Amazon dropped something of a curve ball on Friday when it announced that its voice-enabled Amazon Echo smart speakers are now officially available to purchase in more than 80 new markets around the world.
Up until now, you could only (officially) procure the speakers in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Germany, Australia, Japan, and India. So the news represents a huge expansion for Amazon, its Alexa digital assistant, and, of course, the Echo devices themselves.
However, there was a major caveat to this expansion: digging down into the fine print revealed that Amazon Echo will only “begin to ship to these new countries,” via Amazon.com. There was no mention of localized versions of Alexa or the Alexa Skills Kit because the Echo devices aren’t shipping with French, Spanish, Swedish, Polish, or Dutch support built in — users around the world are expected to converse with Alexa in English. Or German / Japanese if that’s their preference.
This represents a major deviation from Amazon’s typical course so far. When the Echo landed in the U.K. and Germany last year, it was properly localized for the U.K. and Germany; when it touched down in Japan last month, Alexa was conversant in Japanese, while local developers were given access to the Alexa Skills Kit and Alexa Voice Service; and when the Echo arrived in India, yes it was only available in English, but English is an official language in India, and Amazon created a “customized Indian experience” with an “all-new English voice” that understands and converses in local pronunciations and intonation.
So why would Amazon suddenly open the doors to Echo buyers in dozens more markets without adhering to its usual localization efforts?
Rush to market
The global smart speaker market is estimated to hit around $13 billion by 2024, according to some reports. The Echo is already topping sales charts during many popular shopping periods such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and it’s thought that around 70 percent of smart speakers sold this year will run on the Alexa platform. With Google pushing its competing Home speaker to more markets, and Apple delaying its HomePod until 2018, Amazon is looking to strike when the iron is hot.
Teaching Alexa to understand and speak new languages to a high level is an extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming endeavor. To scale the Alexa platform and properly localize for every market would take too long and would ultimately be impractical. With Christmas coming up, and English the most widely spoken second language on Earth, Amazon wants to capitalize on the lead it has built so far. That’s why it’s now making the Echo available to buy in so many more markets.
The full list is:
Albania, Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, Aruba, Barbados, Belarus, Belgium, Benin, Bermuda, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, British Virgin Islands, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Cayman Islands, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, French West Indies – Guadeloupe, French West Indies – Martinique, Gabon, Georgia, Ghana, Gibraltar, Greece, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Hungary, Iceland, Jamaica, Kenya, Latvia, Lesotho, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macao, Macedonia, Malta, Montenegro, Montserrat, Namibia, Netherlands, Netherlands Antilles, Norway, Panama, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Romania, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Sweden, Tanzania, Thailand, Togo, Trinidad & Tobago, Turks & Caicos, Ukraine, Uruguay, US Virgin Islands, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Zambia.
The eagle-eyed among you will notice that there are still huge holes in the Echo’s available markets: people in Argentina, Brazil, France, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and many other markets still can’t officially buy the Echo. So why open up sales to Belarus and Belgium, but not France and Italy? And why ship to Chile and Colombia, but not Argentina and Brazil? The gaps are somewhat revealing about Amazon’s grand plan for its burgeoning Echo line of smart speakers and — more importantly — Alexa.
Reading between the lines
We already know that Alexa and Echo is coming to Australia and New Zealand next year, so Amazon wouldn’t now open shipping for an experience anything other than one that is fully localized. Using that as our starting point, looking at other “obvious” missing markets gives a strong indication as to the company’s future localization intentions.
Rather than opening to half-baked anglicized experiences just now, it’s likely that Amazon is working on localizing Alexa (and hence the Echo) for France, perhaps Italy, and maybe even South Africa. Looking at the Spanish-speaking markets, Spain is also likely to receive a localized Alexa / Echo experience, as is Argentina and maybe even Mexico. And we can likely expect Brazilian Portuguese added to Alexa’s linguistic skillset, too.
Looking at Amazon’s competitors also serves as a useful guidance on other potential Alexa language expansions. Google Home is currently localized for English in the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia, while it’s also tailored for France, Germany, and Japan. However, the Google Assistant is also conversant in Korean, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese (Brazil), Hindi and Indonesian, which will make launching Google Home in those markets easier. Apple’s Siri has been trained in more than 20 languages, including Italian, various flavors of Spanish, Korean, Arabic, and Chinese, which should in theory make it easier for Apple to scale HomePod across many markets, though it will be limited to just a handful of English-language markets initially.
The global smart speakers battle is only just beginning. An Amazon spokesperson told VentureBeat that it has “nothing further to add” regarding its future roadmap for Echo and Alexa. But in opening Echo shipments to over 80 markets yesterday, it gave a big insight into what markets it is really going to double-down on with Alexa.