlled speaker market this year, so why would we do anything else?"

Why the auto industry loves Alexa

One strong, emerging market for Alexa is the automotive industry. At the time we published this article, Amazon has forged Alexa partnerships with Ford, BMW, Hyundai, and Volkswagen. And connected car APIs are just beginning to proliferate, said John Scumniotales, general manager of Alexa Automotive.

"It obviously varies from manufacturer to manufacturer in terms of the kind of capabilities they add. One would be about the car--the ability for the customer, the driver, to ask about their car whether they're in the car or whether they're in the home. If I'm in my home and I have an EV [electric vehicle], I can say, 'Alexa, what's the charge status on my EV?' I can start to inquire information about the car. If it's a traditional internal combustion engine, I could ask, 'what's my fuel level?'," Scumniotales said.

APIs are a quick way for auto manufacturers to add new tech to their vehicles, with it only taking weeks to provide new Alexa skills, compared to the years-long process in typical automotive product development, he said.

Basic car skills could include everything from opening the trunk, to unlocking the door or providing navigation. The next stage would be in-the-car capabilities with native Alexa voice services.

"What we're starting to realize is the desire of the customer, the driver, to have their digital life follow them whenever they're at. This is a key part of our view of this world of mobility in the world of the vehicle," Scumniotales said.

"Ford and other auto manufacturers are making the car another Amazon Echo," he said. "Once I'm in my car I can start using my voice to interact with my car. And I gain access to all of my smart home capabilities as well. As I'm leaving the house, if I forget to turn the lights off or lock the door, I can do that from the car. I can preheat the house as I'm returning if it's winter. I can open my garage door as I approach the house, etc.," Scumniotales said.

The vast quantity of data collected can help auto manufacturers learn more about their customers. And that information can be used for predictive analysis on future behaviors from that customer, he said.

While Ford, Hyundai and BMW are deeply involved in Alexa projects with Amazon, Volkswagen is in the early stages, with a developer agreement in place, but no specifics yet available, according to a Volkswagen spokesperson.

How Ford is using Alexa

The Ford relationship was announced in 2015, and by this year, there was a beta of the embedded Alexa app in a Ford vehicle.

Timur Pulathaneli, a supervisor on the SYNC AppLink Platform and partner development team at Ford Motor Company, said that later this year, Ford will launch an app that allows you to use Alexa while you are driving in the car, and it will allow interactions with the SYNC entertainment system. "If you are coming home late, you can ask Alexa to switch on your porch light while you're coming close to your home, or open your garage door," Pulathaneli said.

Ford and Amazon offer consumers the ability to access their car from home, and call up other features from their vehicle via Alexa.

Image: Ford

"Because we work so closely with Amazon, they created some feature they don't have on any other platform. You can ask Alexa for any coffee shops in the vicinity. You can then tap on the screen and send that to the embedded navigation in the car," Pulathaneli said. He explained "that is not a feature you can do on your Echo device at home, but we worked together with Amazon to make it happen. That is why we love to work with Amazon. People like [the Amazon content] they have in their accounts and in the cloud, and we want them to be able to access that in a safe way when they're driving."

The new features with Alexa will be available to anyone with a Ford vehicle that has SYNC 3, which launched in the summer of 2015, as updates are pushed to the existing systems.

How Hyundai is using Alexa

Manish Mehrotra, director of digital business planning and connected operations at Hyundai, said Hyundai targets human-focused technology so incorporating Alexa was an easy way to offer more features to customers.

"A few years ago we started exploring the space of more Internet of Things to tie customer experience to telematics. We've done a lot of use cases but very quickly we settled on Amazon Alexa because of the penetration and exponential growth Alexa showed in reaching to the customers," he said.

Alexa adds an extra layer of convenience to customers already familiar with voice assistants. It's not inside the vehicle as with Ford, and Volkswagen in the future, but it does integrate with Hyundai's Blue Link app and connects car to home for some customers.

Mehrotra said, "The challenge that companies like us will have is that there are too many of these technologies growing very rapidly. You have the Alexas of the world, Google is there, Cortana is coming, Siri will be there, and there are others. So it will become difficult for us to integrate with everything. Somehow there will be some convergence down the road. It's something we have to watch for and plan accordingly to keep up with this space."

How BMW is using Alexa

BMW uses Alexa with the BMW Connected App. Alexa allows the user to give commands, many of which are centered on trip and appointment management, as well as ask questions and provide commands when you're not inside the vehicle, such as using Alexa inside your home to turn on your car's engine or unlock the doors.

BMW is at the beginning of this process. "These devices are relatively new. Customers are just now discovering what they can do and how convenient it is. How these technologies work they continually grow and get better as time goes on. The number of skills will continue to grow," said Don Smith, technology and operations product manager for BMW.

BMW has an app that works with Alexa.

Image: BMW

Smith said that in June 2017, BMW launched natural language understanding that integrates with Alexa in its vehicles. "So we do have a platform in the vehicle that launched with our current 7 series and is being rolled out across the rest of the model range."

It works with natural speech, he said. "I can press the voice control button inside the vehicle and say 'take me to Starbucks' or 'take me home' or 'find me an IKEA.' This is a more natural way to communicate with a car."

Smith said that BMW was the first auto manufacturer to have Alexa work with an app inside the car. BMW chose to work with Amazon because, "flexibility and that learning capability and adaptability is what makes it a great benefit for customers and makes that experience a really good one. You can vary your speech and say, 'do I need to refuel the tank?' or 'do I need fuel?'. There's flexibility in how you interact with it, so that's really the great benefit."

Why smart home manufacturers are into Alexa

Manufacturers of home products have gravitated to Alexa because it allows them to add customer-friendly features that appeal to a wide audience. Philips Lighting has light bulbs that use Alexa to control them. GE Lighting has a lamp that uses Alexa skills to turn it on and off. Dish has integrated with Alexa to provide TV viewing through voice commands.

