Amazon bets on voice technology Echo

The Amazon logo in New York.
The Amazon logo in New York. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - E-commerce giant Amazon blazed a trail 20 years ago when it opened an online book store. Today, Amazon is valued at US$318 billion, much bigger than traditional IT businesses like IBM, which is worth less than half as much at US$141 billion.

Along the way, Amazon blazed another trail. Its cloud computing business called Amazon Web Services (AWS) pulled in US$2.6 billion revenue, up 64 per cent from last year, in the first three months of the year. AWS is on track to become a US$10 billion business this year.

Now Amazon is betting that voice is the way forward for people to interact with computers just like the mouse allowed people to interface with PCs and touchscreens with smartphones.

It developed the Amazon Echo, a 23.5cm cylindrical device that is embedded with artifical intelligence. The software robot that lives inside the Echo responds to the name Alexa and functions as an intelligent personal assistant.

Users can tell it to dim the lights, play music, set alarms or search the Web. Amazon Echo became widely available in the United States last year.

Dr Werner Vogels, Amazon's chief technology officer told The Straits Times that voice is a more natural way of asking the computer to do something.

For people to feel comfortable doing this, the interaction between Alexa and the person must feel like a conversation, said Dr Vogels who was in Singapore to attend AWS annual forum at Raffles City.

"The time between giving voice commands and Alexa's response must be fast. Alexa can't take two to three seconds to respond otherwise people will know that it's a robot," he pointed out.

Echo is not the only intelligent assistant in the market. There is Apple's Siri and Google Now which is used in iOS and Android devices. These giants are leveraging their expertise in artificial intelligence to create intelligent personal assistants so as to keep their users within their own universe of digital services and products.

Amazon wants to do the same. It would be so much easier and more natural for people to tell Alexa to buy books, toys or shoes on Amazon then to type on the computer or a smartphone.

To drum up publicity for Echo, Amazon recently took advertisments during American football's biggest event, the SuperBowl as well as undertook product placements on popular TV shows like the detective series, Castle.

Explaining Amazon's strategy with Alexa, Dr Vogels said: "When we developed e-books, the adoption rate was very slow. After we created the Kindle reading device, sales of e-books exploded. We're hoping that with Amazon Echo and Alexa we can drive more business in our online store."

Industry insiders describe it as a sleeper hit that could potentially break through to the mainstream. In February, music service Spotify and taxi app Uber supported Echo. Amazon does not break out the sales numbers for the Echo so it is tough to gauge how well it is selling. But they say it is one of the top five best selling electronics gizmo at Amazon.

While the US$179 Amazon Echo can be used in Singapore, the e-commerce giant is not shipping it here yet. Interested users would have to get friends in the US to buy it and then send it to them. Alternatively, they can use a digital concierge like Comgateway to buy on their behalf.