There might be another use for Amazon’s and Google’s popular home speakers coming this year, with both companies considering turning them into home phones.
The Wall Street Journal reported that sources said Amazon’s Echo or the Google Home could be used to make or receive calls, a functionality that would give consumers further control over their digital lives at home. The new feature could even be launched sometime this year, although there are concerns over privacy, telecom regulations and emergency services.
Sources said that allowing Amazon Echo or Google Home to call friends or local businesses is the logical next step for the artificial intelligence-powered speakers. The speakers currently respond to voice commands to do things like play music, answer questions and control aspects of the home (such as turning lights on and off). The Echo also lets consumers order from Amazon.
Amazon launched its Echo in 2014 and started working on the phone feature the next year, but employee turnover has slowed the process. And while Google only started selling its home speaker in late 2016, the company has been running voice, text and other online communications services for about a decade. Amazon’s only foray into the phone business was with the Fire smartphone, which flopped in 2014.
This new feature would have a direct impact on an already deteriorating landline business, but are consumers willing to make calls on a device that has the ability to record conversations? Research shows that people consider phone conversations to be the third most sensitive data category, after Social Security numbers and health conditions. The Echo and Google Home already continuously record audio locally in chunks of a few seconds at a time, with both companies giving the option to go back and delete recordings from the cloud.
“We’re headed to a world of embedded sensors in everything, that measure everything, that see everything, that hear everything,” said Albert Gidari, director for privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society. “The reality is that technology ... kind of blurs law for privacy.”
In addition to privacy concerns, there is also debate over how the phone feature would coincide with federal laws that allow law enforcement agencies to wiretap calls in real time. App-to-app internet calls, like through Facebook WhatsApp and Apple FaceTime, are immune to the law, as is Skype.
Another concern is a user’s ability to call 911. Most internet calling services, such as Skype, don’t allow for U.S. 911 calls and get around a federal law requiring all two-way calling services to reach 911 by offering inbound and outbound voice service separately. There is also the issue of the common 911 fees charged by local jurisdictions and who would cover that monthly charge.