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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."

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Google wants to (try to) make Google Glass cool again

Also this week: savvy virtual assistants, surveillance without violating people's privacy, and more patents from Big Tech.

Is making these cool even possible?

Image: Google

This week was so full of fun patent applications that I didn't know where to start. We've got a throwback to 2013, a virtual assistant that knows when I've stopped talking, and headphones that can determine a user's hearing abilities.

But as always, remember that the big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future

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Karyne Levy

Karyne Levy ( @karynelevy) is the West Coast editor at Protocol. Before joining Protocol, Karyne was a senior producer at Scribd, helping to create the original content program. Prior to that she was an assigning editor at NerdWallet, a senior tech editor at Business Insider, and the assistant managing editor at CNET, where she also hosted Rumor Has It for CNET TV. She lives outside San Francisco with her wife, son and lots of pets.

As President of Alibaba Group, I am often asked, "What is Alibaba doing in the U.S.?"

In fact, most people are not aware we have a business in the U.S. because we are not a U.S. consumer-facing service that people use every day – nor do we want to be. Our consumers – nearly 900 million of them – are located in China.

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J. Michael Evans
Michael Evans leads and executes Alibaba Group's international strategy for globalizing the company and expanding its businesses outside of China.

Does Elon Musk make Tesla tech?

Between the massive valuation and the self-driving software, Tesla isn't hard to sell as a tech company. But does that mean that, in 10 years, every car will be tech?

You know what's not tech and is a car company? Volkswagen.

Image: Tesla/Protocol

From disagreements about what "Autopilot" should mean and SolarCity lawsuits to space colonization and Boring Company tunnels, extremely online Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his company stay firmly in the news, giving us all plenty of opportunities to consider whether the company that made electric cars cool counts as tech.

The massive valuation definitely screams tech, as does the company's investment in self-driving software and battery development. But at the end of the day, this might not be enough to convince skeptics that Tesla is anything other than a car company that uses tech. It also raises questions about the role that timeliness plays in calling something tech. In a potential future where EVs are the norm and many run on Tesla's own software — which is well within the realm of possibility — will Tesla lose its claim to a tech pedigree?

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Becca Evans
Becca Evans is a copy editor and producer at Protocol. Previously she edited Carrie Ann Conversations, a wellness and lifestyle publication founded by Carrie Ann Inaba. She's also written for STYLECASTER. Becca lives in Los Angeles.
Protocol | Workplace

Apple isn’t the only tech company spooked by the delta variant

Spooked by rising cases of COVID-19, many tech companies delay their office reopening.

Apple and at least two other Silicon Valley companies have decided to delay their reopenings in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.

Photo: Luis Alvarez via Getty

Apple grabbed headlines this week when it told employees it would delay its office reopening until October or later. But the iPhone maker wasn't alone: At least two other Silicon Valley companies decided to delay their reopenings last week in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.

Both ServiceNow and Pure Storage opted to push back their September return-to-office dates last week, telling employees they can work remotely until at least the end of the year. Other companies may decide to exercise more caution given the current trends.

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Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.
Protocol | Workplace

Half of working parents have felt discriminated against during COVID

A new survey found that working parents at the VP level are more likely to say they've faced discrimination at work than their lower-level counterparts.

A new survey looks at discrimination faced by working parents during the pandemic.

Photo: d3sign/Getty Images

The toll COVID-19 has taken on working parents — particularly working moms — is, by now, well-documented. The impact for parents in low-wage jobs has been particularly devastating.

But a new survey, shared exclusively with Protocol, finds that among parents who kept their jobs through the pandemic, people who hold more senior positions are actually more likely to say they faced discrimination at work than their lower-level colleagues.

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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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