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Amazon spreads Echo's global reach with expansion to Asia

The online seller is bringing its Alexa-powered devices to India and, later this year, to Japan.

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The new Echo Plus.

Ry Crist/CNET

Alexa is making new international friends.

Amazon is starting to sell a handful of Echo devices in India on Wednesday by invitation only, the company said. The e-commerce giant also plans to bring the Echo to Japan later this year.

The company is taking its Echo devices, which are powered by its Alexa voice assistant, to India as it works to expand in the world's second most-populous country. Amazon also faces tough competition from India-based e-commerce companies such as Flipkart and Snapdeal. Getting Indian customers to buy Echo devices, which connect to Amazon's online store and other services, could help Amazon convert more of them to Prime membership. Amazon launched its membership service in India last year.

Japan, meanwhile, has been a valuable international market for Amazon for years, with Prime launching there 10 years ago.

In India, Amazon will sell the new Echo, Echo Plus and Echo Dot. The devices will start shipping in the country later this month. Echo devices have already been available for sale in the US, UK and Germany.

Alexa -- which can be queried to tell customers the weather, set a timer, play music and operate smart-home devices -- now speaks in American English, British English and English with an Indian accent, as well as German, depending on which market a customer lives in. Amazon didn't specify which language Alexa will speak in the Japan market later this year.

Additionally, with Alexa's increased ability to understand context and intent, the voice assistant will be able to understand sentences that include proper nouns in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam or Punjabi, such as names of places, songs and movie titles, an Amazon spokeswoman said Wednesday. 

The international expansion was announced a week after Amazon unveiled a large slate of new Echo devices. The announcement also comes a few hours before a Google hardware event that's expected to show off rival Home smart speakers.

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