Amazon takes a major step towards eliminating the need to say “ask” for custom smart home Alexa Skills

One of the confusing and cumbersome aspects of using Amazon’s Alexa to control smart home devices is the need to sometimes say “Alexa, ask…” before issuing a command. Prefacing a command with “ask” or “tell” is necessary when a smart home device manufacturer provides capabilities that go beyond what Amazon supports in their regular set of Alexa smart home control commands. Amazon is now allowing developers to extend the capabilities of regular smart home Alexa skills with extra functionality so that they don’t need to resort to a custom skill that requires the user to say “ask” before issuing an advanced command.

Before talking about the solution that Amazon has created, it’s important to first understand the problem. When a smart home device manufacturer adds Alexa support to their product, they need to decide whether they’re going to create a Smart Home Skill, a Custom Skill, or both. Choosing to create a Smart Home Skill, which is what most manufacturers select, is ideal because it allows the customer to issue natural language commands, such as “Alexa, increase the temperature” for a smart thermostat. The disadvantage of a Smart Home Skill is that it only supports a predefined set of commands for each type of smart home device. For example, smart lights can use a Smart Home Skill to allow Alexa to control their power, brightness, and color.

A wall is hit when the smart home device can do more than what Amazon supports in their standard Smart Home Skill. For example, some smart lights are able to gradually increase brightness over time to simulate the sun rising in the morning. The standard Smart Home Skill does not support this ability, so you can’t say “Alexa, simulate a sunrise” and have Alexa know what to do. Some manufacturers decide to support only the basic functionality of their device using the standard Smart Home Skill and require that their smartphone app be used for all other controls. Other manufacturers choose to create a Custom Skill.

A Custom Skill allows the developer to do virtually anything they want, but the caveat is that customers must say “Alexa, ask…” before issuing a command. For the sunrise light example, saying “Alexa, ask [Smart Bulb Manufacturer] to simulate a sunrise” works just fine, but is unnatural to say. While it’s hardly an ideal solution, it has been the only option for smart home device manufacturers to support voice control of their more advanced features. Some manufacturers have created hacks to work around the problem, such as declaring “sunrise” to be a dedicated device so that users are able to say “Alexa, turn on sunrise,” but that works around the problem, instead of solving it.

Amazon has now announced an actual solution for device manufacturers and Alexa Skill developers to truly eliminate the need to use a Custom Skill that requires saying “ask” before advanced commands. The solution allows developers to declare custom functionality in a standard Smart Home Skill. This allows smart home device manufacturers to allow voice controls that go beyond basic functionality without the customer needing to use a secondary Alexa Skill.

Certain smart home device manufacturers, such as Ecobee and Harmony, currently have two Alexa Skills each in order to support both standard and custom voice commands. Once they and other manufacturers update their Alexa Skills to support the newly announced capabilities, the need for a second custom skill will go away. This will both simplify the setup process of smart home devices and allow customers to use natural language, that doesn’t require saying “ask,” for all commands.

For manufacturers who still can’t achieve everything they want without a custom “ask” Alexa skill, Amazon has a solution for them as well. Developers can now create multi-capability Alexa Skills. This essentially combines a Smart Home SKill with a Custom Skill into a single Alexa Skill. While this does nothing to eliminate the need to say “Alexa, ask” before a command, it does remove the need to have two different Alexa Skills for a single device. A single multi-capability skill will enable the use of both natural language basic Alexa smart home commands and more advanced custom Alexa commands, which require the use of “Alexa, ask,” in one Alexa Skill.

  1. Craig says:

    I wish Alexa would allow me to do what Google Assistant/Home does. Allow me to simplify with custom commands. So instead of me saying something like “Alexa? Ask LG to check the status of my washer?” I can simply say “Alexa? Check the washer.” and it will translate it accordingly. Or instead of “Alexa? Ask NexxGarage to check the status of my garage door?” I could simply say “Alexa? Check the garage door.”

  2. Ghanshyam Lohar says:

    Can you have conditional reminders? For e.g. remind/inform me when it starts to rain? Often I roll down car windows and when it rains, I want to atleast reduce the amount of water getting in the car.

    Have not seen any support for this in Alexa or Google.

    • Jill O Richard says:

      Hi friend! Have a look at some of the applets on IFTTT using Weather Underground (WU). If there’s not one there already, you can easily create one yourself. For example, I use one that will blink my lifx brand bulb when WU says it’s snowing.

  3. HeffeD says:

    This sounds promising! I hope it will allow Harmony to seamlessly integrate multiple hubs into their skill.

    I’d love to be able to just basically name each hub so Alexa knows which one you’re trying to control, instead of the current method with two skills and needing to remember which hub you can just talk normally to, and which one you need to add the phrase ask Harmony.

    It’s really cumbersome, (and the opposite of what you would expect from a so-called smart home device) to have explain to people, if you want to control the hub in the TV room, just say “Alexa”, but downstairs, you need to say, “Alexa, ask Harmony”. Even I get confused when I’m watching in another room! It’s easier to just use the remote on the secondary hub than to add “Ask Harmony” to every command.

    • Craig says:

      Logitech and Amazon need to find a way to allow Harmony Hubs to simply be put into Alexa Home groups with their respective Echo devices, the same way lights in a room can now be grouped together with an Echo for that room. I’m kinda surprised this hasn’t already been done by now???

  4. Nick Hathaway says:

    This makes me wish I hadn’t given up my Harmony Hub. That was my biggest gripe. Sadly the Fire TV Cube just isn’t as functional yet.

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