US e-commerce giant Amazon prioritised bringing its Alexa-powered smart speakers to India over other countries where the company had been in business for far longer because it felt its voice-based solution could cut through literacy barriers far better than any smartphone app.
While India has a massive base of 250 million smartphone users, that number still represents just a fifth of the country's population. For the remainder, the company feels a voice-based solution such as Echo and Alexa could be just as potent if not more potent than a smartphone to get them to shop online.
"India is actually the fourth country where we've launched Alexa and Echo. We prioritised it over various other markets where we have been a lot longer and that tells you the potential that we saw in the country," says Puneesh Kumar, Country Manager - India, Alexa Experiences and Devices at Amazon.
The Echo speakers, which were launched in October, are far from devices that will help customers in rural India to order products through Amazon. Instead, the company says by getting the devices into homes of early adopters, it can begin that journey by learning the nuances of what Indians want.
Right out of the box, the Echo speakers are tuned to understanding Indian accents and will respond to a set of 10,000 different commands. In contrast, when the first Echo was released in the US three years ago, the speaker could just respond to thirteen different responses, showing how far the company has already come.
Being connected to the cloud means these devices can gain new skills on the fly, requiring no new hardware or even a software update. Moreover, the company says once it has a sizeable base of users in India, its machine learning algorithms will really kick in and help advance the capabilities of the Echo.
"What excites us is that voice breaks through your literacy barrier, so that potential is there. How well we execute that depends on how well we listen to customers. For us the current customers are not just an elite persons who are early adopters, they are the ones who will help shape Alexa," adds Kumar.
Essentially, Amazon wants to learn how Indians speak to Alexa, what they ask it and how best to serve their needs through the voice assistant. This will then give the company the data and learning to start taking the Echo speakers and Alexa to other Indian customers and eventually those who still have not been exposed to the world of apps and smartphones.
While ordering products and services on Amazon by speaking into an Echo speaker is the hopeful outcome, it represents just a fraction of the capabilities of the devices. Amazon understands that for the devices to become a part of a customer's life, it needs to do a lot more than just help them buy products online.
Understanding this, Amazon has made the platform open. Developers can take advantage of Alexa and allow customers to do a whole host of things using the devices, including booking cabs, ordering food online, getting the latest news, etc. For Amazon, this also gives it a whole lot of data on its customer even when they are not shopping for products from it.
"So you can book a cab from Ola or Uber, order stuff from Zomato or Freshmenu, you can ask for news from NDTV, Aaj Tak or Indian That's the open architecture that we're following and that's what we've learnt from the e-commerce side as well. We come from the marketplace side where we enable hundreds and thousands of sellers to sell to customers," says Kumar.
Amazon is not the only company that has this idea. Google and Apple too have released products that give users access to their voice assistants outside of smartphones. While Amazon is the first to bring its smart speakers to India, Google's devices are on their way and considering how entrenched the Internet search giant already is in the country, it could prove to be a worthy adversary.
For Google, which relies on collecting user data to show them more relevant ads, knowing their every query is invaluable. Moreover, with the company already having a significant edge in terms of local languages through its dominance with Android in the Indian market, the company will pull all stops to beat Amazon in India.