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Siri and Alexa Battling to Become Go-To Voice Assistants in Hotel Rooms

Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa are being put through their paces in a "tech incubator" hotel chain, in order to determine which voice assistant brings more to the table for guests wanting to order room service, control lights, change TV channels, adjust the temperature, and more (via Bloomberg). The main incubator for the test is happening in Aloft Hotels, which are owned by Marriott. The Aloft Hotel in Boston is using Amazon Echo devices and a collection of iPhones and iPads to gather information on which voice assistant will ultimately best serve guests in the long run. Marriott hasn't divulged information on who might be the winner as of yet, but the company did say that it expects to decide if it will expand the test to more chains besides Aloft Hotels "as early as mid-year." Marriott expects to decide whether to adopt the technology for one or more of its chains as early as mid-year, potentially boosting sales for the device of choice. More important, it will increase the winning company’s exposure in the market for voice-activated devices, which are gaining more mainstream traction. “Those two players are in the game right now,” said Toni Stoeckl, who oversees the Aloft, Element, AC and Moxy chains as global brand leader for lifestyle brands at Marriott. There are almost 130 Aloft hotels in the U.S., and more than 100 additional ones planned. Carolina Milanesi, a market analyst with Creative Strategies, compared the introduction of voice assistants into hotel rooms to when the hospitality industry began putting iPhone docking stations into rooms so guests

Amazon Brings 'Send to Kindle' Read-it-Later Feature to Safari iOS

Amazon has added a long-awaited Pocket-style read-it-later feature to its Kindle iOS app that allows users browsing the web to send articles to their Kindle device for offline reading. Amazon has offered desktop Chrome and Firefox browser extensions to feed into its Send to Kindle feature for some time, but the company had not offered a Safari-compatible iOS solution until now. The new feature works as a Send to Kindle extension in Safari's Share Sheet. After updating the Kindle app, users can add the extension by scrolling to the end of the first row of icons in Share Sheet, tapping the More button, and enabling it in the app list. Users can find saved articles at the top of their library in the Kindle app as well as any Kindle devices associated with their Amazon account. Articles are saved in Kindle format, meaning users can adjust their look in the usual way via the text, font, page color, and line spacing options. The articles are also compatible with Kindle features like dictionary lookup, translations, Wikipedia search, bookmarking, text highlighting, and annotations. The read-it-later feature is included in the latest version of Kindle for iOS, which is a free download on the App Store. [Direct Link]

Amazon Music iOS App Now Supports CarPlay

Amazon today updated its Amazon Music app for iOS devices to version 6.4.0, adding a small but important new feature: support for CarPlay. With the latest version of the Amazon Music app, Amazon Music subscribers who own a vehicle equipped with CarPlay can access their music directly through the CarPlay interface when an iPhone is connected to the car. Amazon Music is available to Amazon Prime subscribers, with two million songs, playlists, and stations included in a membership. Separate Amazon Music Unlimited subscriptions are also available for on-demand listening to "tens of millions" of songs, with pricing starting at $7.99 for Prime members ($9.99 without a Prime subscription). A lower-cost Echo-only plan is also available for $3.99 per month. Amazon Music can be downloaded from the App Store for free. [Direct Link]

Amazon iOS App Gains Alexa Voice Assistant to Track Orders, Shop, and More

Amazon today announced that it will introduce its Siri competitor, Amazon Alexa, directly into the company's iOS app over the course of the next week (via VentureBeat). With the addition of Alexa, users will now be able to ask questions about the status of their orders, use their voice to initiate searches, play music, and start audio books from Audible. Alexa's powers go beyond Amazon's shopping features -- users will also be able to use the voice assistant to search current news stories, check the weather, and even control smart home products. This means that iOS users who don't own any Amazon hardware can now gain access to Alexa's growing list of skills, which let users easily link multiple services together for quick voice control interactions. Some users will begin seeing the Alexa update in Amazon's iOS app [Direct Link] starting today, but the rollout is expected to reach everyone on iOS by next

Apple Joins Group of Companies Supporting Google in Foreign Email Privacy Case

Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Cisco have filed an amicus brief supporting Google in an ongoing case dealing with security and privacy, topics that Apple has been known to advocate in the past (via Business Insider). Most recently, Google's case has led to a court in Pennsylvania requesting the company to comply to an FBI warrant asking for emails residing on foreign servers. Although it's unclear what resides within the emails in question, in a report last month (via The Register) it was said that a Pennsylvania district court submitted two domestic search warrants -- issued under the Stored Communications Act -- targeted at the suspects in the case and their emails stored overseas. Google was given two orders previously, which it refused to comply with, before the judge in the case ruled that as an American corporation it must abide by the rulings of an American court, no matter where the data in question is being held. The coalition of companies supporting Google now argue that the scope of the SCA doesn't reach into foreign territories, and could lead to Google being forced to violate foreign data privacy laws. The amicus brief cites a case where Microsoft was asked to hand over emails stored on cloud servers in Ireland. Microsoft eventually won that case when it argued that the SCA does not cover data stored on servers in foreign countries and that the Act itself is "a statute enacted when the internet was still in its infancy" (it dates back to 1986) and subsequently should not be the touchstone of modern, technology-driven privacy cases. The U.S.

