Alexa App on iPad Can Now Initiate Phone/Video Calls and Send Messages to Echo Devices

Amazon is now allowing users to make phone calls, video calls, and send messages from an iPad, Android, or Fire tablet to an Alexa-enabled Echo device. Previously, users had to activate calls or send messages using an Echo, so now it should be easier to communicate within Amazon's Alexa ecosystem (via Engadget). To receive calls, users need any device with the Alexa app installed or an Echo speaker.

The update also introduces Drop In support for the Alexa app on iPads and other tablets, meaning that iPad users can quickly send a message to someone near an Echo in a different room. Engadget noted that the new features are easiest to access on Amazon's own Fire HD 10 tablet, where Alexa is supported across the software, but iPad users will of course first have to open the Alexa iOS app to initiate calls and send messages.

Amazon's Alexa assistant has been in the news recently for scaring some users after creepily laughing for no apparent reason. Amazon has acknowledged the events and said it's working on a fix to roll out to affected users. Additionally, late last week Alexa gained a new "Follow-Up Mode," which lets the assistant respond to multiple questions in quick succession, without requiring the user to repeat the "Alexa" wake up command.

Amazon Alexa is available on the iOS App Store for free. [Direct Link]

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Amazon Working on a Fix for Alexa Devices Scaring Users With Creepy Laughter

For the past couple of weeks, speakers equipped with Amazon's Alexa voice-based personal assistant have been randomly laughing, scaring and creeping out speaker owners who have affected devices.

Complaints have been surfacing on Twitter, Reddit, and other social media platforms over the course of the last few weeks, but the issue started receiving widespread attention this week after it was shared on BuzzFeed. From Reddit:
A friend of mine at work just a couple of days ago told me this very thing happened at his moms house. He was face timing with his her(he jokes she is jealous of Alexa, his dad just loves it) and out of the blue in the background Alexa started to laugh, he even heard it on his end. Said it was super creepy. I'm waiting the have the holy hell scared out of me one quiet evening...or even worse, awakened by the one a foot from my head while I'm sleeping.
Some audio examples of the Alexa laugh, with a humorous skit from Jimmy Kimmel included

In a statement provided to The Verge this morning, Amazon said that it is aware that some Alexa-enabled devices are randomly laughing and a fix is in the works. "We're aware of this and working to fix it," Amazon said.

Customers who have an Alexa-enabled device and are creeped out by the random and unprompted laughs may want to turn off their speakers until Amazon is able to locate the issue and push out a fix.

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Smart Speaker Survey States iPhone Owners 22 Percent More Likely to Buy Speakers, Favor Amazon Over Google

In January, surveyed 1,057 Americans over the age of 18 regarding their ownership or interest in smart speakers, and today the researchers have published their final report with the results. While the data precedes Apple's entry into the market with HomePod in February, it does include a few points of data regarding iPhone/iOS users and their interest in smart speakers, prevalent long before rumblings about Apple's HomePod began.

Specifically, the Smart Speaker Consumer Adoption Report states that iPhone owners are 22 percent more likely to own a smart speaker compared to non-Apple smartphone owners. Of the smart speakers on the market besides HomePod, iPhone users are 30 percent less likely to own a Google Home and favor devices like Amazon Echo.

Graphs via

In fact, argued that Apple and Amazon are likely companions in "multi-manufacturer households," where HomePod is purchased as a "luxury item for music listening" and Echo is used for more "utilitarian tasks."
iOS users are attractive consumers and far more likely to own a smart speaker overall, but far less likely to own a Google device. However, the data also suggests that Google is at less risk of losing share to Apple HomePod than Amazon. Apple and Amazon may be the focus of multi-manufacturer households where HomePod is a luxury item for music listening in living spaces while Echo products get placed in the kitchen and bedrooms for utilitarian tasks.

In addition, iPhone owners are a good fit for Amazon because they are far more likely to have made a purchase by voice and more likely the 30,000 Alexa skills offered to Echo users. The favoritism shown by Apple owners to Alexa devices may also appeal to developers. Historically, iPhone app users have been far more valuable to developers on a revenue basis than Android users.
The report has many other interesting tidbits of information, stating that about 19.7 percent of adults in the United States use smart speakers, while 47.3 million have access to one of these devices. This means that they live in a home with a smart speaker, but may not be the primary owner -- a necessary distinction for the survey as smart speakers are "communal devices" used by entire households, unlike a smartphone with one user.

