Amazon's Alexa is coming north— complete with 'Canadian accent'
Alexa, which can control household appliances and security systems and provide a virtual office receptionist, also offers hands-free access to music, weather and news. Alexa had been available only in the U.S., the U.K. and Germany— until now.
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Alexa, the cloud-based, voice-activated digital assistant developed by Amazon, is finally going live in Canada.
Amazon Canada on Tuesday begins shipping the voice-controlled Echo speaker devices that enable Alexa, which has also launched for business customers.
Alexa, which can control household appliances and security systems and provide a virtual office receptionist, also offers hands-free access to music, weather and news. The popular service until now had been available only in the U.S., the U.K. and Germany.
Amazon said Alexa will include an English-language voice with a “Canadian accent” and local knowledge informed by Canadians, after the company opened the Alexa Skills Kit and Alexa Voice Service for local developers and hardware makers to create integrations called “skills” built and published for the market here.
Companies including Toronto Star publisher Torstar, as well as Manulife, Telus and Air Canada, have collaborated with Amazon so that their customers can use Alexa to access products and services.
The Star’s Alexa skill can be accessed on the Alexa store within the Amazon website as of Tuesday. Users who set the Toronto Star as a primary source in their Flash Briefing list can ask the device, “Alexa, what’s in the news?” and then hear the top headlines from the Star. These headlines are updated hourly.
“We’ve been excited about at-home smart devices for some time now,” said Angus Frame, senior vice-president of digital products at Torstar.
“In anticipation of the Amazon Alexa launch in Canada, we started experimenting with the technology during an internal Hack Day where we explore emerging technologies and think through new experiences for our customers.
“As our audience in this space grows, we’ll continue to evolve our product offering to meet the needs and interests of our customers. We’re excited to be involved with the Canadian launch of Amazon Alexa to deliver the Star’s journalism on the platform,” Frame said.
Manulife, for its part, has announced the Manulife Benefits skill for Alexa, which will allow voice-activated tracking of vision care, dental and other medical account balances through Alexa-enabled devices in Canada, starting this month.
“The days of expecting plan members to fill out forms or wait for a response on a quick balance check are over. Smartphones and other technologies have changed the way people do things,” said Donna Carbell, senior vice-president of group benefits.
Calling itself a big believer in conversational commerce, Air Canada says it is the first Canadian airline to develop a skill for devices with Alexa that will respond to spoken questions about such things as fare quotes and the status of Air Canada flights.
“Advances in innovative and new technologies … have great promise to deliver more convenience for our customers,” said e-commerce vice-president Mark Nasr in a statement.
B.C.-based Telus has also collaborated with Amazon to let customers communicate with the company via Alexa-enabled devices for account information and to make changes such as adding roaming services.
While the Echo had been rapidly gaining popularity in the U.S. since its launch in 2014, Canadian technology fans had wondered when it would be available north of the border. Amazon Canada on Nov. 15 announced pre-orders for the Echo, Echo Plus and Echo Dot, with “special introductory pricing” for a limited time of $99.99, $129.99. and $49.99, respectively. The devices are also being sold at retailers such as the Source and Best Buy.
As well, Amazon in November opened up its Prime Music streaming service to Prime members in Canada, with more than one million songs available to stream free for Prime members.
The market for devices that enable automation of home systems such as lighting and security, meanwhile, is forecast to grow rapidly and to be a key driver for Best Buy and other retailers, according to a report from ZMR, a market research firm.
It says the global smart-home market, dominated by the U.S., was valued at $24.1 billion (U.S.) in 2016 and is expected to reach $53.45 billion by 2022, for a 14.5-per-cent compounded annual growth rate.
Revenue in the Canadian market will reach $665 million this year and is expected to post an annual growth rate of 24 per cent through 2022, according to consumer research firm Statista, which says about 9.8 per cent of domestic households currently boast smart-home technology.
Many new homes are being built with the additional wiring and controls required to run advanced automation systems, and the ZMR report says the increasing availability of remotely controlled connected devices — along with a desire to reduce energy consumption — is helping spur the market.