Amazon Developing 'Voice ID' Technology for Alexa Assistant

Amazon is building upon the Alexa voice-recognition technology found in its Echo range of speakers so that the virtual assistant can distinguish between individual users based on the sound of their voices. According to anonymous sources who spoke to TIME, Amazon's feature would work by matching the person speaking to a pre-recorded voice sample, or "voice print", to verify the speaker's identity. A primary account holder would be able to require a specific voice print to access certain commands. A user would, for example, be able to set it so that a parent's voice would be required to make a credit card purchase or turn on the coffee machine through the Echo.Amazon has been developing the feature, internally called Voice ID, since at least the summer of 2015, according to people familiar with the company's Alexa strategy. The underlying technology is said to have been completed and just needs integrating into Echo speakers, however it's still unclear when that will happen. The Voice ID technology would be a first in the smart speaker space and make Echo units easier to share between multiple people under one roof. Currently, Echo users can set up multiple profiles and jump between them, but the user must say "switch accounts" or use the Alexa app to do so. And as for credit card purchases, a four-digit authentication code must be said out loud to confirm them. It's unknown at this point whether Voice ID will extend to the many Alexa-enabled third-party devices now available, or if it would be limited to Amazon's Echo speakers. An Amazon spokesperson declined

Amazon Fire TV Stick With Built-In Alexa Coming to the U.K.

Amazon's latest Fire TV stick, with Alexa built in, is coming to the U.K., after launching in the U.S. back in October. The streaming TV dongle will make its debut in the country on April 6 and have a price tag of £40, with Amazon already taking pre-orders. The device comes with a quad-core processor that Amazon says makes it 30 percent faster than its predecessor. The dongle also supports 802.11ac WiFi networks, but the biggest difference is the new Alexa remote. Like the Siri Remote on the Apple TV, a built-in microphone lets users search for content like movies and music, as well as control playback, open apps, and more. Unlike Siri Remote, it also supports third-party Alexa skills, allowing users to control smart home devices, for example. Apart from the aforementioned online pre-orders, the new Amazon Fire TV stick will be on sale in shops including Dixons, John Lewis, Tesco, and Maplin from April 6.

Free App 'Reverb' Brings Amazon's Alexa to Mac Desktops, iPhones, and iPads

Developers at U.S. digital consultancy Rain have created a little-known app called Reverb that allows users to access Amazon's Alexa virtual assistant from their Mac desktop or iOS device. Launching the free Mac app prompts users to sign in to their Amazon account, after which a window opens showing the familiar blue Alexa ring on the desktop. Click and hold on the ring with the mouse cursor, and provided an internet connection is active, the virtual assistant listens and responds to the sort of spoken questions and commands usually directed at Amazon's Echo range of smart speakers. The iOS app works similarly, and the latest version of Reverb uses Alexa v2, which adds support for news flashes, timers, alarms, long form audio, audiobooks, and more. It can also interact with smart devices that are compatible with Alexa, such as lights, switches, and thermostats compatible with Samsung SmartThings, WeMo, Philips Hue, and others. The only Alexa service Reverb does not support is playing music, due to restrictions Amazon has placed on using Amazon Music in apps. In addition to the above, users can enable third-party skills through the app with a simple voice command – "Enable Bird Songs", for example. In testing, the Mac app also responded to new skills enabled through Amazon's Alexa iOS app, which officially supports and integrates with the Reverb app for iOS. The apps provide a convenient solution for Echo owners wishing to make Alexa available in, say, their office room or study, without having to buy an additional supporting device. It also offers

Amazon and Google Want to Turn Their Smart Home Speakers Into Telephone Replacements

