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Orange Adds Voice to Growing Chorus of Digital Assistants

Iain Morris
4/20/2017
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PARIS -- Orange Hello -- Orange has added its own voice to the growing chorus of digital assistants that can be operated via the spoken word.

Branded Djingo, the voice-activated digital assistant, unveiled earlier today at Orange's annual Hello show in Paris, is due to become available in France early next year, with service launches in other Orange markets set to follow.

The technology, which was debuted by Orange (NYSE: FTE) CEO Stephane Richard in front of Hello show attendees, works much like Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa, allowing users to activate services and request information through the power of speech.

Bonjour
Orange's annual Hello show in Paris is always a crowded affair.
Orange's annual Hello show in Paris is always a crowded affair.

The news makes Orange the second major European telco to announce a voice assistant this year after Spain's Telefónica unveiled its Aura-branded service at the Mobile World Congress in February. (See Telefónica's Answer to Apple's Siri: Aura.)

But others could soon follow. Orange revealed that much of the technology underpinning Djingo is the fruit of a strategic partnership with Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT), which suggests a service from the German incumbent may not be far off.

Answering questions from Light Reading, Bertrand Rojat, the deputy vice president of Orange's Technocentre R&D facility, said that Orange had been collaborating with Deutsche Telekom in areas including software and the "intelligence engine" behind Djingo.

On the voice recognition side, Orange has been working with a US-based company called Nuance Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: NUAN) whose technology has previously been used to support voice-activated features for the French operator's IPTV service.

Deutsche Telekom has also previously teamed up with Orange in several areas and the two operators still work together on procurement in an effort to bolster spending power and lower costs.

Such considerations partly explain the rationale behind the latest partnership. "A partnership with Deutsche Telekom gives this enough power and weight," says Gervais Pellissier, Orange's deputy CEO. "That way we can compete in the same way as the big guys in the industry."

Djingo unchained
Nevertheless, given the progress that Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) has already made with Siri, and Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN) with Alexa, operators look to be quite late entrants to the digital assistant market.

Like Telefónica, Orange believes the integration of its voice assistant with its other services will give it an important differentiator. As "smart home" technologies built around operators' own commercial offerings, Djingo and Aura should in theory know more about services from Orange and Telefónica, and the way customers use those particular products, than Siri or Alexa. The downside is likely to be Djingo's incompatibility with third-party content. Orange aims to rectify this, however, and the tie-up with Deutsche Telekom should help to spur interest among potential partners.

Richard's Djingo demonstration also went smoothly in the glare of the spotlight, giving many attendees their first experience of a French-language voice assistant (Telefónica's Aura demonstration in Barcelona was conducted in English spoken with a heavy Spanish accent).

Orange has flagged plans to release local-language versions of Djingo in other European markets (so Poland will eventually get a Polish Djingo, and Spain one that communicates in Spanish).


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Could telcos besides Deutsche Telekom join the club? "It is open to others on the condition they respect the spirit of the partnership, which is easier with two than many," says Pellissier. "There is always an opening but we know in the history of the industry that the French and German partnership has been quite powerful with just the two of us."

Orange is to provide an Alexa-like speaker with Djingo but says the technology will also be usable via smartphone apps and from the remote control of its most recent TV decoder.

As with the "virtual assistant" that forms a part of Orange's forthcoming banking service, Djingo should improve with age as it gets to know a particular customer and his or her personal preferences, said Orange. (See Orange Plans Bank Raid With AI, Digital Weapons.)

If this year's Hello show had an overarching theme, it is undoubtedly artificial intelligence and the importance of that to Orange's broader digital transformation.

While the innovations sound impressive, Orange appears to be leaning heavily on technology players from the US -- with the Watson technology from IT giant IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) powering Orange Bank's virtual assistant -- and its rivals are moving in the same direction.

Ultimately, its main challenges in its fiercely competitive European heartlands are retaining subscribers and persuading them to spend more. Djingo should help with the former and might even convince the customers of more pedestrian telcos to jump ship. Getting them to increase spending on communications services will be the far harder task.

— Iain Morris, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, News Editor, Light Reading

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