Many consumers own an average of 1.8 smart speakers, most place them in their living room (45.9 percent of owners) or kitchen (41.4 percent), and Amazon remains the dominant player in the market with a 3.5 times larger install base than Google. All of this growth surprised many analysts, particularly compared to growth rates of other product categories.
How does the march to nearly 50 million smart speaker consumers in 3 years compared to growth rates of other communications channels? Television took 13 years, the internet four years, and Facebook just two years. Smart speakers are devices but are growing almost as quickly as social media apps."
Among the most popular use cases, questions, music, and weather commands remain at the top. In total, the researchers said that this data provides the best indication that smart speakers are "being incorporated into everyday lives of consumers," with 63 percent using them daily and 77 percent at least weekly.

For those who don't own a smart speaker, 37.9 percent stated disinterest as their reason, 21.2 percent said they get enough similar features from their smartphone, 16 percent referenced privacy concerns, 11.8 percent said they plan to purchase soon, 8.8 percent claimed they were too expensive, and 4.2 referenced other reasons. For future owners, 9.8 percent expect to make a purchase in 2018, 26 percent of which said they will be purchasing Apple's HomePod.

Related Roundup: HomePod
Buyer's Guide: HomePod (Buy Now)

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Amazon Starts Taking Pre-Orders from U.K. Customers for Echo Spot

Amazon began taking pre-orders from U.K. customers for its Alexa-powered Echo Spot speaker on Tuesday. Announced along with all-new Echo models in September 2017, the compact display-and-speaker unit has only been available in the U.S. before now.

The Spot is capable of standard Amazon Echo functions like controlling smart home devices and streaming music, but can also show users additional information like song lyrics, weather forecasts, and the time on its 2.5-inch display.

The circular unit can also play content from Amazon Video and YouTube, just like its bigger brother, the Echo Show.

The Echo Spot costs £120, although Amazon is currently offering a discount of £20 per unit when two are bought together (£200). Pre-orders are expected to ship on January 24, which means the entire Echo family will be available to U.K. customers from then on.

The Echo dot was the top-selling Amazon device over the 2017 holiday season, as well as "the best-selling product from any manufacturer in any category across all of Amazon," according to the e-commerce company.

As Amazon's Alexa devices continue to dominate the smart speaker market, Apple has plans to release its own music-focused smart speaker device, called HomePod, early this year.

HomePod will be controlled mainly through the user's voice using Siri, and include access to Apple Music and other expected smart speaker functionalities, like asking about the weather, traffic, setting reminders, timers, and more.

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Amazon Aims for Echo Speakers in Every Office With ‘Alexa for Business’

Amazon's aim to bring its highly popular at-home Echo smart speaker into the workplace got underway on Thursday with the launch of Alexa for Business. The announcement, made at the company's annual Amazon Web Services Summit in New York, sets the stage for Amazon's vision to make its virtual assistant the essential office accessory, able to book conference rooms, launch meetings, and order stationery.

Alexa already has features amenable to an office environment, such as the ability to make calls, operate lights, and check security camera feeds. Now Amazon wants developers to build the virtual assistant into apps that manage work calendars, find open meeting rooms, and order supplies.

As an intelligent assistant at work, Alexa for Business makes starting a conference call as simple as asking Alexa to "start the meeting." Alexa for Business can help workers manage calendars, keep up with to-do lists, and make phone calls. Around the office, Alexa for Business can handle tasks like notifying IT of an equipment issue, or finding and booking an open conference room—all with just a few words.
However, it's unclear how many companies will want to buy Echo speakers for every conference room, given the potential security implications of an "always listening" device. Amazon says its Echo speakers don't send anything to the cloud until users wake the devices by invoking them by name. However, Amazon does store requests in the cloud, which it says are used to help improve AI and develop new skills for the speakers.

Amazon sold "millions" of Alexa devices over the holiday shopping weekend, according to a company press release, with previous estimates suggesting it has sold more than 20 million Alexa devices over the last three years. RBC Capital Markets predicts that by 2020, Alexa device installations could reach 128 million. Over the same period, sales of the virtual assistants could result in more than $10 billion in revenues for Amazon, according to the firm.

