The Bot Chronicles S01E03: "Voice first" and what this means in an international context

Our homes are being invaded by AI infused smart speakers. I'm talking about Google Home and whatever form the Amazon Echo is poured into at the moment (I'm betting there will be a flower pot version soon). This article is part of the Bot Chronicles series! So you better be sure to check out our previous episodes.

This article is part of a series. Be sure to check out all episodes here:

S01E01  S01E02  S01E03  S01E04  S01E05  S01E06  S01E07  

Already read these? Super. Let's dive right in then.

We're moving into a voice first world

moving towards a voice first world

We came from big mainframes, and moved from PC's to laptops or netbooks. Then tablets and smartphones came along: the "mobile first" era. Now it seems a "Voice first" period is coming along and for the first time, we're bumping into a new barrier we'll need to overcome: speech.

Websites don't suffer too much under localization issues. Most sites can handle multiple languages quite well, and translation is pretty straightforward. Even if you don't speak the language, chances are you can still perform most tasks on a site that doesn't support your mother tongue language. There are plenty of "hints" in a visual site to guide you along.

Not so in a "voice first" world.
So let's look at the challenges that appear with these new devices. These eco systems are still very US-centric. This poses some issues. If you're thinking about acquiring one of these devices, and use them outside of the US (or UK, Germany) be sure to read on...

What are Google Home and Alexa, and can I get them abroad?

Imagine a chatbot in Messenger or any other chat environment. Now imagine you're not "typing" your commands to the chatbot but just saying them out loud. Add a speakerset to the chatbot and imagine the answers come back to you in the form of actual audio. To top it off, now imagine this whole functionality can take the shape of any object in your living room. A speakerset, a lamp, a fridge..., a flower pot :/.

That's what Google Home and Amazon Alexa allow you to do. No more typing away on a smartphone; no more fiddling with a smartwatch. Just say "Hey Google" or "Alexa" and pose your question. Voice First.

Amazing, right? That's why we bought both of these devices and shipped them from our New York office all the way to our headquarters in... Belgium: a small trilingual country best known for... no. Let's not go there.

Like any self-respecting geek, we were aware these devices would run into issues abroad. It's also clearly stated these devices are not meant to be used outside of the US/UK (and Germany in the case of Amazon's Echo). But we decided to test them out anyways. This article will cover what works and what doesn't when getting your hands on these devices whilst not being in the US, UK or Germany.

Disclaimer: again, we perfectly agree this is no proper way to review these devices. We're stacking them up against an environment they are not yet properly equipped for. It is very interesting to see how both of them handle this challenge and at the same time, we learn their limitations and what needs to happen before these devices get a hold on foreign soil.

Step 1: pre-installation and what it means if you're abroad

Both Amazon Echo and Google Home come with a companion app. That's exactly where you are first encountered with the "region" limitations.

Amazon's "Alexa" app cannot be found in the Belgian App Store (iOS). Google's "Google Home" app is, since it is also used to manage Google's Chromecasts, which exist in Belgium. Wiiiiii!

So you'll need to go through some hoops to get your hands on the Alexa app. Hoops like switching your system to US region, then create an account on the US app store, with fake address data and phone number, and then you can download the app.

You'll get notifications that you need to switch your phone's region to "US" as well, but you can return to Belgian (or whatever) region settings later if you wish. You will need to set your device language to English though. It’s complicated we know…

This alone makes Google Home a lot easier in comparison to Amazon Alexa. Truth be told though, you can set up by using this website.

Both devices will require a US to EU plug adaptor. Voltage is no problem though. The amazon dot (smaller version of the Echo) does have a USB cable as power source so you could get away with a powerful USB socket.

Step 2: installation

Now that you have the necessary apps, and your phone is set up correctly, you need to log in the apps by using your Google account or Amazon account. After this, both devices feature a similar setup flow. After turning on, they will create a local WiFi hotspot to which you need to connect to. Once you're connected, you enter the credentials to the real WiFi network you want the device to connect to, and that's it.

