Amazon made two big game-changing announcements today regarding Amazon Echo, the voice controlled speaker they just made available to everyone a couple days ago. They’ve announced the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), which will allow developers to expand the Echo’s capabilities far beyond what Amazon could do themselves. We expected something like this would eventually happen when Amazon began accepting signups to an Echo developers kit in beta. What we didn’t expect is that Amazon has taken it a step further by not only letting developers into the Echo, but also letting Alexa out of the Echo through the new Alexa Voice Service (AVS). AVS will allow developers and hardware manufacturers to build Alexa’s full voice-powered experience into any number of devices.
Amazon is treating the Echo as just one of potentially many platforms for Alexa. The “Alexa Skills Kit” software developer kit does not have the word “Echo” in its name because it’s not just a way for developers to add functionality to the Amazon Echo. But rather, it’s a way for developers to add functionality to Alexa, which Amazon would like developers to make accessible from any device with an internet connection and a microphone. This means Alexa, and in turn the Amazon Echo, will gain new abilities while stretching beyond the confines of the Echo’s metal cylindrical speaker.
Device makers like Pebblebee, a tracking beacon you can attach to anything, have already begun working with the ASK to allow you to simply ask “Alexa, find my keys” to locate the Pebblebee attached to your keys. Mint.com, the free web-based personal financial management service, will integrate into Alexa and allow you to ask things like “what is my account balance.” Popular tech blogs TechCrunch and Engadget are playing with the idea to allow Alexa to read headlins and articles outloud. Glympse, a mobile app that lets you share your location with friends and family, is integrating with Alexa to allow users to ask “Where is Billy?” or “When will George get here?” These are just a few examples Amazon has given of companies already expanding Alexa and the Echo’s capabilities.
Expanding Alexa’s capabilities is great, but it wouldn’t be nearly as useful if Alexa was confined to only the Amazon Echo. That’s why the second part of this announcement, AVS, allows third party hardware makers full access to Alexa and its capabilities. Amazon envisions hardware manufacturers adding buttons or always listening microphones, like on the Echo, to numerous devices that will connect to Alexa in the cloud. They give examples like car manufacturers adding an Alexa button to steering wheels, a wifi alarm clock that can tell you the weather or check your calendar, and a movie ticket kiosk that lets you buy tickets with your voice.
Manufacturers have already begun integrating Alexa into their devices. Wink, makers of smart home hubs that talk to numerous devices will be using Alexa to allow customers to manage their home’s with voice commands. Everything from turning on lights, locking doors, controlling temperature, and opening blinds. Scout Alarm, a self installed home security system will allow customers to enable their alarm system as they walk out the door using their voice and Alexa. Toymail, makers of wifi toys that send and receive voice messages, will integrate Alexa and essentially turn their devices into kid friendly versions of the Amazon Echo.
To help get things started with Alexa’s new openness and capabilities, Amazon has started a $100 million Alexa Fund which invests in developers and manufacturers that create interesting things with Alexa. The company has invested in seven ventures so far. Some of the companies already mentioned, like Scout Alarm and Toymail, are among the seven. The fund will be investing in both companies that use Alexa in interesting ways and ones that add new features and functionality to Alexa.
It’s become clear now that the Amazon Echo was just phase one in a larger play to bring voice-controlled devices to the masses. You could even say that the Fire TV was phase zero with its, now seemingly, simple voice capabilities. It’s exciting to see where Amazon, developers, and manufacturers take things from here.