Both Google and Amazon are allegedly considering adding a voice calling feature to their industry leading smart speakers, Google Home and Amazon Echo, in a potential move that could spell further doom for the ailing landline home phone market.
The report, which cites "people familiar with the matter" claims that the both AI assistant-powered devices have software in place to support Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls. If put into place, the Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa artificial intelligence assistants would be able to recognise simple voice commands similar to those used on smartphones to ring contacts and answer incoming calls.
According to Wall Street Journal's anonymous sources, the feature could be arriving as soon as this year in selected, unconfirmed regions. It also states that Amazon is considering assigned a unique phone number to the Echo (or Echo Dot) to enable calls, or syncing the user's mobile number with the smart speaker.
With the tech reportedly already in place, the delay in its implementation has been blamed on concerns "around privacy, telecom regulations and emergency services." The latter appears to be the biggest sticking point, with calling emergency services in the US a less clear cut scenario than the UK where Ofcom rules demand that VoIP telephony companies both allow "999 calls" and provide location information where possible.
The report also notes that both Google's parent company Alphabet and Amazon are mindful of the fact that not everyone is comfortable having phone conversations via a speaker, especially as both the Echo and Home record audio for voice activation purposes.
Although Amazon would apparently only collect call metadata rather than actual audio clips recorded during calls, WSJ's Google sources did not specify Home's recording remit, although it would likely be similar to its Google Voice app for Android which only stores metadata, voicemails and any user-specified calls.
The end of the landline?
With Google Home (which has not yet been released in the UK) and Amazon Echo already capable of controlling music libraries, heating systems, lighting and ordering anything from an Uber taxi to a takeaway pizza, the addition of voice calling is a logical next step for both platforms. Yet the knock on effect on landline services could be drastic, especially in the UK.
According to Statista, the percentage of British households owning a landline phone has declined steadily since the turn of the millennium, with the record high of 95% through 1998-2000 dropping below 90% from 2009 onwards.
With most leading internet providers such as BT and Sky still requiring a fixed line for broadband services, with Virgin Media and Hyperoptic two notable exceptions, the unstoppable rise of the smartphone and social media has so far largely avoided clashing with the landline market.
Could casual chats using Internet of Things-friendly smart speakers with AI assistants is the future of calling friends and family from the home? Time will tell.