Thursday, 30 November 2017 13:30

Amazon Alexa and Echo officially coming to Australia and NZ: early 2018

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Just missing out on the Christmas sales season in Australia, Amazon's Echo and Alexa are finally arriving down under early next year, with dev access too.

Amazon's Alexa is the cloud-powered brain that then powers Amazon's intelligent speaker, Echo. Ask Alexa to do a growing range of things, and through developer-accessible and developed "skills", it can do so much more than just answering questions, playing music, reading audiobooks, turning the lights on and off, giving you sports scores. 

The launch is significant because it means that Amazon will finally be "expanding the Alexa Skills Kit and the Alexa Voice Service to enable developers around the world to build voice experiences for Alexa customers in Australia and New Zealand."

Toni Reid, vice-president of Amazon Alexa, said: "The customer response to Alexa and Echo has been incredibly positive, and we’re excited to make them available for our Australian and New Zealand customers early next year. “We also look forward to helping new and existing developers create innovative Alexa experiences for customers by expanding the Alexa Skills Kit and Alexa Voice Service to Australia and New Zealand.”

So, what's so special about Amazon Echo? Its six-word description tells the story in a nutshell, which Amazon posits as "hands-free, always ready, and fast."

Amazon tells us that "Echo is designed around your voice and is hands-free and always ready – ask for information, music, news, weather, and more from across the room and get results instantly".

"Echo connects to your Wi-Fi network and uses far-field voice recognition with an array of seven microphones to clearly hear you around the room. Advanced beam-forming technology combines the signals from the individual microphones to suppress noise, reverberation and even competing speech.

"The advanced audio design of Echo includes a dedicated tweeter, a 6.35cm down-firing woofer, and Dolby processing to deliver crisp vocals and dynamic bass throughout the room."

And what else of Alexa, the "brain" behind Amazon Echo?

Amazon explains that "Alexa" is "built in the cloud, so the service is always getting smarter. Just ask and she’ll answer questions, play music, read the news, set timers and alarms, check your calendar, get sports scores, and much more.

"With far-field voice control on Amazon Echo, you can do all this from across the room using just your voice. With the expansion to Australia and New Zealand, Alexa will bring an all-new voice designed for customers in Australia and New Zealand, with local knowledge and skills.

"Alexa will also reimagine how customers experience music, with Amazon’s full catalogue on-demand music streaming service, Amazon Music Unlimited, also launching in early 2018. When paired with Alexa, customers can ask for music by artist, song title, curated playlists and more, simply by voice."

So, what's some extra detail for developers, who can finally create new skills for their customers in Australia and New Zealand, wherever those developers reside around the world?

As noted above, Amazon says it "will also make the Alexa Skills Kit available to developers interested in building skills for customers in Australia and New Zealand.

"ASK is a collection of self-service APIs and tools that make it fast and easy for developers to create new voice-driven capabilities for Alexa. No experience with speech recognition or natural language understanding is required—Amazon does all the work to hear, understand and process the customer’s spoken request so a developer doesn’t have to.

"In addition to offering skills from Uber, Spotify, Philips Hue, LIFX and more, Alexa will also have skills from Australian developers including Sky News Australia, Fox Sports, Qantas, Dimmi, Taste.com.au and Coastalwatch, and New Zealand developers like Air New Zealand, TVNZ, Newstalk ZB, New Zealand Herald, SKY TV and ZM Radio."

Amazon says: "These developers have received an early preview of ASK and are already building Alexa skills."

But that's not all – please read on after the image below. 

Alexa Voice Service device makers can integrate Alexa into their devices

Amazon advises "the Alexa Voice Service enables developers to integrate Alexa directly into their products, bringing the convenience of voice control to any connected device.

"Through AVS, hardware manufacturers will be able to build Alexa-enabled products and offer customers in Australia and New Zealand access to a growing number of Alexa features, smart home integrations and skills.

"AVS provides developers with access to a suite of resources to quickly and easily build Alexa-enabled products, including APIs, hardware development kits, software development kits and documentation. Brands including Harman Kardon and Sonos plan to release AVS products.

"The Alexa Skills Kit and Alexa Voice Service will be available for developers to build experiences for customers in Australia and New Zealand early next year. Developers can learn more about the Alexa Skills Kit and the Alexa Voice Service here." 

Opinion...

Amazon has already sold Alexa-powered Echo devices in the US for years now, and Google's Home devices and Google Assistant are widely available too, and are also being integrated into other devices, like an edition of the Bose 35 QC II wireless headphones I saw in a Best Buy vending machine in Las Vegas airport recently.

Apple is missing out with its HomePod delay, but with Siri in hundreds of millions of iPhones, iPads, iPods Touch, Macs, Apple Watch and within AirPods given that AirPods connect to Siri-powered devices, Apple's ecosystem sits ready to adopt HomePods at whatever speed individually desired when they finally launch.

Even Harman Kardon sells an Invoke speaker powered by Microsoft's Cortana, so there's plenty of competition in the space, including cheap Chinese-made made clones of Amazon Echo that offer part of the Alexa experience but without the much fuller integration into the Amazon ecosystem that Echo offers.

And we can't forget Samsung Bixby, either, which Samsung has available on the S8, S8+ and Note 8, and has already announced it will be deploying into speakers and more widely into its own range of consumer electronics, TVs and connected appliances in the future.

So, there you go – Alexa, Ok Google, Hey Siri, Hi Bixby and Hey Cortana stand ready to listen and serve, and I wonder how long it will be before these services can talk to each other, too, as you live your multi-device and OS life, in their quest to help you?

And just wait until these intelligent speakers start sprouting wheels, legs, arms, flight power through drone technology and more, and the next 10 years of the technological and robot revolution is going to be an amazing ride!

 

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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