Star Perfomers: Amazon's on Fire

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In just three months' time, Seattle-based online retailer Amazon.com orchestrated three back-to-back hardware product launches that prominently feature voice technologies. The first, in early April, was the Fire TV set-top box. Fire TV, which relies on voice recognition technology from Nuance Communications, works with a remote control that lets users instantly search for TV shows, movies, actors, directors, and genres using only voice, eliminating the need for typing or scrolling to find the content they want. And whenever a user performs a voice search using Fire TV, the device saves a recording of the voice to improve the quality of future search results.

Also in April, the company launched Amazon Dash, a mobile device tied to Amazon Fresh, a grocery delivery service Amazon offers in Southern California, San Francisco, and Seattle. Amazon Dash lets Amazon Fresh customers add items to their online grocery lists with either a built-in bar code scanner or by speaking into a built-in microphone. The idea is to help people order groceries more efficiently when they're running low on certain products.

In June, the company launched its much-anticipated Fire smartphone, featuring the Evi app, Amazon's voice-based personal assistant developed by True Knowledge, which Amazon acquired in April 2013. Evi, which at its core relies on voice recognition technology from Nuance, uses natural language processing to understand what a user wants and means. Also included is the Mayday button, a free, instant voice- and video-enabled customer service feature made popular on Amazon's Kindle devices.

Rumors had circulated for years that Amazon was working on a smartphone to take on Apple's Siri-equipped iPhone, but many have suggested that the Fire is a different breed of smartphone.

"I look at the Amazon Fire phone differently than I look at the Apple iPhone or Google Android," says Jeff Kagan, an Atlanta-based independent wireless analyst. "I don't see the Amazon Fire phone being a direct competitor. I don't see this device having a major impact on the traditional wireless marketplace. Rather, it will help Amazon.com sell more stuff."

Nonetheless, for Amazon to pull off these three launches in such rapid succession shows a concerted effort by the company to break into the speech industry. Amazon's first foray into the industry began in 2011 with its acquisition of Yap, a voice-to-text start-up based in North Carolina. Yap produced a voicemail-to-text transcription app for smartphones.

Next, Amazon acquired Polish text-to-speech company Ivona Software in January 2013. Ivona's software was already powering the TTS, Voice Guide, and Explore by Touch features on Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets. "Ivona's exceptional text-to-speech technology leads the industry in natural voice quality, accuracy, and ease of use," Dave Limp, vice president of Amazon Kindle, said in a release at the time. "The Ivona team shares our passion for innovation and customer obsession, and we look forward to building great products to deliver world-class voice solutions to customers around the world."

With Amazon making what is clearly a multimillion-dollar investment in the space, you can bet the company is serious about speech technology. But its impact has yet to be seen. Fire, for example, "is Amazon's first phone. Like with the first iPhone or first Android, it [will get] better every year," Kagan predicts.

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