Jeff Patton, general manager of connected home products for GE Lighting, said, "Alexa forces us as manufacturers to think more broadly. It forces us to give people much more powerful value propositions. So many things can work together."

GE Lighting operates a living lab where the company spends time with people in their actual homes to see how they live and to expose them to new types of technology.

"I think Alexa's really been spectacular for timing with the smart home. Voice has really accelerated the overall adoption. People you would say in the past were not early adopters have really sort of gravitated toward voice control. Alexa is a real leader out there," Patton said. "Other technologies are out there for natural voice recognition, but they require a different kind of interaction... [Alexa] breaks through that unknown barrier a lot of people are grasping for in that smart home experience."

The new lamp from GE Lighting will be available in the second half of 2017, and there are more products in the pipeline, he said.

Alexa's surprise popularity

Kindel is surprised at how quickly Alexa has taken off, because he was involved in home automation projects for decades and they didn't work.

"Almost all of those adventures were not successful," said Kindel. "What we've discovered with Alexa and voice control is that with very simple experiences powered by voice, customers not only are delighted but they're demanding more for the first time ever. It starts with what the vision is. And that vision is to deliver the best UI for the home which is powered by voice."

Alexa skills are being added daily. "It's really a sign of a healthy platform when developers build things that surprise you using the API you expose," he said. "It's kind of a fun place to be. I've built products in the past where I had to do a lot of outreach to partners to get them in and sell them, and we're in exactly the opposite situation now. We have pretty much everyone and their brother coming out of the woodwork wanting to build on Alexa, and we're moving as fast as we can to enable the services they want to enable."

And his favorite skill? "I love there's a skill for Alexa that makes the stupid 'gooooo' response when you ask it something, all the way to smart home scenarios. We have customers that control the shop equipment in their shop using Alexa. I have this in my house as well. I have an air compressor that makes a lot of noise. I can turn it on and off with voice," Kindel said.

Privacy matters

There are concerns that an "always on" device that listens to everything you say could be intrusive and a possible privacy risk.

"Any IoT device that monitors consumers, especially always-on monitoring, presents privacy and data security concerns," said Alan Friel, a partner with BakerHostetler's Privacy and Data Protection team. "Firstly, the consumer needs to be given meaningful notice disclosing what information will be collected, when, how, and for what uses. Next, the data collected should be limited to what is necessary to provide the consumer the desired services, absent knowing consent by the consumer. Finally, reasonable security measures should protect personal and sensitive data."

Friel points to the IoT guidelines issued by the FTC. "The FTC has issued IoT guidance that if followed by industry would protect consumers. However, for the most part these are best practices and at best what the FTC thinks is required to avoid deception or unfairness that it could act on," he said. "Some privacy advocates have argued more specific laws are needed. CA Senate Bill 327, introduced in February 2017, proposes to codify privacy and security by design and allows specific enforcement actions for failure to employ reasonable data protection when developing any device 'capable of connecting to the internet, directly or indirectly, or to a connected device,' and for failure to promptly patch or otherwise cure later-discovered inadequacies and vulnerabilities.

"It would also require data collection notices, including a short-form notice at the point of sale regarding audio, video, biometric, health, sensitive, or personal info, and require companies to obtain consent before collecting or transmitting such device or consumer information," said Friel.

Tom Hardin, senior research lead at G2 Crowd, said there are ongoing privacy concerns with digital assistants such as Alexa.

"The broadest and most obvious is that Amazon listens and records everything you say. Aside from simply feeling invasive conversationally, the fact that Amazon gathers your credit card information and preferences through an IoT-connected device opens you up to a host of security risks," Hardin said.

"Not only is your financial information susceptible to theft, but it's hard to know who exactly has access to your personal preferences," he added. "Third parties or hackers could potentially be accessing this information, feeding you invasive ads, or viewing your vacation calendar. This could lead to home robberies, with the knowledge that someone isn't at home, and even incessant stalking."

Another example was brought about by a murder investigation in Bentonville, AR, which involved Amazon Echo recordings, Hardin said, explaining how it would work. "Say someone intends on committing a crime on a particular evening. If they know around what time they will commit the crime, it's not out of the realm of possibility that they could automate their voice to ask Alexa, or the equivalent, to perform commands while they're in the midst of committing said crime. This would provide the person who committed the crime with a built-in alibi if they were ever to end up in hot water."

Hardin said that there are security precautions that a user can take to protect their privacy, from muting their Echo when it's not in use, to deleting recordings, and refraining from connecting financial accounts to an Echo device.

Kindel said Amazon takes consumer privacy seriously. "The idea of ensuring that we protect customer privacy is really important, and the concept of a wake word that allows Alexa to only wake up when customers are talking to her. And that's a very hard problem to choose technically, and the words you choose for that wake word have to have particular characteristics. Alexa works very well in that scenario. It has a very distinctive sound to it."

Alexa's future

And for those who have wondered... Yes, Alexa does give a nod to the Star Trek computer in the way it interacts. The Alexa name pays homage to Egypt's ancient Library of Alexandria, which was, at one time, the keeper of all knowledge.

"I think that the simplicity of the experience is key. It's delighting customers. We're finding it's no longer just the tech bubble, the Silicon Valley bubble, or the geeks demanding this. It's middle America and middle UK and middle Germany that are actively using Alexa ... many times a day," said Kindel. "It's nighttime and you're going to bed--you can dig through the couch and find the remote for the TV, or you can just say, 'Alexa turn off the TV.' It's those super simple scenarios that are delighting customers and driving them to buy more products and use it more. It ends up being a flywheel."

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