Entertainment

Amazon wants voice assistants to talk to each other

For the company, voice interoperability is yet another way to grow ambient computing into a real business.

Sonos speaker with Alexa

It's interoperability time.

Photo illustration: Sonos; Protocol

Amazon has long championed the idea of running multiple voice assistants on the same device. Now, it wants to help those assistants work together. To that end, Amazon is rolling out what it’s calling Universal Device Commands over the next year, the company announced at its Alexa Live developer event on Wednesday. The new feature will make it possible to use core smart speaker functionality across multiple assistants.

“Customers win when they have choice,” said Alexa Voice Service VP Aaron Rubenson. For Amazon, providing this level of choice also means that Alexa is always part of the picture, which helps the company with its quest to turn ambient computing into a real business, complete with a large developer community tapping into multiple ways to monetize Alexa skills.

A common language for voice assistants

Amazon first threw its weight behind multi-assistant support in 2019, when it announced the Voice Interoperability Initiative with 35 member companies. That industry group has since grown to include more than 90 members, and multiple companies have launched devices capable of running more than one voice assistant concurrently.

At Alexa Live, Amazon announced that Alexa would be coming to select Skullcandy headphones soon. “We will have Alexa and their own assistant, called Hey Skullcandy, working simultaneously on these devices,” Rubenson said. Other companies with similar setups include Sonos, which launched its own voice assistant last month.

Now, Amazon wants to help make it easier to actually use multi-assistant devices with the implementation of Universal Device Commands. This will unlock core functionality like controlling a speaker’s volume, pausing playback and perhaps stopping an alarm or timer across multiple assistants.

“These are things that we believe that any assistant that’s operating on a device should be able to handle, regardless of where something may have been initiated,” Rubenson said. “You can imagine a customer has a Sonos device, and they start a music stream with the Sonos Voice Assistant,” he said. “If somebody else comes into the room an hour later and says ‘Alexa, stop,’ you would like the music to stop.”

At the same time, Amazon wants to meet people’s expectations of privacy, and not make them suspicious about Alexa chiming in on an interaction that started with a different assistant. “When audio is streaming, the Universal Device Command framework will make it known to any assistant that there is audio playing,” Rubenson said. “But other than the assistant that started it, the other assistant won't know what is playing, or which app it's playing in.”

The economics of voice interoperability

Not every company is a supporter of voice interoperability. Google in particular has long resisted the idea of letting its own Google Assistant run next to another company’s voice assistant. As a result, Sonos owners, for instance, have to choose whether they want to enable Sonos Voice Control or the Google Assistant on a speaker.

Amazon, on the other hand, is betting it can further grow its Alexa business by embracing interoperability. Key to that is its work with third-party Alexa skills developers; Rubenson told Protocol that 20% of the interactions with Alexa last year were skills-based. “Collectively, that's tens of billions of interactions with Alexa skills,” he said.

An increasing amount of those interactions are being monetized in one way or another, including through paid skills and in-skill purchases. To further grow this business, Amazon announced Wednesday that smaller Alexa developers will be able to get up to a 90% revenue share. The company is also introducing paid placements of skills in search results, mirroring the way mobile app stores are monetized.

Amazon hasn’t said how much revenue the company is generating with Alexa skills, but it’s clearly a growing business. “We have skill developers making seven figures,” Rubenson said. And by making Alexa a core part of ambient computing, even alongside other assistants, Amazon is positioning itself to further grow that business across a wide range of devices, including not only smart speakers, but also headphones, TVs, appliances and even cars.

“Alexa implementations have contributed to literally billions of dollars of consumer electronic sales since we introduced that technology a few years ago,” Rubenson said.

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