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Amazon 'probably copied us' on Echo Show, startup CEO says

The CEO of Nucleus, which developed a video intercom using Alexa, is now looking to team up with others against Amazon.

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The Nucleus intercom.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Amid all the excitement about a new Amazon device called the Echo Show on Tuesday, there was at least one startup left disappointed.

Jonathan Frankel is the CEO and co-founder of Nucleus, a company that created a touchscreen-enabled intercom system that includes Amazon's Alexa voice assistant and costs $249. The Echo Show, priced at $230, could be described in pretty much the same way.

But, while the Echo Show was just announced, Nucleus went on sale in August last year.

"They probably copied us," Frankel said in an interview. "When they had the opportunity to extend their tentacles into millions of homes, they had to do it, even if it means throwing us under the bus, even if it means putting their whole ecosystem at risk and letting people know that they're not necessarily a trusted partner."

Frankel's statements come after his 30-person New York company worked closely with Amazon engineers to create Nucleus and the online retailing giant became Nucleus' biggest investor, giving the Seattle company insights into Nucleus' roadmap. The Nucleus team found out details about the Echo Show Monday night, just before it was revealed to the public.

"We didn't get the idea for Echo Show from Nucleus," Dawn Brun, an Amazon spokeswoman, said in a statement. "Alexa is already on screens -- Fire TV and Fire Tablets. We're always thinking of what will benefit our customers. We know our customers love to have choice in form factors and that's a goal of ours on the Alexa team."

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The Amazon Echo Show, which ships in late June.

Amazon


The Echo Show overshadowing Nucleus might create a chilling effect for companies looking to create products using Alexa, which Amazon offers for free, harming Amazon's effort to grow the Alexa ecosystem. Others may not want to partner with Amazon for fear the company will come out with a competing device, especially if a product shows signs of success. Nucleus sold out on its first day on Amazon.com and made $4.5 million in revenue within six months of launch, the company said.

Such a scenario would hardly be new for Amazon, since third-party sellers on its website have complained that Amazon makes copycats of their products. But so far, Alexa has only broadened its influence, with the voice assistant landing in dozens of products, including small LG robots, Ford cars and Dish's set-top boxes. Lenovo even made its own version of the Echo speaker using Alexa.

"Our vision is that customers will be able to access Alexa whenever and wherever they want," Brun said. "We're creating a new voice service with Alexa, and that means making it available to other companies and services. We expect Alexa to be in many devices over time."

Frankel said he's now considering his options but is most intent on teaming up with other companies that may be threatened by the Echo Show -- including tech titans, telecommunications providers and retailers -- to band together against Amazon.

Amazon, which dominates in the smart speaker market, faces mounting competition from the Google Home. Also, Apple and Samsung may come out with their own versions of the Echo using their voice assistants.

"There's a lot that we can offer to partners in pushing back on this and convincing people to buy a different device that doesn't lock people into Amazon's ecosystem for the foreseeable future," Frankel said.

He declined to say whether Alexa would be removed from Nucleus.

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