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With Alexa, Amazon Plans To "Democratize Voice In India." It's Still Day One.

Amazon has big ambitions for Alexa in India, where voice recognition is considered "the next big innovation." But for now, she only speaks English.

Posted on October 18, 2018, at 10:01 p.m. ET

Amazon / Via

These are the people I know in India who own an Amazon Echo device: a freelance technology writer who uses Alexa to stream music; someone who runs a YouTube channel that reviews gadgets for Indians; and a self-described early adopter (who also just ordered the latest Apple Watch). They also all happen to speak English, still the only language Alexa understands in India.

It's hardly a diverse bunch. Yet Amazon says its plans for Alexa are much more ambitious.

“We want to democratize voice in India,” Puneesh Kumar, a country manager at Amazon who heads up Alexa in India, told BuzzFeed News. Indeed, many people in Amazon’s India headquarters in Bangalore, which sprawls across 13 floors of a large office complex, think plenty about this.

“Voice is the next big innovation and Alexa is at the forefront of this disruption,” Amazon said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “After the mobile phone and smartphones which ushered the touchscreen era, we believe that voice interfaces are going to be ubiquitous.” It also provides another channel for people to enter Amazon's universe: Alexa can “read you Kindle books, reorder you various Prime products from, [and] give you innovative voice controls of music with Amazon Music.”

Yet the reality of voice at the moment is far humbler. The typical uses for Alexa in India are still simple: playing music, asking about the weather, setting reminders, and getting news updates. And while Amazon has aggressively pushed its smart speakers since launching them in India a year ago, offering aggressive discounts and free, year-long Prime memberships, the people buying them remain tech-forward early adopters with a lot of disposable income. Entering the Alexa ecosystem is hardly mainstream in a country where most people make less than $130 a month.

Google, Amazon’s largest rival in the space, launched Google Home, its own Echo competitor in India in April after the arrival of Alexa, but Google, for years, has been aggressively tailoring its products and services for India, a large and complex market where people speak dozens of languages. It also has put Google Assistant on $20 feature phones, which means millions of Indians are growing up using voice on Google services without having ever heard of Alexa. They speak to conduct Google searches, find places on Google Maps, and pull up videos on YouTube — all on inexpensive Android phones that are ubiquitous in the country.

Sumit Sinha, a Mumbai-based banker who owns an Echo device, was gifted an Echo speaker by his brother-in-law on this birthday earlier this year. “It was cool in the beginning, but now I only use it to play a song or two every once in a while,” he said. “I definitely get a lot more value out of talking to my Android phone because it’s with me all the time, while Alexa pretty much just sits on my bedside table.”

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Miriam Daniel, Amazon's vice president of Echo and Alexa devices, was in the country earlier this month to launch Amazon’s newest Echos ahead of India’s festival season that kicks off in October and stretches all the way till the middle of November and, like yearend in the US, is the year’s biggest shopping season in the country. “It’s early tech adopters buying it for themselves, and for their children, and their parents," Daniel said when asked about who is buying Echo devices in India right now.

For weeks, Amazon has been plastering newspaper jackets in India with ads for the Echos and offering aggressive discounts to get Indians to buy its line of smart speakers. Echo devices are prominently featured on the homepage. Earlier this month, it put Echo speakers and Alexa-controlled appliances like air conditioners and smart bulbs all over a large, three-story house in a plush New Delhi neighborhood furnished entirely with things bought from Amazon in a demo.

“I think voice is a stronger fit for emerging markets than it is for mature markets,” said Amazon's Kumar. “Voice helps people in markets like India do so many more things and enables them to use the internet with minimal restrictions and learning curve.”

The potential for voice assistants to take off in India is strong, if they're designed correctly. Speaking to a device to ask it for information comes more naturally to millions of Indians who have never used a keyboard, a smartphone, or the internet before. So technology companies are placing their bets on voice.

Yet smart-speaker makers have only recently begun to think about India. Amazon brought Alexa to India only a year ago, having launched in the US in 2014. The company doesn't release sales numbers, but Daniel told BuzzFeed News that Alexa so far has “hundreds of thousands” of customers in India.

And for now, Alexa in India only speaks in and understands English: a language used by a little over 10% of Indians. Meanwhile, Google supports voice search in 11 Indian languages; and Google Assistant currently supports two but will support seven more in the near future, according to a Google spokesperson.

Amazon did put in the work to make sure Alexa's accent is Indian, and she’s familiar with Indian pop culture in broad strokes. Her favorite Bollywood actor is Shahrukh Khan (“Beyond his acting, I also love how well-read, charming, and witty he is,” Alexa dished to me), her favorite sport is cricket, and her favorite song is an old Bollywood classic. Which is cute.

Developers have created over 18,000 skills — voice-controlled apps that add extra functionality to Alexa — for users in India. (There were over 100 skills of just cat facts when we last looked.) Daniel said Indians love to ask Alexa about astrology and horoscopes, and to play devotional songs.

“The diversity in India has made Alexa a lot smarter,” said Daniel. “But it’s still Day One.”

Alexa India, with an Indian accent.

To get Alexa to more people without relying on the Echo, Amazon’s working with third-party manufacturers in India to integrate the assistant into devices like headphones and speakers. Amazon said its festival sale in India is the “biggest” ever for everything from $10 headphones to $1,000 music systems with Alexa built in. On Amazon’s Indian website, there are nearly 1,000 entries for appliances like smart plugs and light bulbs that work with Alexa devices, even if all you have is the cheapest Echo speaker (which still costs $60 in India).

Thinking about the future of Alexa hardware, Amazon also is solving for problems unique to India where millions more people have access to cheap LTE on their smartphones than have fast, reliable WiFi at home, and power connections are unreliable. Daniel said the company could build an Echo device that would let you use your phone’s hotspot for internet access and is working on “battery boots” for the Indian market — battery cases that users can put in their inexpensive Echo Dot speakers into in the event of a power failure.

“The first wave of growth for Alexa in India will come from the tech-savvy, well-heeled, English-speaking users. It’s natural for Amazon to make that their first priority,” Tarun Pathak, an analyst at Counterpoint Research, told BuzzFeed News. For now, Amazon is focused on “getting everyone in India who can afford to buy an Echo to get one. That’s not a billion people, but it’s not a tiny market either.”

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.