The Google Assistant will be on 1 billion devices by the end of this month. That’s 900 million more than all the Alexa-enabled devices that Amazon and its partners have sold so far. The numbers are self-explanatory and yet, they do not paint the full picture.
The Google Assistant may be on a stupendous number of devices, but a stupendous number of these devices belong to one category, phones. Android phones. Android phones wherein the Google Assistant is the de-facto voice assistant. Whether you like it, or you don’t. Alexa can’t afford that luxury though which means every time Amazon and its partners sell an Alexa-enabled device, chances are, the buyer is choosing Alexa as their de-facto voice assistant.
Regardless, both Google and Amazon seem to be in a much better position now – than say a couple of years ago – which is probably why they are out bragging numbers in the first place. The next step, obviously, is to make the Google Assistant and Alexa available on more devices. Google calls it ‘the next billion users,’ and even though Amazon does not have a catchy slogan for it yet, we all know where it’s looking at, for its own next billion. India.
While Google will be looking for more and more mobile phones – KaiOS-powered feature phones will be on top of that list along with Go-edition entry-level devices – to let Google Assistant do the talking, Amazon will be relying on made in/for India Alexa skills to stand out.
Alexa made its India debut in October 2017 with 10,000 Skills and in less than 60 days of the Alexa India skill store going live, Amazon had added more than 1,000 new Skills to the store. In the last one year, it has doubled its Skill count. “There are over 20,000 Skills for Indian consumers now,” Amazon India’s country manager for Alexa Skills, Dilip RS, tells me.
“We started with very basic user cases and now we are building crazier and (more) complex user cases like Ganga Quest that one of our developers has built.”
That’s in stark contradiction to how things were in the US back in the day. The service made its home debut about four years ago with just 10-12 Skills and “had hardly a handful of Skills for the first year.”
While it’s easy to say that Amazon must have had some experience with Alexa before launching in India, which is also possibly why it was able to launch with as many as 10,000 Skills in the first place, even critics would agree: it wouldn’t have been easy to tailor Alexa for India. At least in the beginning.
“We have spent a lot of effort on ground,” Dilip says, adding that support from both developers and major brands has helped Alexa grow by leaps and bounds in a short period of time. Not that, Amazon has not done its bit.
“We've done a lot of webinars, hackathons, our own Alexa Developer days. We've partnered with AWS very closely to reach out to their developer base as well. We are working with universities to train college students as well. We are going to the entire spectrum and educating developers why they should build for voice, why this is the right time to do it and how they can go about doing it.”
The effort is bearing fruit. Amazon has over 40,000 developers on-board now, making India “one of the fastest growing developer bases for the company outside of the US.”
And not just developers, children as young as 13 are building Skills for Alexa. “Today, parents tend to encourage their kids to get into coding very early on and once they do, it is no rocket science to build a Skill for Alexa. It is simple,” Dilip says, adding that when he was in school, he didn’t even have access to a computer.
“We will never underestimate the potential that India brings to the table. Not just in terms of scale but also in terms of intelligence, tech ability and innovation. We try to harness that more than anything.”
But what about the challenges of localization within localization that India is known for. There are simply too many languages, too many dialects, to cater to. It’s easier said than done, even with that impressive developer base. Which is where Cleo comes into the picture. Cleo is basically a language learning Skill for Alexa to learn.
“We let customers choose from our 20 different Indian languages and we don't restrict it to a dialect. If someone chooses Kannada, they can choose to speak in whatever way Kannada is natural to them. Alexa will ask you a bunch of questions, it will take you through a small gamified experience and it will learn how you're speaking. That helps us not only to learn how to respond but also how to speak back,” Dilip explains.
Clearly, Amazon is at home in India. Now more than ever. But the Google Assistant is available on more devices.
“Jeff Bezos says, customers stick around with you till they find the next big thing, the next best thing. They are always divinely discontent. We believe that if we do the right job in building the best experiences for our developers who in turn can build for our customers, things (competition) will be taken care of by themselves."