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OK Google, meet Alexa: Interoperability emerges as key antitrust issue

Thus far, Google has blocked voice assistant interoperability, but a representative signaled this week that the company's stance could evolve.

Eddie Lazarus at the hearing

Eddie Lazarus, Sonos's chief legal officer, said that voice interoperability is only one of a number of issues Sonos wants regulators to address.

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Sonos Chief Legal Officer Eddie Lazarus came to Washington on Tuesday to demand legislative action against Google and Amazon. He walked away with an informal invitation from Google's senior public policy director, Wilson White, to talk things over.

"I already [emailed] Wilson," Lazarus told Protocol following a subcommittee hearing attended by both men. "If he's serious, we're going to go up there and do it."

The issue that led to White's unexpected gesture — in addition to facing off in Washington, the two companies are currently battling each other in court over alleged patent infringement — is voice assistant interoperability.

Google has long told device makers that it won't allow them to run the company's Google Assistant if they simultaneously offer access to competing voice assistants. For Sonos, this means that its customers have to choose between making Amazon's Alexa or the Google Assistant the default voice assistant for its microphone-equipped smart speakers.

That's not how the company would like to handle this issue. Sonos has developed technology that allows the concurrent use of multiple voice assistants, effectively leaving it to end users to choose whether they call on Alexa or the Google Assistant to handle certain tasks. That way, someone could ask Google for the weather, and then tell Alexa to add something to their Amazon shopping list, simply by using different wake words.

"Google contractually prohibits us from using that technology," Lazarus told lawmakers Tuesday. "You can't mix and match between the big companies."

Pressed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar on the issue, White defended Google's approach. "We are trying to balance the interoperability with other things we care about, which is the user experience, [...] privacy, security," he said.

White admitted that Google is allowing two simultaneous assistants on select Samsung phones, but implied that this wasn't easily replicable for smart speakers. "There are some technical challenges around having two voice assistants that are listening at the same time," he said.

Lazarus disagreed. "We have the technology that solves the problems that he described," he said, adding that Sonos had offered to demonstrate it to Google in the past, and had in fact shown it to regulators around the world.

This gave White an opening for his surprisingly public overture. "Early in my career I was an engineer, so I'd love the opportunity personally to see the demo," he said. White also signaled that Google's official position on the issue could change. "This will evolve," he said. "We will get to a place where we are bringing more innovation to consumers."

It's worth noting that not all tech companies are as protective of their voice assistants as Google. Amazon in particular has been a proponent of a more open approach; the company founded the Voice Interoperability Initiative to promote solutions similar to that developed by Sonos.

However, Lazarus suggested that this was an easy position for Amazon to take, given Google's refusal to play ball. "Because of Google's stance, Amazon's Voice Interoperability Initiative is an onramp into the Amazon ecosystem," he said.

Lazarus also told Protocol that voice interoperability is only one of a number of issues Sonos wants regulators to address. Other points of contention brought up during Tuesday's hearing included tech companies selling smart home products below cost, and allegedly pressuring smaller companies to give up trade secrets in order to integrate with their smart home platforms. These issues may be much harder to resolve than whether Alexa and Google Assistant can be accessed concurrently.

"This is an easy one, but one that would be great for consumers," Lazarus said.

Power

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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