Both Amazon and Google are working on turning their popular AI-based speaker products into replacements for a home telephone, reports The Wall Street Journal. The Amazon Echo and/or the Google Home could be used to make and receive phone calls, with the two companies planning to add the updated functionality as soon as this year. Smart home products like the Amazon Echo have become a staple in the lives of many people and the ability to make phone calls directly from the device would be a valuable addition. Google and Amazon are said to be working to overcome concerns about privacy, telecom regulations, and emergency services, plus the "inherent awkwardness" of making phone conversations via a speaker. The two companies are worried consumers won't want to speak on a device that is able to record conversations. Both the Echo and the Home continuously record audio to enable AI responses. One source that spoke to The Wall Street Journal said that Amazon would only collect metadata from phone calls rather than conversations themselves, and while it's unclear what Google would retain, a Home-based call service would likely resemble Google Voice, which does not record phone calls.Amazon is considering multiple options for how the phone feature could work, the people said. The Echo could get its own phone number. Call forwarding could enable calls to that number to be answered remotely on a cellphone, and vice versa. Another option is to sync a user's existing phone number and contacts with the Echo. Incoming calls would ring on the user's cellphone. Amazon and

Amazon Launches Call and Video Conferencing Platform 'Chime'

Amazon's push into the services space continued today with the launch of Chime, a new online VoIP call and video messaging platform aimed at business users. Apart from video conferencing and chat messaging, Amazon Chime allows users to host or join virtual meetings with a single click, and share content and screens across multiple platforms, including Mac, Windows, iOS and Android devices. Amazon is pitching Chime as a more reliable, higher quality alternative to existing VoIP services like Microsoft's Skype, with a focus on making core communications services – voice calls, video conferencing, screen sharing, and instant messaging – easily accessible within a unified interface. "It's pretty hard to find people who actually like the technology they use for meetings today," said Gene Farrell, Vice President, Enterprise Applications at AWS in a press release. "Most meeting applications or services are hard to use, deliver bad audio and video, require constant switching between multiple tools to do everything they want, and are way too expensive." Amazon Chime is available for free in a basic version, which includes video calls for up to two people. Price plans for Chime start at $2.50 per month, with a higher tier plan of $15 per user for the addition of video and screen-sharing, among other features. Amazon will hope that its new VoIP service can replicate the company's success in the cloud services space, but challenges lie ahead. Whereas AWS built its dominance early on in a relatively nascent market, Chime goes up against established players from day one.

Amazon's Alexa Voice Service Smart Device Support Extended to U.K. and Germany

Amazon has announced it is extending third-party support for its Alexa Voice Service (AVS) internationally, with rollout beginning today across the U.K. and Germany (via TechCrunch). First launched in the U.S. in 2015, AVS is the voice-interaction software that powers the company's Echo family of smart speakers as well as a range of supporting third-party smart home connected devices, such as thermostats, lamps, fans, wall switches, and more. The support will mean owners of supported devices can voice-interact with additional services, such as TuneIn Radio and local Skills – Amazon's other API that lets developers build bespoke services to work with Alexa – although users should note that some services like iHeartRadio and Kindle currently only work in the U.S. The expansion of AVS into Germany and the U.K. follows the launch of the Echo and Echo Dot in those countries last year. Amazon has yet to expand its Alexa-powered range to other markets outside the U.S., but with plans to shift 10 million units in 2017, the company is expected to speed up rollout soon. Amazon's simple certification process has led to over 250 smart home products being certified to work with Alexa. By contrast, Apple has certified approximately 100 devices to support its HomeKit platform. Alexa-enabled devices also enjoyed strong holiday sales, with an estimated 10 million units already

Apple and Amazon End Audiobook Exclusivity Deal Amid Growing Concerns of a Monopoly

Apple and Amazon have agreed to cease all exclusivity obligations previously put in place between the two companies regarding the supply and distribution of audiobooks through iTunes and Audible (via Reuters). The partnership between the two companies previously incited a complaint from the German Publishers and Booksellers Association in 2015 centering around the potential for a monopoly in the European audiobook industry by the two powerhouse companies. Now, competition is expected to be boosted and the European Commission and the German Federal Cartel Office are welcoming the decision made by Apple and Amazon to end their exclusive distribution deal of Audible audiobooks on iTunes, meaning other companies can now distribute audiobooks on Apple's popular digital marketplace. Simultaneously, Audible can now place its audiobooks on other digital marketplaces for users to download. On Thursday, the German Federal Cartel Office said it has officially closed its investigation because "there was no further reason to continue." "The European Commission welcomes an agreement to end all exclusivity obligations concerning audiobook supply and distribution between Amazon's subsidiary Audible and Apple," the EU competition authority said in a statement. "With the deletion of the exclusivity agreement Apple will now have the opportunity to purchase digital audiobooks from other suppliers," Andreas Mundt, president of the German cartel office, said in a statement. Back in 2015, the German Publishers and Booksellers Association began its complaint by saying that Apple and

