When Amazon announced Alexa’s first big global push last year, some were left scratching their heads about the rollout, and how well suited Amazon’s voice-activated speaker was for a global audience. The device launched in 80 countries, but somewhat differently than it had rolled out in other international locations like England, Germany and Japan. When Alexa debuted in those nations, users were able to converse with Alexa in their native language — and developers were given local language editions of the Alexa Skills Kit and Alexa Voice Service to program in.
But when Amazon announced last year’s mass rollouts, spectators were surprised by two things. First, nations like Brazil, France, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand did not make the cut for holiday 2017. Its language range was also fairly limited — to English, German and Japanese.
At the time, the move was written off to timing pressure — Amazon wants to get its products to the global market faster than it can conceivably teach Alexa to speak every human language.
A little less than a year later, Amazon has clearly expanded its global ambitions. In the last year Alexa and Echo have transitioned into France, Spain, Mexico and Italy. Amazon is also looking to bolster its localization efforts around commerce, particularly in India where reports indicate it is looking to actively recruit brands and business to partners with its voice-activated platform.
But while Amazon is clearly thinking more globally about its voice technology, there are still some strong indications it has a bit more thinking locally to do — particularly when it comes to communicating on a global scale.
Around The World With Echo In 2018
France was 2018’s first big announced new international expansion, with Alexa officially online in early June. Echo France rolled out will full French language support, along with a series of other locally-focused skills and features.
“We’ve built an entirely new experience from the ground up that honors the French language and culture, allowing customers to just ask to get music, weather, news, information, and more,” said Amazon Vice President Jorrit Van der Meulen. “And there are already hundreds of skills for French customers from some of the most popular brands in France.”
While France was first out of the gate, Amazon had three international announcements left to go for the year. A few weeks after the France expansion was announced and devices started shipping, Amazon further announced that it would be adding language support for Spanish and Italian and that it would offer developers early access to test their Alexa skills in both Spanish and Italian.
Amazon’s official expansion into Italy and Spain began in October of 2018 when devices began shipping, and was followed out of the gate by Amazon’s announcement in early November that Alexa would also be expanding into Mexico.
At the time of the announcement, Amazon noted that Alexa had learned to speak Mexico-specific Spanish; the experience was built in a way “that honors Mexican culture,” Amazon Alexa Vice President Toni Reid said at the time of the announcement, adding, “This experience has been custom-made for Mexico, and we cannot wait to hear what our customers think.”
That focus on customizing the experience to local needs has also been on Amazon's agenda as it has been evangelizing its Echo devices and voice services in India, according to reports. While the only local language on offer is English — which technically is the nation’s official language — in the last year alone Amazon has grown its developer pool within India from about 10,000 to around 40,000. That growth has mostly been carried by the power of recruiting and training seminars.
“We connect webinars and training stations at shared workspaces, in major metros, institutes and beyond,” Dilip R.S., country manager of Alexa skills for India, told TechCircle. “India is our second largest market after the United States. We do not restrict developers, but most of them build their skills for Indian users.”
With its persistent — if not incredibly fast — push for global expansion, and its deepening focus on localizing its voice services to local needs as it enters markets, it is clear that Amazon is serious about Echo and Alexa playing on the global stage.
But for all the progress it has made in the last year, it is continually hit by the same criticism: to really be a global player, Alexa has a lot of work to do on its foreign (non-English) language skills.
The Language Barrier
In the roughly four years since Alexa launched, the firm has added support for only five non-English languages. It’s not a terribly impressive figure on it its own — and looks even less impressive when stacked against the language support on offer by some of its competitors. Within a year of launch, Siri supported every language Alexa now does — along with Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese. As of today, Apple’s voice assistant speaks 21 languages. Meanwhile, Google Assistant had 15 languages when it launched 18 months after Alexa with its Home Assistant, and the plan is reportedly to expand that figure to 30 languages by year's end. Google Assistant can also reportedly understand a user who speaks two supported languages interchangeably. Even Cortana is ahead of Amazon’s Alexa, with support for seven languages.
Critics have noted that while it is very difficult to localize services — and to teach language skills via artificial intelligence (AI) well enough to converse with a voice-activated speaker — given Amazon’s size, scale and clearly global ambitions, the relatively slow pace of adding new language skills to its smart-speaker device is odd.
Then again, when sending a device into homes to converse in real time with consumers, perhaps conservatism is the way to go, since a badly-programmed AI voice assistant that says something wrong and mortally offends its owner might not see too much future use. Amazon might prefer to make consumers wait to talk to their virtual assistant in their native tongue, rather than risk their AI getting that first conversation wrong and thereby short-circuiting all future conversations.
Moreover, Alexa by nature of its parentage is an AI assistant with a particularly sharp focus on retail, and generating consumer spend. It is possible that Amazon cares most about the markets where it believes Alexa can live up to its full commercial potential and is most focused on those transitions happening earliest. Being the most multilingual AI in the world may be of lower priority than that.
However it moves forward however, it is clear Alexa's global push will continue. We'll keep you posted on new developments as they roll out.