NEW YORK— Alexa and Siri, rival voice assistants on Amazon's Echo and Apple's iPhone, don’t directly communicate with one another. But the Amazon executive in charge of Alexa and the Amazon Echo said he'd welcome the idea.
“You should be able to tell `Alexa, ask Siri X,’” said David Limp, senior vice president of devices at Amazon.
“If Apple or Google want to come calling, my phone number is out there, they can call...I don’t know if I can envision it but I hope that will happen on behalf of customers," Limp told a group of journalists at the Wired Business Conference Wednesday in New York.
Limp has a strong interest in Apple’s entry into the voice-activated, artificially-intelligent infused speaker space, which also includes Google Home and Microsoft's Cortana on the Harmon Kardon Invoke speaker. Apple's $349 Siri-controlled HomePod speaker announced Monday is in direct competition with Amazon's best-seller Echo and related products, like the smaller and cheaper Dot and the upcoming video-enabled Amazon Echo Show.
Does Limp think HomePod poses a competitive challenge to Amazon? “From our standpoint, it’s a little different philosophically,” Limp says. Noting HomePod’s “premium” price, Limp points out that that you can place eight of the company’s best-selling Echo Dots in a home for the same price as one new Apple speaker, at least when purchasing the Dots in a three-pack.
“When people are starting to spend … hundreds of dollar per speaker, I think generally they’re going to want choice," Limp says. He points out that through through Bluetooth or a “line out” connection, you can connect a Dot to any compatible speaker of your choice. “People’s tastes in speakers are unbelievably personal,” he says.
Amazon has a big head start on HomePod, which Apple says won’t ship until December. In the meantime, Alexa keeps building on Alexa’s capabilities or as Amazon refers to them, “skills,” which now number more than 13,000.
Asked to reflect on how Amazon figured out that there would be a giant market for an “ambient device” that would listen and respond to you and do so ahead of its rivals, Limp says Amazon “was in a position where we had a little bit of insider knowledge that maybe others didn’t have.”
Seven or eight years ago, he says, Amazon was applying machine learning internally to solve problems. “We gave a rallying cry to the engineers….`think of interesting hard problems that you can use machine learning that would be advantageous to consumers.’”
Limp also says that Amazon also saw the emergence of the cloud ahead of other companies. “Similarly, we went out to engineers and said `imagine a world in the not-so-distant future where you have infinite compute and infinite storage. And if you take off the constraints (with servers, infrastructure and cost) what could you do?’” One of the things they came back with was the thought that “conversational speech was in our future and we could get there.”
Switching gears, Limp refused to lend credence to rumors that Amazon is working on a phone for the Indian market, though he said he kind of likes the “Ice” name that has been speculated on. Amazon's previous attempt at a phone, Fire, was a bust.
“I think it’s such a big segment that if we could figure out how the right way to differentiate where consumers could have a notable reason to buy our phone if we were to do one, then sure we would do it. It’s how we look at every product,” Limp says.
Amazon thought it had that with the Fire phone “We were all confident and bullish and that’s ok... We have to take those risks and sometimes they don’t come to fruition. But I would do it again. In Monday morning quarterbacking I might change some things, but I’d give it a shot again.”
Limp discussed ways in which Alexa and Echo continues to improve. Though not perfect, he says Alexa is better at identifying when the Alexa wake word is coming from a television rather than someone in your house who really does want to ask the speaker something.
Other recent additions include notifications (“Alexa, remind me at 5:00 I have to pick up the kids), and the ability to name your timers (“Alexa set pizza timer for 15 minutes”). Among the ongoing industry-wide challenges he identifies: the internationalization of such speakers.
“It’s hard to get this in every language because you have to get data and train it and even though that’s been available in phones for a long time it’s much harder in these kinds of devices. That’s a place where as an industry we need to get better.”
Limp said the recent Saturday Night Live parody commercial on an Echo for Seniors was “the greatest thing you’ve ever seen. Somebody asked me the other day, `did you pay for that?’ I said `no, but I wish I had.’” Limp even said there’s some good product ideas in the SNL sketch.