Technology

At CES, Alexa proliferates: Is this Jeff Bezos' fourth pillar?

Companies ranging from appliance maker Whirlpool Corp to Ford Motor Co unveiled products featuring Alexa, the digital assistant from Amazon.

Two LG Smart InstaView Door-in-Door Refrigerators debut at Jan. 5, 2017 at CES 2017 in Las Vegas. The refrigerator incorporates Amazon's Alexa, which allows consumers to use “voice control” to order food items, stream videos and music, monitor food contents and much more through the refrigerator’s glass touchscreen panel.
(Jack Dempsey/AP Images for LG Electronics) | Caption
  • Julia Love
    Reuters

Amazon.com Inc's digital assistant appeared almost everywhere at the CES technology show this week in Las Vegas, even making an unexpected appearance on rival Google's Android system.

Companies ranging from appliance maker Whirlpool Corp to Ford Motor Co unveiled products featuring Alexa, the digital assistant from Amazon that responds to voice commands.

Most strikingly, Chinese firm Huawei Technologies Co , which manufactures smartphones running on the Android operating system produced by Alphabet Inc's Google, announced that its flagship handset will come with an app that gives users access to Alexa in the United States.

The adoption of Alexa by a prominent Android manufacturer indicates that Amazon may have opened up an early lead over Google as the companies race to present their digital assistants to as many people as possible, analysts said.

Earlier this year, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told Walt Mossberg at the Recode conference that Alexa would be the "fourth pillar" of the company's business. 

Many in the technology industry believe that such voice-powered digital assistants will supplant keyboards and touch screens as a primary way consumers interact with devices.

While the shift is only in the early stages, Google must establish a strong presence quickly, particularly on Android devices, to maintain its dominance in internet search, said analyst Jan Dawson of Jackdaw Research.

"To the extent that voice becomes more important and something other than Google's voice assistant becomes the most popular voice interface on Android phones, that's a huge loss for Google in terms of data gathering, training its AI (artificial intelligence), and ultimately the ability to drive advertising revenue," he said.

Alexa debuted on the Amazon Echo smart speaker, and Amazon is establishing a broad array of hardware and software partnerships around it. The competing Google Assistant launched last year on the company's Pixel smartphone, after appearing on Google's messaging app, and has begun to roll out to third-party devices as well. Graphics processor maker Nvidia Corp announced at CES that its Shield television will feature the assistant.

While Google has expressed an interest in bringing its assistant to other Android smartphones, the decision to debut the feature on its own hardware may have strained relations with manufacturers, Dawson said.

"It highlights just what a strategic mistake it can be for services companies to make their own hardware and give it preferential access to new services," he said.

A spokeswoman for Google declined to comment.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported, Ford is likely to be the first US carmaker to debut Alexa this summer. But writer Ben Rosen notes that most new vehicles today have software that connects to a smartphone and allows drivers to place phone calls or dictate texts hands free. Carmakers have gradually been improving these features to offer drivers more convenience as well as combat distracted driving.

But some transportation safety experts and advocacy groups warn that such technology isn’t necessarily safer. Voice commands might keep drivers’ hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. But prompting, say, Apple’s Siri or Amazon's Alexa can be just as mentally distracting to drivers. They say it is up to both drivers and the auto industry to realize this technology should improve driving first, and add convenience and entertainment to the driving experience second.

“If you start composing tweets while you’re driving, that’s a cognitive distraction. It’s not going to help you control, guide, or navigate the vehicle,” says David Hurwitz, an associate professor of transportation engineering at Oregon State University. “The more functionality we add to vehicles, the greater potential we add for in-vehicle distraction. That’s concerning. We need to think about that more.”

While Amazon has a head start, Google is no by no means out of the race, given the strength of its internet search technology. The Google Assistant can already field queries that Alexa cannot, said Sergei Burkov, chief executive of Alterra.ai, an artificial intelligence company.

"A huge part of an assistant is search," he said. "Google is a search company. Amazon is not." (Editing by Bill Rigby)