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BBC to Launch Voice Assistant Next Year in UK as Rise of Independent Voice Assistants Continues

BBC announced today that it will launch a new voice assistant next year that has the working name “Beeb,” a common nickname for BBC in the UK. The voice assistant will not be a smart speaker or otherwise device-dependent. According to reporting by BBC’s news service, Beeb, “will not be a hardware device in its own right but is being designed to work on all smart speakers, TVs and mobiles.”

Why a Custom Voice Assistant for BBC?

A BBC spokesman told BBC News that having its own voice assistant will enable the organization to “experiment with new programmes, features and experiences without someone else’s permission to build it in a certain way.”  The Guardian reports, “The voice assistant will be woken up by saying the word “Beeb”, although it will not attempt to replicate the full set of functions provided by major commercial rivals – partly because the BBC product has been developed by a much smaller team without the resources of major global technology companies. Instead, it will enable people to use their voices to engage with existing BBC content and develop new forms of interactive programming.”

BBC has been active in supporting Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant and has a few Actions available to users on Google Assistant. However, it has recently focused on asserting more control over how BBC content and user experiences are made available to consumers. BBC Sounds recently implemented session persistence between its Alexa skill and mobile app so users that link their accounts can pause on one device and resume on another to create a more consistent experience.

The organization has also removed its content from U.S.-based radio stream aggregator TuneIn because the company could not provide BBC with individual listener data. In addition, Podnews first reported last month that BBC is now “blocking all access to its podcasts on Google search, Google Assistant, and Google Podcasts. No new podcasts have appeared within Google Podcasts since March 19th, and many podcasts have already been removed altogether from the service.” The intent was to reserve this content for the BBC Sounds mobile app which is only available in the UK.

Also important to consider is the fact that Amazon, Apple, and Google are also media companies that in some ways compete with BBC for consumer attention. “Voice technology represents a major platform and interface shift so it makes the BBC highly susceptible to disruption by the likes of Amazon, Apple and Google, all of which have aggressive plans in the media industry,” said Mark Tluszcz, co-founder and CEO of Mangrove Capital Partners, a venture capital firm best known for early investments in Skype and Wix.com. He added, “Every company will need to rethink how it interacts with its audience. It is not just about adapting SEO efforts and owning Alexa Skills or Google Actions.”

The Skeptics Come Out

Some analysts such as Ben Wood from CCS Insight are already expressing skepticism that BBC can succeed with its own voice assistant because they see it as competing directly with tech giants such as Amazon, Apple, and Google. However, this represents a misunderstanding of how voice assistants can be deployed. There are general purpose consumer voice assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri that attempt to provide a wide variety of services and integrations. Voice assistants can also be customized to narrower domains such as the car, banking, office, or media.

A Move Foreshadowed by Others and Predicted by Voice Insider

Automakers Mercedes and BMW each have their own voice assistant for drivers. Both solutions offer users a specific set of capabilities associated with driving that are supplemented by access to Alexa, Google Assistant, Houndify, and other voice assistants options. Bank of America and Capital One both offer voice interactive assistants that are designed to enhance the consumer banking experience. Commercial real estate giant JLL has introduced its own voice assistant for its clients to use in the office. Comcast’s X1 voice remote won’t talk back to you but is a very capable tool for navigating media options by voice for its U.S. cable television subscribers.

The mistake many people make is to assume that all voice assistants must be similar to Alexa. Certain brands and user contexts are well-suited to introducing a voice assistant with fewer capabilities that are optimized for a particular task or interest. Ikea’s move into smart devices is expected to be followed by its own assistant that can help customers with a variety of tasks and the company hopes it will lead to more e-commerce transactions according to Darin Archer, the chief strategy officer at e-commerce software developer Elastic Path.

Voicebot’s Voice Insider newsletter has addressed this topic on a number of occasions including issue #25 which lays out the GOWN Framework and shows how different voice assistant categories are rapidly evolving. Issue #28 discusses “Why Alexa and Google Assistant will spawn thousands of assistants.” These voice assistant platforms have shown other organizations the value of assistants to consumer experiences while also clearly demarcating the limits of what they will allow third parties to do. Replicating Alexa or Siri would cost billions of dollars, but you can create more limited versions of these experiences today with a number of commercial and open source tools.

BBC is not the first to attempt to introduce its own voice assistant and will be joined by many others over the next two years. Whether thses efforts will be successful remains to be seen. However, “Beeb” doesn’t need to compete with Alexa and Siri to succeed. It just needs to add value for consumers.

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