Amazon Echo Setup

Google Home Setup



Both setups are quite easy, but there is a clear difference in "slickness" between the two. Google's Home app clearly has a much nicer interface. They pushed their material design style through in the app and the onboarding flow is supported by plenty of animated graphics, where the Echo's interface has a mobile site-like appearance. Since I'm quite passionate about interfaces, that was a bummer for me on the Echo front.

First impressions and a second bump on the multilingual road

A first impression is the most important one. It can be the deciding factor in whether you go home with the cute girl, or stay behind at the bar and lose yourself in a whole lot of gin tonics. (might be oversharing here)

Both of the devices gave a very good first impression. The Echo is indeed equipped with a superb mic set, but I didn't notice too much difference between the two in a regular living room setup.

Belgium is funny when it comes to languages. I understand some of you might find many things funny in Belgium, but the plethora of languages is one of those things. We have Flemish (call it Dutch), French and German speaking regions. To top it off, the Flemish can have many dialects so it’s common for two Flemish people to not understand each other when they are speaking in their dialect. Gotta love this country.

Anyways, it's clear to say that we won't be speaking Flemish (Dutch) or French to Google Home and Echo. No worries, we know our English. The German speaking part (minority) gets lucky though. They'll have a blast, since Echo comes in German too, right? Not exactly...

I did encounter an important difference concerning regional limitations between the two. Both of the devices allow you to request how your commute is looking. Or what weather the day may bring. To get this functionality working, you need to define your home and work address (the same for both devices).

  1. Weird that Google did not already knew this. I still had to enter it into the app manually.
  2. Amazon Echo just doesn't allow me to enter a Belgian address. Say what? Yup. Amazon actually restricted that kind of information to US, UK and DE addresses only. So don't start asking about your commute. It doesn't know. Don't ask it about the weather, because it doesn't know where you are and it will pick the weather of whatever other address you managed to enter in there. The only way to get this info is to specify the area you want to know the weather from. Try this one on for size: "Alexa, what's the weather like in Sint Maria-Aalter'. In English? No way it recognizes "Sint Maria-Aalter" or any of the normal Flemish, let alone French location names. Google Home has a tough time with that too, but at least it knows where I am so I don't have to specify my own location.

Echo Skills vs Google Home's approach and what this means for future implementations

Luckily there is a way to get more functionality out of these two puppies. Just like you can add "apps" to your smartphone, you can add functionality to these two devices.

So perhaps this allows us to get some more regional functionality in here.

Amazon Echo gets new functionality by activating "Skills". I didn't care too much on how this works (again, mobile web kind of functionality) and I cared even less about the actual skills that existed. Especially for regional stuff like news and such. But I should dive deeper into this because the amount of skills is staggering. Amazon clearly has a head start in this, but it does suffer from "fart apps syndrome" like the smartphone app stores had in the beginning.

Invoking a skill is only possible after you've activated it. You use the hotword for that skill and there it goes. You'll need to remember this hotword of course.

Google takes a different route here. I don't know how to call the features on Google Home so I'll go ahead and call them skills too. The regional limitations are the same though. Not that much local stuff around. But they do have a more interesting take on skills then the Echo.

On the Google Home, you don't need to "activate" a new skill like you do with the Echo. You just invoke it with the hotword. This will become an area I'll be keeping an eye out, since I can imagine you'll get "skilljacking" where one functionality's hotword is written in a totally different manner then the other, but they might be pronounced the same.


Both Amazon Echo and Google Home can work just fine abroad. Though there is a difference in the way you can use built-in functionality based on regional data.

Some functionalities (like invoking Netflix or Spotify) work just fine since we have these services here in Belgium as well. But the lack of regional "skills" won't be solved unless these devices start to talk our language. That means, the Natural Language Processing (NLP) and intent recognition will need to be multilingual.

All the more reason to take this into account when deciding on a platform you want to build your bot on. Can it handle different regions/languages. Can the NLP handle different languages and can the languages be "voiced". How easy is it to switch between languages (a must for multilingual countries hence almost all countries)? How much work is it to translate your bot?

The "voice first" era won't truly bloom unless the hardware starts to be multilingual. But we're only in the first year of true competition (Google vs Amazon vs...?) and things are looking to get steamy!

This article is part of the Bot Chronicles series, a series documenting the Bot R&D of The Reference.

Check out the previous episode here!

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