Qualcomm boosts Amazon’s quest for the elusive smartphone market

Qualcomm is set to slash engineering costs associated with bringing voice assistant functionality to Bluetooth headphones through a partnership with Amazon. In doing so, it can help Alexa dip into the smartphone market which has long eluded Jeff Bezos, and can inflate Amazon’s already gluttonous share of the voice assistant market.

Amazon has essentially fashioned a way to sneak Alexa in through the back door of the Android ecosystem, spelling trouble for Google, which has itself been partnering with headphone manufacturers to broaden appeal and uptake of voice services using Google Assistant.

The Qualcomm Smart Headset Development Kit is the first reference design on the market developed with support for the Alexa Mobile Accessory Kit, enabling any headphone maker to embed Alexa in devices. Manufacturers therefore no longer need to oversee the bulk of coding for an Alexa integration or to add any communication hardware beyond Bluetooth – reducing costs and increasing deployment time.

It’s important to note this is not the first Bluetooth headphone rodeo for Alexa. Bose’s QuietComfort 35 headphones, for example, have been upgraded to include Alexa via a simple OTA update on the Bose Connect app, after Google Assistant was the initial exclusive voice assistant. Confusingly, Qualcomm seems to suggest the Bose device doesn’t involve the Alexa Mobile Accessory Kit.

Crucially, through the release of the development kit, Alexa can extend beyond $425 high-end headphones like the QuietComfort 35, to much more affordable bits of kit. Of course, it requires downloading the Alexa mobile app, while Google Assistant comes built-in to most Android devices, but this is trivial. Sony and Jabra from Denmark are another two manufacturers to have added Alexa support to high-end headphones.

Based on Qualcomm’s QCC5100-series of Bluetooth audio chips, it says the reference design includes “virtually all the key hardware and software required” to nail an Alexa integration. We believe the hardware element relates to a dedicated Alexa button on devices to activate the assistant.

By combining a dedicated application processor sub-system, dual DSP architecture and audio development kit on the QCC5100 SoC, Qualcomm says this creates a powerful foundation for developing highly differentiated audio products. It ensures that by engineering the Smart Headset Development Kit to support concurrent software operation, the transition between music, calls, sensors and voice services will be as smooth as possible.

It would be easy to over-focus on Alexa and cut corners elsewhere, but Qualcomm has not forgotten that headphone manufacturers probably favor sound quality over smart assistant functionality, so Qualcomm’s active noise cancellation, cVc noise reduction (for accurate speech recognition), and aptX HD high-resolution wireless audio technologies can also be added as part of the integration. Also on offer in the Smart Headset Development Kit is Qualcomm’s ultra-low power consumption technology – a vital selling point for anyone in the wireless device business.

Both Apple and Google have attacked the crossover of voice assistants with headphones market from the angle of becoming manufacturers themselves, Apple with its AirPods and Google with its Buds – neither of which are targeted at music aficionados or gym-goers, for example. For Qualcomm, working closely with Alexa is a blatant flip-of-the-bird straight in the face of its sworn enemy Apple – as well as a way to diversify its product line from smartphone modem chipsets.

Google has since been making a beeline for partnership deals while Siri is unlikely to ever break out of Apple shackles, but the question now is whether Google will approach Qualcomm for a copycat development kit – or would it dare offer the job to a rival semiconductor firm?

“Our consumer research shows that four out of five consumers have embraced voice services, but the vast majority are also looking for superb audio quality. The Qualcomm Smart Headset reference design brings this and more together, helping consumers to take advantage of Alexa on-the-go, without the need to interact with their phone. With this solution, we expect to support companies big and small to develop innovative and exciting headsets covering a range of styles featuring Alexa,” said Anthony Murray, Qualcomm’s general manager of voice and music.