Yandex unveils Echo-rival Station, with Alice AI voice assistant

Russian web giant Yandex has moved to do more of what Amazon does, having spent the past decade in the same search and services realm as Google. It has launched Yandex.Plus, a Prime-like service that bundles music, video, cloud storage, access to its Yandex.Taxi ride-sharing service, and a beta version of the upcoming Yandex.Market ecommerce platform. Oh, and its launched the Station smart speaker, which houses its Alice voice assistant and its associated Yandex.Dialogues platform.

The $160 device is significantly more expensive than Amazon’s vanilla Echo, but its focus on audio makes it more comparable with Apple’s HomePod or Sonos’ line of speakers. Importantly, Yandex has beaten its rivals to market in Russia, as none of them have officially launched in the country. Yandex managed to become the top search engine in Russia because none of the other web companies managed to build a better Russian-language version, and so Yandex is looking to replicate that success in the era of voice interactions.

But in its core search market, Yandex has been worried by Google’s incursion – with its market share now narrowing to only 53%, compared to Google’s 43%. This is why Yandex is so interested in expanding from just being a search engine, and why it is now even venturing into hardware.

The Yandex Station is something of a music-video hybrid. It houses a HDMI output that can be linked to a TV or monitor, which will then allow them to play video content from Yandex’s platform – namely its KinoPoisk service, but also the wider internet, including IVI, and HBO-provider Amediateka. To this end, Yandex correctly claims that this is the first smart speaker to incorporate a full video streaming experience.

It’s not hard to envision Yandex evolving the Station to incorporate smart home features. It already provides the same sorts of functions as the Echo, in terms of voice queries and searches, and Yandex’s Dialogues platform is essentially the same system as the Alexa Skills Kit – the platform on which third-party developers can integrate their devices or services with Alice.

This would then give Yandex a solid foothold inside the home, and hopefully inside its customers’ digital lives too, via its other services. Yandex Plus, priced at 169 roubles per month (around $2.75), is notable for the way it goes further than both Google and Amazon. Yandex is hoping to be the business behind a very large part of a person’s life, and getting a dedicated device like the Station inside a person’s home is a big win for a company like Yandex.

Of note is Yandex.Taxi, which is a joint-venture with Uber that combines ride-sharing and UberEats. Uber essentially threw in the towel in Russia, deciding to join forces with Yandex – which at the time was present in 127 cities, compared to Uber’s 21, since Yandex.Taxi’s inception in 2011. Yandex.Taxi was providing 35m monthly trips.

That joint-venture saw Uber commit $225m, and Yandex $100m. Yandex holds a 59.3% share, with Uber on 36.6%, and with plans to go public at some point. Uber said it had invested $170m in the Russian market. The joint-venture was valued at $3.72bn.

Looking away from Russia, to the USA, Google has notched up a notable win – with sales of its Google Home line beating sales of Amazon’s Echo platform for the first time. According to figures from Canalys, in Q1 2018, 3.2m Google Home units were sold, and 2.1m Amazon Echo units were sold.

It’s an upset of sorts, given Amazon’s long-held dominance in the field for the past year. The figures also indicate that the US no longer holds the majority of the global market, with its global share falling below 50% for the first time. China is now the second largest market, shipping 1.8m units in Q1, and South Korea replaced the UK as the third largest, on 700,000 units.

Because of China’s growth, Alibaba is now the third largest smart speaker vendor, shipping 1.1m devices. Xiaomi is planning on launching a rival device soon, which will shake up the Chinese market. Canalys notes that Google has an advantage with retailers, as many of these stores don’t want to stock Amazon’s wares – as Amazon is a dangerous rival to their other sales.

In addition, Amazon attracted a raft of bad press recently, after a flaw managed to record a private conversation and send it to someone in that Echo device’s contacts list. The issue has now apparently been fixed, but was essentially an Echo following a conversation and mishearing words as commands – compounded by the human speakers not hearing the Echo’s responses.

Amazon says it has now tweaked the confidence thresholds in the Echo, to fix this problem, so that the devices now have to be more sure that they correctly heard a command before taking action. There is more detail available here, but Amazon has been braced for such a story for some time – especially after the sporadic laughing bug woke many up to the potential dangers of such AI-powered devices.