Power

Amazon’s latest voice interoperability move undermines Google

With a new toolkit, Amazon is making it easier to build devices that run multiple voice assistants — weakening one of Google's key arguments against licensing the Google Assistant for such scenarios.

Facebook’s Portal smart display

Facebook's Portal smart display is one of the devices that runs Alexa alongside another voice assistant. With a new toolkit, Amazon hopes to encourage other companies to build similar devices.

Photo: Facebook

Amazon wants Alexa to make friends: The company announced a new toolkit at its Alexa Live summit Wednesday that will make it easier for companies to build devices that run multiple voice assistants at the same time. Amazon is also doubling down on white-labeling Alexa, and officially announced a Verizon-made smart display with a custom-branded assistant that Protocol first reported last month.

In addition to its Verizon partnership, Amazon also teamed up with LG and Samsung to build devices with multiple voice assistants. Future LG TVs will run both LG's own assistants and Alexa at the same time, and Samsung's smart refrigerators will offer access to both Bixby and Alexa. Taken together, the announcements put further pressure on Google to change its stance on voice assistant interoperability — an issue that has recently received attention from senators looking to rein in Big Tech.

"We envision a future where the world will evolve to have multiple ambient assistants," Alexa Voice Service & Alexa Skills VP Aaron Rubenson told Protocol ahead of Wednesday's event. People should be able to pick whatever assistant they prefer for any given task, simply by invoking different words, Rubenson said. "We think it's critical that customers have choice and flexibility," he said. "Each will have their own strengths and capabilities."

Amazon's efforts to build this multi-assistant future include its spearheading of the Voice Interoperability Initiative, an industry consortium that now has close to 90 members, as well as practical support for partners looking to build multi-assistant devices. In addition to LG and Samsung devices, these also include Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom and Facebook, the latter of which integrated both its own assistant and Alexa into its Portal smart displays.

To simplify this kind of integration, the now-announced toolkit includes both middleware components and developer guidelines. "The toolkit was informed by the work that we have done with other partners that have built implementations from scratch," Rubenson said.

On the one hand, this is very much the kind of in-the-weeds technical work that one would expect to be announced at a developer event. On the other hand, it's a highly political broadside against Google and its stance on voice assistant interoperability. The search giant has long prevented manufacturers from building devices that simultaneously run the Google Assistant and other voice assistants. During a recent Senate hearing, a Google representative argued that this was due to unresolved technical challenges.

By simplifying the development of multi-agent devices, Amazon is very much undermining that argument. Rubenson told Protocol that he hoped Amazon's stance on interoperability would be bolstered by additional devices running multiple assistants. "We know it's possible today," he said.

Sonos Chief Legal Officer Eddie Lazarus made a very similar argument during last month's Senate hearing. When Google's senior public policy director, Wilson White, told senators that technical issues would prevent companies from implementing the Google Assistant alongside other assistants, Lazarus said his company had developed a working solution, but was prevented by Google's licensing terms from using it.

This prompted an unusual exchange, with Wilson signaling that Google may be open to revisit its stance, and that he'd personally love to see a demo of Sonos' tech. "This will evolve," Wilson said during the hearing. "We will get to a place where we are bringing more innovation to consumers."

"We were encouraged [by] the dialogue at the hearing," Rubenson told Protocol this week, adding: "We would welcome Google's participation in the Voice Interoperability Initiative."

Protocol | China

Beijing meets an unstoppable force: Chinese parents and their children

Live-in tutors disguised as nannies, weekday online tutoring classes and adult gaming accounts for rent. Here's how citizens are finding ways to skirt Beijing's diktats.

Citizens in China are experienced at cooking up countermeasures when Beijing or governments come down with rigid policies.

Photo: Liu Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images

During the summer break, Beijing handed down a parade of new regulations designed to intervene in youth education and entertainment, including a strike against private tutoring, a campaign to "cleanse" the internet and a strict limit on online game playing time for children. But so far, these seemingly iron-clad rules have met their match, with students and their parents quickly finding workarounds.

Grassroots citizens in China are experienced at cooking up countermeasures when Beijing or governments come down with rigid policies. Authorities then have to play defense, amending holes in their initial rules.

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Shen Lu

Shen Lu is a reporter with Protocol | China. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New York Times and POLITICO, among other publications. She can be reached at shenlu@protocol.com.


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Protocol | Policy

Google and Microsoft are at it again, now over government software

The on-again, off-again battle between the two companies flared up again when Google commissioned a study on how much the U.S. government relies on Microsoft software.

Google and Microsoft are in a long-running feud that has once again flared up in recent months.

Photo: Jens Tandler/EyeEm/Getty Images

According to a new report commissioned by Google, Microsoft has an overwhelming "share in the U.S. government office productivity software market," potentially leading to security risks for local, state and federal governments.

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Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

People

Facebook wants to kill the family iPad

Facebook has built the first portable smart display, and is introducing a new household mode that makes it easier to separate work from play.

Facebook's new Portal Go device will go on sale for $199 in October.

Photo: Facebook

Facebook is coming for the coffee table tablet: The company on Tuesday introduced a new portable version of its smart display called Portal Go, which promises to be a better communal device for video calls, media consumption and many of the other things families use iPads for.

Facebook also announced a revamped version of its Portal Pro device Tuesday, and introduced a new household mode to Portals that will make it easier to share these devices with everyone in a home without having to compromise on working-from-home habits. Taken together, these announcements show that there may be an opening for consumer electronics companies to meet this late-pandemic moment with new device categories.

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Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Protocol | Policy

The techlash is threatening human rights around the world

Some 48 countries introduced laws to regulate tech last year. But researchers say many of those laws are just attempts at censorship and surveillance.

In its latest report, Freedom House President Michael Abramowitz said, "We really see free expression and privacy as under unprecedented strain."

Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Governments around the world are seizing on widespread frustrations with Big Tech as justification for a spate of increasingly restrictive laws governing online speech, a new report finds, a trend that researchers say puts both free expression and the fate of tech companies' overseas employees at risk.

Over the last year alone, some 48 countries worldwide introduced — and in some cases, passed — laws to regulate tech companies, according to the latest report by Freedom House, a nonprofit that publishes an annual survey on internet freedoms in 70 countries. While those laws have often been passed in the name of promoting competition, protecting people's data and moderating offensive content, the report's authors say that, in many cases, these laws are merely thinly veiled attempts to force companies into censorship and surveillance.

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Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

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