CES 2017: Huawei to Pre-Load Amazon Alexa Virtual Assistant in its Flagship Smartphone

We've seen it in third-party speakers and cars already at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, but Amazon's Alexa is also about to become a smartphone personal assistant. Chinese mobile company Huawei used CES 2017 to announce it will be the first handset maker in the U.S. to pre-load the voice-activated AI into a phone. The HUAWEI MATE 9 will be the first smartphone to integrate with Amazon Alexa. Speak to the future #HuaweiCES2017 pic.twitter.com/Eg5NBhpV7j— Huawei Mobile (@HuaweiMobile) January 5, 2017 Less than a week ago, Alexa was exclusive to Amazon's tablets and Echo smart speakers, but anyone who picks up the U.S. version of Huawei's flagship Mate 9 smartphone – set to launch "early 2017" – will also be able to invoke the virtual assistant. Huawei's announcement sets the stage for Alexa to compete directly in a mobile market already busy with AI assistants battling it out for supremacy. Meanwhile, Apple's Siri is still only available on iOS devices and Macs running macOS Sierra, although rumors have persisted that Cupertino is working on its own Siri-powered connected smart speaker, while the AI is likely to feature heavily in any autonomous car system the company may be working on. Elsewhere, Google recently upgraded its Google Assistant for its own-branded Pixel phones, and last year Samsung acquired Viv – developed by the creators of Siri – for integration in its next round of flagship smartphones

Amazon Prime Video Now Available in Over 200 Countries, Including India

Amazon today announced that its Prime Video streaming service has expanded to over 200 countries including India, the company's largest available market outside the U.S. Prime Video is automatically available at no additional cost to Amazon Prime members in Belgium, Canada, France, Italy and Spain, and to customers in new Prime Video territories at an introductory price of $2.99 (or 2.99 euros) per month for the first six months. In India, the service comes bundled with Prime. Prime usually costs Rs 999 ($15) for an annual subscription, but to celebrate the launch of Prime Video, Amazon is currently offering annual membership to new customers at the heavily discounted price of Rs 499 ($7.50). That makes Prime Video the least expensive streaming video service in the country by some margin, with similar service Netflix costing Rs 500 on a rolling monthly basis. The aggressive pricing strategy indicates Amazon's continuing eagerness to make deep inroads into the Indian market. The company has been busy acquiring rights to local content over the last few months, and has partnered with several major Bollywood studios and distributors to make titles available exclusively on Prime Video. The catalog in Amazon Prime Video contains titles in several Indian languages including Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, and Telugu, as well as an English section featuring many popular U.S.

Amazon Debuts App For Shopping on the Apple TV

Amazon today introduced a new app called "Amazon App: Browse, Search, and Shop," which is designed to let users look for and purchase items from Amazon.com. Anyone can use Amazon's new app to browse through and search for products using dictation, but to make a purchase, an Amazon Prime membership is required. Amazon Prime costs $99 per year and offers benefits like Amazon Video and free two-day shipping. Amazon App includes product details, reviews, and "immersive" product images and videos, all of which can be viewed on the television screen. Purchases are made using the Apple TV remote, but users can also add items to a list to purchase later via an iPhone or computer. Many Apple TV owners have long been hoping for an app that brings Amazon's Prime Video offerings to Apple's set-top box, but this is not that app. It's limited to shopping only. Amazon's new app can be downloaded on fourth-generation Apple TV models for

Apple Warns Customers to Beware of Counterfeit Power Adapters and Batteries

Nearly two months after filing a lawsuit against a firm selling counterfeit Apple power adapters and Lightning cables on Amazon, Apple has updated its website to advise customers to beware of counterfeit parts. Apple warns some counterfeit and third-party power adapters and batteries could pose safety risks, and recommends customers visit an Apple Store or Apple Authorized Service Provider for genuine parts.Beware of counterfeit parts Some counterfeit and third party power adapters and batteries may not be designed properly and could result in safety issues. To ensure you receive a genuine Apple battery during a battery replacement, we recommend visiting an Apple Store or Apple Authorized Service Provider. If you need a replacement adapter to charge your Apple device, we recommend getting an Apple power adapter.As revealed in its lawsuit against counterfeiter Mobile Star LLC, Apple found almost 90% of so-called "genuine" Apple products and accessories it purchased from Amazon in a nine-month period were actually counterfeit. U.S. certification company UL later found 99% of fake Apple chargers sold online fail basic safety tests. Following the lawsuit, an Amazon spokesperson informed MacRumors it has "zero tolerance for the sale of counterfeits" on its website. "We work closely with manufacturers and brands, and pursue wrongdoers aggressively." Amazon reportedly plans to crack down on counterfeit products sold through its website next year by creating a registry to prevent fake goods from being listed for sale. Apple could sign up for the registry, for

