Right now, you can order a pizza, manage your to-do list and call an Uber on Amazon Echo and Google Home. The latest development from the smart speakers would give us yet another reason to leave our phones in our pocket. The Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon and Google are considering adding telephone functionality to their devices, but it won't be easy.
Citing "people familiar with the matter," the Journal says Amazon and Google could introduce the ability to make and receive calls on their respective platforms later this year. The companies could make use of their existing communication platforms, since Amazon already has the business-focused videoconferencing tool Chime. Meanwhile, Google has Hangouts, Duo, and it recently recommitted to maintaining Google Voice. Incorporating existing VoIP services like Skype and Vonage into their devices may be another way to go. Echo and Home could also have their own phone numbers, or the option to sync an existing number and contacts list.
One of the most significant roadblocks Amazon and Google face in turning their devices into home phones is privacy concerns. As the Journal notes, the Echo and Home's always-on microphones continuously record audio, locally saving a few seconds at a time, to monitor for activation commands like "Alexa" and "Hey Google." Law enforcement in Arkansas has already requested access to this data to help with a murder investigation, which raises serious privacy questions about connected home devices. Amazon's phone feature would only record call metadata, like phone numbers and call durations, while the Journal's sources aren't sure what data Google would keep.
The use of voice commands raises other problems. For instance, users might accidentally end a phone call by saying the hang up command in conversation. It could also be hard to move a call from the speakers to your phone, since the Echo and Home don't have many physical inputs. The inability to make emergency calls is also a potential issue, since most VoIP services don't allow users to make 911 calls.
The Wall Street Journal's sources call phone capabilities "the logical next step for the artificial intelligence-powered speakers," and they may be right. Still, it looks like there are substantial questions to address before Amazon and Google can set a firm release date on this new feature. Like other connected home technologies, there are real issues here that could scare off potential users interested in protecting their privacy.