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Devs Light Up for Alexa

Amazon last week announced the availability of more than 1,000 different skills for its Alexa voice assistant technology. Third-party developers have created the vast array of new capabilities for the highly popular line of consumer products that use Alexa, which includes the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Amazon Tap and Amazon Fire.

The announcement comes less than a year after Amazon released the Alexa Skills Kit, which allows outside developers to create new services to work with the voice-activation technology.

Developers have ramped up the creation of new skills for the Alexa ecosystem — only 135 were available in January.

“Today we have a vibrant community of tens of thousands of developers who are learning about the service, bringing useful and innovative skills to every aspect of Alexa customers’ lives,” said Rob Pulciani, director of Amazon Alexa.

Developers can use the Smart Home API to enable smart home capabilities, such as controlling lights, door locks or alarms. They also can create custom skills using the ASK to design their voice user interface, and building cloud-hosted code that interacts with cloud-based APIs.

Consumer Applications

Alexa is finding more of an audience as a consumer-focused application, “especially insofar as it enables shopping on Amazon,” said Mike Jude, a program manager at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan.

“Fire has its own interfaces, but then it is a special-purpose device [for content consumption], while Alexa is intended to interface potentially with everything,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Amazon is collaborating on new skills with a wide range of companies. Among them are Kayak, which offers a skill that allows users to access travel details with their voice; Capital One, which offers voice- activated account information to customers; FitBit, which provides voice-activated health and fitness data; and SmartThings, which gives customers voice-activated control of their homes.

Domino’s Pizza announced ahead of the SuperBowl a skill that lets users order and track home deliveries using Echo.

Soup to Nuts

Among the companies drawn to Alexa is Macadamian, which has developed two of its own skills. One is a new service called “Fantasy Scoreboards,” which allows users to control a WiFi-connected National Hockey League scoreboard when connected to Echo.

“We are user experience experts,” noted Martin Larochelle, chief architect of Macadamian.

“We have been focusing on mobile and Web user interfaces, but about 1.5 years ago, we identified that natural language interfaces and voice interaction would be increasingly important,” he told TechNewsWorld.

The company initially explored voice interaction through phone — like with Siri on iOS — before shifting to Alexa, Larochelle said.

“The Amazon Echo provides new context of use, so we wanted to experiment with the possibilities,” he explained. “We believe that it could provide value to our customers, so we want to develop design and implementation expertise for it.”

The company previously developed a skill to send text messages using the Twilio API. It is considering adding a third skill this summer, which likely will give users a way to set reminders for upcoming city services — like recycling and garbage pickup days or other routine services.

The Alexa Skills Kit is a free SDK for developers, providing a low-friction way to get an Alexa skill up and running within the space of a few hours. No experience in speech recognition or natural language is required, as Amazon handles the chore of understanding spoken word requests.

AWS Lambda can help in the development process, Amazon noted, as it runs the developer’s code in response to triggers, and manages compute resources in the AWS Cloud.

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

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