Amazon has reportedly added hundreds of engineers to its Alexa program to maintain its edge over rivals like Google Assistant, Microsoft's Cortana, and Apple's Siri, all of which are in the process of building out their voice-activated offerings.

However, Apple will be even further behind after it recently delayed the HomePod's release until early 2018. The device was originally slated to launch in December, but the delay means the $349 speaker won't be ready in time for the holiday shopping season, which could lead customers to look at Echo or Google devices instead.

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Amazon ‘Echo Buttons’ Trivia Game Accessories Now Available to Pre-Order

Amazon has made its Echo Buttons, the company's "first Alexa gadgets", available to pre-order on its U.S. website. First announced in September, the $20 accessories come in packs of two and are designed to allow Amazon Echo owners to play family trivia games with the voice-activated smart speakers.

About 3 inches (76mm) wide and 1.5 inches (38mm) tall, the Echo Buttons each have a multi-color LED on top that lights up the push button. The devices are powered by two triple-A batteries and connect to Echo speakers via Bluetooth.

Amazon says the buttons will work with four Alexa skills when they ship on December 19 in time for the holidays, including name-that-song game "Beat the Intro" and "Fourth Down Football Trivia", with support for more sound effect and quiz games expected further down the line.

The Echo Buttons are compatible with all old and new Echo devices as well as the forthcoming Echo Spot, but they don't work with the Amazon Tap, Amazon Fire TV, or any other non-Echo device.

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Apple’s Early Version of HomePod Stood Three Feet Tall and Packed Dozens of Speakers

While the HomePod was only unveiled five months ago, a team of Apple audio engineers developed several speaker prototypes as a side project over the past five years or so, according to Bloomberg.

HomePod was originally a side project cooked up about five years ago by a group of Mac audio engineers, who wanted to create a speaker that sounded better than the ones sold by the likes of Bose, JBL, and Harman Kardon. Side projects aren't uncommon at Apple, where employees are encouraged to follow their muse so long as their day jobs come first.
The report claims one of the prototypes stood three feet tall, roughly five times as tall as the current HomePod, and was equipped with dozens of speakers. Another supposedly looked like a flat panel with a mesh screen on the front.

The side project was reportedly canceled and revived several times. It wasn't until 2014 that development of the speaker began to ramp up within Apple's accessories division, which also worked on the wireless AirPods.

Apple's focus was on creating a speaker with premium sound quality through the use of beam-forming speaker technology. The report claims Apple tested many variations of the speaker in specially designed audio chambers.

That same year, the report adds that Apple engineers were "blindsided" when Amazon launched its Echo speaker integrated with its voice-activated personal assistant Alexa, which is considered a hit with customers.
The Apple engineers jokingly accused one another of leaking details of their project to Amazon, then bought Echos so they could take them apart and see how they were put together. They quickly deemed the Echo’s sound quality inferior and got back to work building a better speaker.
Despite the Echo launching, Apple has maintained its focus on the HomePod being a high-quality speaker, which is exactly how Apple's marketing chief Phil Schiller positioned the product at its Worldwide Developers Conference in June.
The Siri team was told that the HomePod was about music and quality sound, one of the people said. Yes, the speaker would be voice-activated but it wouldn't be positioned as a personal assistant.
As of this year, the report claims the HomePod was just one of four or five areas that Apple's Siri team was working on, given the company apparently sees it as more of an accessory than a core product like the iPhone.

Given the HomePod will be mostly limited to streaming Apple Music, controlling HomeKit accessories, and sending messages through an iPhone, the report claims Apple will be "playing catchup" with Echo-like devices.
Apple could still eventually add features to the HomePod. These might include its own app ecosystem and support for competing music services. Even so, until that happens, Apple will still be playing catchup in a category invented by a company better known for e-commerce than hardware.
Apple will be even further behind after it delayed the HomePod's release until early 2018, after originally promising it would launch in December. The delay means the $349 speaker won't be ready in time for the holiday shopping season, which could lead customers to purchase an Echo or Google Home instead.

