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Computers

Amazon Alexa's new home: Your PC?

Lenovo reveals it talked to Amazon about using Alexa in its computers, offering a hint on the voice assistant's next big expansion area.

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Amazon's Alexa voice assistant may be talking her way into yet another important place: PCs.

Lenovo, the world's biggest PC maker, has held talks with Amazon on potentially using Alexa in its computers and other devices, according to a Lenovo executive with knowledge of the talks. The executive declined to provide more details.

That Amazon's even talking with PC makers underscores Alexa's growing importance. It highlights CEO Jeff Bezos' plan to take the assistant beyond its original home in the Amazon Echo smart speaker to become a broader service anyone can use across all kinds of electronics. As Alexa gains followers, she helps Amazon spread its influence to more consumers and devices, with a potential bottom-line boost as the world's largest e-commerce company draws in new shoppers for its homemade electronics and online store.

Bezos isn't alone in working to add a digital assistant into more gadgets. The retailer's conversations with Lenovo point to a brewing land-grab in the emerging world of voice assistants, with Alexa, Microsoft's Cortana, Apple's Siri and Google Assistant vying for control of more devices. Cortana made the leap from the phone to Windows 10 PCs last year, and Siri will do the same on Macs with a software update due this fall.

Bringing Alexa to PCs could also help revive interest in the devices, which have fallen out of favor as more consumers rely on their phones for computing. Worldwide PC shipments are expected to fall by 7.2 percent this year, and by just over 2 percent next year, researcher IDC reported this week.

At the IFA trade show in Berlin, PC makers this week are looking to spark some excitement with a crazy-large gaming laptop and a laptop-tablet hybrid with a digital keyboard. Voice assistants could be the next big feature.

The Lenovo discussions, though, are in their early days. It's unclear how Lenovo might use Alexa in its computers, if at all. It's also unclear whether the voice assistant would work with or replace Microsoft's Cortana, which already lives in many PCs.

"We consider things all the time and we've looked at it," the Lenovo executive said. "But there's nothing on the roadmap."

Amazon declined to comment.

Alexa everywhere

Amazon has aggressively moved to expand Alexa into more places, an effort that now has greater urgency since Google plans to start selling its rival Google Home smart speaker later this year. Amazon introduced the Echo, the first device to house Alexa, in late 2014, as a new type of voice-powered product. It was pretty much ignored at first.

But as Amazon added new capabilities to the speaker -- such as ordering a Domino's pizza or Uber car, checking your bank balance and turning on the lights at home -- it grew in popularity. It's now one of the buzziest new devices over the past year.

Amazon doesn't say how many Echos it's shipped, but one researcher estimated in April that the company had already sold 3 million Echo speakers in the US.

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Through the Echo, Alexa can now connect and control a bevy of smart-home devices, such as the Nest thermostat and Philips Hue light bulbs. This week, Alexa gained even more major hardware partners, with speaker maker Sonos revealing plans to make Alexa compatible with its devices next year and LG saying its adding Alexa into its upcoming SmartThinQ smart speaker. Earlier this year, a lesser-known hardware maker called Invoxia added Alexa into its new Triby speaker.

Thanks to the Echo's growth, Amazon expanded Alexa's lineup to include the Amazon Tap and Echo Dot speakers this March.

These examples may just be the beginning of Alexa-enabled devices. Amazon is encouraging developers to incorporate the voice assistant in their products by offering them a handful of software tools such as Alexa Voice Service. Also, Amazon's Alexa Fund -- backed by up to $100 million in investment money -- has helped promote new voice-enabled devices.

"Since Alexa and the Echo devices were released, they've really captured the attention of the technology marketplace and consumers in the US," Gartner analyst Brian Blau said. "That's given Amazon some fuel for this effort, to see where they can take it."

Moving Alexa into PCs is "a natural extension" for the technology, helping it reach even more customers, Blau added. PC makers could use Alexa as a way to differentiate their devices, much as they do today by touting design or battery life.

You can use your PC to talk to Alexa today, but in a limited way. People can ask Alexa about the weather or the latest headlines using the website Echosim.io. Lexi, an Apple iPhone app, also lets people chat with Alexa much as they would with Siri.