Open Alexa

While Siri, the original digital assistant, has languished as an important part of the Apple iPhone experience since her debut with the iPhone 4, in the last year Alexa has taken the world by storm. With no other platform than Amazon’s network of Dots and Echo speakers, Alexa has emerged as an important interface for Amazon.com and its partners. Alexa’s appeal lies less in her technical chops—her ability to parse words or synthesize speech—than in her tight integration with the Amazon database. However with antitrust scrutiny increasingly focused on Amazon which enjoys unprecedented market dominance not only in books but in many othe goods, Alexa’s tight vertical integration raises questions of market power. So far, however, developers face barriers to integrating with Alexa. Amazon chooses where to send Alexa requests and restricts devloper access to Alexa users. Enter Alexa Shop Assist, the hack that won the Techcrunch Hackathon this weekend.

Alexa Shop Assist—or future products in that vain—hold the promise of opening up Alexa and similar platforms such as Google Assistant and Microsoft Azure to a wider universe of participants. The fact that Alexa remains tightly integrated with Amazon Pantry, Amazon.com, Amazon Prime and Amazon’s content partners raises clear questions of antitrust. Traditionally vertical integration when connected with distributions has raised anti-competitive concerns because it limits the ability of other players to access the market, in this case users. Shop Assist, developed by a team of hackers at the Techcrunch Hackathon this weekend, is a solution for conventional retail stores that lack Amazon’s technology strenght. Fully implemented, it would let stores use Alexa to direct shoppers to products within a store that they might like to buy.

Developed by Lawrence Chang James Xu, Dinesh Thangavel, and Justin Tai, a group of Nvidia developers who won $5,000 for their work, the product uses Alexa’s technology to identify and suggest products. In a real world application, Amazon Dots would be placed in stores and augment the capacity of staff to answer questions and direct shoppers to products meeting their needs available for immediate purchase. The app keeps track of the voices of shoppers, so they can continue the conversation with Alexa as they move about the store.

Alexa Shop Assist does not represent the full scale opening up of the Alexa platform that is needed to create a truly robust ecosystem and allay anti-trust concerns. Nonetheless it is a step in the right direction. Alexa is a powerful technology with the potential to grow into a large ecosystem. But its ultimate shape await decisions by Amazon on how much it is willing to open up the platform.

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