Related Roundup: HomePod

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Amazon Rolls Out Alexa Device Messaging and Calling to U.K. and Germany

Amazon is updating its Alexa app today to add support for messaging and calling on Alexa-powered smart devices in the U.K., Germany, and Austria (via The Verge).

The second-generation Echo in Charcoal Fabric

The Alexa voice calling feature will work on standard Echo and Echo Dot smart speakers, allowing the devices to call each other free of charge. iPhone and Android owners can also use the Alexa app to call the Alexa-powered devices directly.

Amazon's second-generation Echo devices hit Europe on October 31 and support the feature as standard, while video calling is limited to the display-based Echo Show device, which is set to become available in the U.K. and Germany next month.

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Google is Prepping a Tabletop Smart Screen Device to Rival Amazon’s Echo Show

Google is working on a tabletop smart screen for video calling and more that will go up against Amazon's Echo Show, according to sources who spoke to TechCrunch.

The Google device is internally codenamed "Manhattan" and will have a screen size similar to the 7-inch Echo Show, said two sources, one of whom reportedly received information directly from a Google employee. The device is said to run a version of Android, meaning it could be capable of running third-party apps, with Netflix being mooted as a possibility.

Amazon's Echo Show device.

Both sources claim the device will offer access to Google Assistant, Google Photos, and YouTube – which goes some ways to explaining why the latter video service was unceremoniously pulled from Amazon's Echo Show on Tuesday.

Google's device will also reportedly work as a smart hub for controlling other connected smart home gadgets and appliances, similar to Amazon's new Echo Plus speaker unveiled earlier this week.

According to TechCrunch's sources, the original target launch date for the Manhattan device was mid-2018, but Google is apparently under intense pressure to get the product out the door before the end of this year, given that the Echo Show is already on the market. Google has a hardware event scheduled for October 4, but it's unclear if the device will make an appearance.

Other rumors floating about suggest the tech giant is readying an upmarket version of its Google Home smart speaker to rival Apple's upcoming $350 HomePod. Known internally as "Google Home Max", the "premium" device is said to feature stereo speakers housed in a high-quality design.

Thanks to leaks, we already know that Google will announce a mini version of its Google Home speaker at its hardware event, alongside new Pixel smartphones and a rebranded Google Pixelbook. But there's also talk of $159 Google-branded Bluetooth earbuds on the way with Google Assistant built-in.

Whatever the exact line-up of products the company drops on October 4, stay tuned to MacRumors for a full summary immediately following the event next week.

Related Roundup: HomePod
Tags: Google, Amazon Echo

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Google Pulls Access to YouTube on Amazon’s Echo Show Smart Speaker

Google pulled access to YouTube through Amazon's display-based Echo Show smart speaker on Tuesday, a move that appears to have angered Amazon and led to conflicting public statements by both companies over the sudden move.

"Currently, Google is not supporting Youtube on Echo Show." That's the message Alexa started giving Echo Show owners yesterday afternoon when they tried to access the video service. An Amazon spokesperson later confirmed to The Verge that YouTube was no longer available on Echo Show devices, and offered a statement implying that Google's decision had been an unwelcome surprise.

Google made a change today around 3 pm. YouTube used to be available to our shared customers on Echo Show. As of this afternoon, Google has chosen to no longer make YouTube available on Echo Show, without explanation and without notification to customers. There is no technical reason for that decision, which is disappointing and hurts both of our customers.
Google issued its own statement to The Verge shorty afterwards, contradicting Amazon's assertion that the move had been made without fair warning.
We've been in negotiations with Amazon for a long time, working towards an agreement that provides great experiences for customers on both platforms. Amazon's implementation of YouTube on the Echo Show violates our terms of service, creating a broken user experience. We hope to be able to reach an agreement and resolve these issues soon.
The move comes as a blow to Amazon's hopes for its Echo Show smart speaker, given that it has been marketed with a heavy emphasis on the device's display, which lets users see details related to their Alexa queries and watch online video – food recipes for instance, which are often hosted on YouTube.

Google's decision to pull access reflects similar moves by the company to protect its vision of how the YouTube service should function and appear to users. Earlier this month, Google forced popular iOS app ProTube off the App Store after serving the developer multiple takedown requests because it said the app violated YouTube's terms of service.

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