The CEOs of Orange and Deutsche Telekom took centre stage at this year’s ShowHello event in Paris, as the operator giants unveiled their joint smart speaker product, an initiative they argued is critical to Europe playing catch-up in global digital innovation.

Orange chief Stephane Richard (pictured) and Deutsche Telekom boss Timotheus Hoettges showcased the smart speaker, branded Djingo by Orange markets and Magenta by Deutsche Telekom. The voice-controlled gadget is the result of a 150-employee strong collaboration by the operators.

While Hoettges gave little detail on availability in Deutsche Telekom’s markets, Orange’s Richard said Djingo will be available in France from early 2019 with prices starting at €49. In a post-event media session, deputy Orange CEO Ramon Fernandez said the company plans to roll it out across all of its European markets, starting with Spain shortly after its domestic debut.

Orange is pitching Djingo as a controller for all its connected home services and it will also provide access to Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa.

The artificial intelligence (AI)-powered voice assistant is not confined to the smart speaker: it will also be included in other Orange devices (for free), including the remote control for Orange’s TV set-top box, via a software upgrade.

Orange is also talking up a range of partnerships with companies such as Deezer, OUI.Sncf, Radio France and Meteo France.

AI warning
Richard and Hoettges did not mince their words when justifying the need for both companies to pool resources on the smart speaker.

“Right now Europe has lost the first half of digitalisation. Our economy faces challenges from big internet players in US and also China as well. But Europe is about to lose even the second half if we don’t do something about it,” warned Hoettges. “The second half is all about data, cloud and AI- based services. Only 4 per cent of the world’s data is stored on French or German company clouds. We have to do something about it.”

He continued: “The European Union needs to assert itself in the fields of European technology and connected cities, plus the infrastructure around 5G. These are the key enabling technologies that will guarantee wealth of the future. In China 91 per cent of all companies believe in the potential of AI. In the US it’s 97 per cent. In Germany only 51 per cent believe AI will make their business better. We cannot afford to have this negative connotation.”

Richard added that Europe is well placed to fight back based on its principle of democracy and privacy (he cited GDPR as a positive example): “Europe has a long history of excellence in internet research, a flourishing environment of innovative start-ups. Let’s fight for prosperity and to grow our businesses and we will ensure Europe grows.”

The Orange chief also revealed the operator is set to open an ethics committee focused on data use and AI, chaired by the CEO and open to external membership.

Richard’s comments echo those made earlier this year at the GSMA’s Mobile 360 Europe event, where he argued that Europe must find a way to muscle in on AI development by the US and China or face falling behind on a truly transformative technology.

5G gains speed
5G was naturally a big focus at the event too, with the operator announcing it will “install” the technology in 17 European cities (across France, Spain, Poland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Romania, although not Moldova) in 2019 ahead of commercial release in 2020.

French cities confirmed for 5G trial action include Lille, Paris, Marseille and Nantes.

An onstage demo showed off a 5G broadcast (ultra-high definition) via a connected drone at an Orange Lab in Chatillon.

Analyst Paolo Pescatore noted: “The arrival of 5G allows telcos to differentiate via a converged smart network, benefiting from AI and machine learning.”

“This will increase efficiencies and allow for a smarter network to serve users with a personalised offering.”

Security and privacy
Other new initiatives touted by Richard at the event include a plan to enable consumers to link Orange’s Connected Home objects to its ADSL wireless router (Livebox) to manage them remotely (Connected Home is compatible with Orange devices and IoT products from Philips Hue, Bosch and Netatmo).

Also in early 2019, Orange will launch security service Protected Home in partnership with Groupama, which will see houses connected to a video surveillance centre that triggers a call-out and contacts a law enforcement agency if required.

Finally Richard talked up Orange’s efforts to protect customer data. The operator supports the GSMA’s Mobile Connect digital identity service, with Richard stating the industry needs to strike a balance between freedom and security: “More and more aspects of life are connected but there can be a dark side and people who want to cause harm. I’m not fear mongering but understanding the more fragile parts of our society will help us protect our freedom.”

Richard also stressed that the data managed by smart speaker Djingo and Magenta will be stored on European soil.

Clearly, Richard is pushing Orange to recognise the value of its customers’ data assets and the need to protect that data. It is breaking into new markets to make the most of this data. He noted that the new Orange Bank service now has 200,000 customers in France and the operator used the ShowHello event to push a new voting app (using blockchain) which acts as an anonymous ballot box for communities. Orange also unveiled new smart patient care services.

“That’s how we are protecting your identity: bank, medical and even your vote,” stated Richard. “We innovate because you trust us. We use data to innovate so it makes a lot of sense to be entirely open about this.”