Amazon Discounts its Echo Smart Speaker Range Yet Again

As part of its Black Friday Deals Week, Amazon lowered the price of its Echo family of smart speakers, before returning them to their regular prices. Now Amazon has discounted the devices again for a limited time in the U.S. as part of a "Holiday Deals" promotion. The full-size Echo speaker is $40 cheaper at $139.99, while the smaller Echo dot is available for $39.99 instead of its regular price of $49.99. Amazon Tap, the company's portable Bluetooth and Wi-Fi enabled speaker, has also seen its price reduced from $129.99 to $89.99. The Amazon Echo, Echo Dot and Amazon Tap all have voice-activated assistant Alexa built in. MacRumors is an affiliate partner with Amazon and may sometimes get paid if you click one of the above links.

Amazon Rolls Out Music Unlimited 'Family Plan' to the U.K. for £15 per Month

Amazon has expanded its Family Plan for Amazon Music Unlimited to the U.K., following initial rollout across the U.S. last month. The plan costs £15 a month, or £149 a year, which works out at a lower price of £12 per month. The subscription supports up to six family members (at least 13 years of age) for simultaneous listening and personal recommendations. On the plan, a single family member uses a "shared payment method" to pay for the subscription, such as a debit or credit card that Amazon uses to charge each month for the service. Each member can make purchases on Amazon and Amazon Music Unlimited with the shared payment method, while the main subscriber receives notifications of all activity within the group. The plan also retains the same functionality as the Individual Plan subscription. Amazon Music Unlimited has a library of 40 million songs and is available under four optional plans. Prime members can sign up to the streaming service for £8 per month or £79 per year, while non-Prime members pay £10 per month. For Echo or Echo Dot owners, a cheaper £4 per month plan is available, but is restricted to music playback on the smart

'Amazon Go' Stores Will Let You Grab Groceries and Go, No Checkout Needed

Apple customers may be familiar with the option of walking into an Apple retail store, purchasing a product with the Apple Store app, and walking out without checking out or even speaking to a single employee, and now Amazon seeks to one-up that experience with a new concept called Amazon Go. Amazon Go provides a checkout-free shopping experience that, to the naked eye, looks exactly like shoplifting. After scanning a smartphone upon entering a store, the app automatically detects when products are taken from or returned to the shelves and keeps track of them in a virtual cart. Amazon Go says the app utilizes computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning, allowing customers to simply take what they want and go with no checkouts or lines required. Shortly after, Amazon will charge a customer's Amazon account and send a receipt, meaning that, unlike the Apple Store app, shoppers do not even need to be in the store during the actual payment process. Amazon did not provide any further details, so beyond that it remains unclear exactly how the process works. For now, Amazon Go is limited to Amazon employees in the company's beta program, while only one Amazon Go food store in the company's hometown of Seattle—at 2131 7th Ave—currently supports the app. Amazon Go will open to the public in early 2017, possibly signaling the app's expansion to other stores. All customers need is an Amazon account, a supported smartphone, and the free Amazon Go app. Amazon informed MacRumors the app will likely support iPhone, and presumably Android-based smartphones as

Amazon Developing Echo Speaker With 7-Inch Touchscreen to 'Fend Off Competition' From Apple and Google

Amazon's next iteration of the Echo speaker will be a "premium" model that includes a touchscreen measuring around seven inches, marking "a major departure" from the tall, cylindrical design of the Echo currently on sale. The company is said to be upgrading Echo for two reasons: to capitalize on the device's success, and as early preparation to "fend off competition" from Google Home and Apple's rumored entry into the smart home speaker market (via Bloomberg). The logic behind adding a touchscreen to Echo is reasoned as a way "to make it easier to access content," like the weather and upcoming calendar events. Currently, Echo is a voice-activated device with limited volume and mute buttons on its topside. While the exact design of the speaker wasn't pinned down, people familiar with the plans said it will be larger and "tilt upwards" so users can read the screen when the Echo sits on a kitchen counter or desk. The new device will have a touchscreen measuring about seven inches, a major departure from Amazon’s existing cylindrical home devices that are controlled and respond mostly through the company’s voice-based Alexa digital assistant, according to two people familiar with the matter. This will make it easier to access content such as weather forecasts, calendar appointments, and news, the people said. They asked not to be identified speaking about a product that has yet to be announced. Amazon’s planned expansion of the Alexa-powered line coincides with growing competition from Alphabet Inc.’s Google Home speaker and Apple Inc.’s interest in building