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Why Google Home has a lot of catching up to do

Published Jun 3rd, 2016 3:00PM EDT
Amazon Echo Alexa Features

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Amazon is quietly shaping the future of computing. The giant retailer created a popular voice-and cloud-based virtual assistant that’s smart enough to perform certain tasks and provide answers to our queries. Amazon doesn’t do voice better than Apple or Google, but Amazon nonetheless created a tool that made it easier for humans to talk to a machine.

Google announced Home, a direct competitor for Amazon’s Echo, and Apple is rumored to introduce a similar device in the near future. But Amazon already has a major advantage over rivals: third-party integrations.

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By itself, Alexa can perform a bunch of tasks that you expect from virtual assistants. But the assistant can also integrate a variety of third-party services, which you can control with your voice. Amazon on Friday announced that over 1,000 third-party apps have Alexa support.

Called “skills,” these Alexa powers will let the assistant hail an Uber for you without you having to open the Uber app. Similarly, Alexa can order pizza from Domino and tell you your Fitbit stats. You just have to order it to do so.

Kayak integration lets you hunt for your travel deals with your voice, and Capital One lets you manage your finance via voice, through Alexa. Amazon’s Echo can make sure you don’t miss your next Caltrain, and play Seinfeld trivia games.

According to Amazon and its partners, it’s easy to teach Alexa your skill (app). Developers don’t have to worry about speech recognition or natural language understanding. That’s all on Amazon, which does all the work to hear and understand users. But once that data is processed, it’s passed over to the developer’s end, which delivers the expected device.

It’s likely that Google Home and Apple’s Siri project for home will receive similar third-party support in the future. But Amazon has a massive lead on competitors when it comes to building the voice-based home computing experience of the future.

The full press release follows below.

Amazon Alexa Continues to Get Smarter: Over 1,000 Third-Party Skills Now Available

Developers are reaching new audiences by using the Alexa Skills Kit to build skills for Alexa, the cloud-based voice service that powers millions of Alexa-enabled devices, including Amazon Echo

Skills for Alexa include Capital One, Domino’s, Fitbit, KAYAK, PGA Tour, Samsung SmartThings, Uber, Big Ass Solutions and Nutritionix

SEATTLE—June 3, 2016—(NASDAQ: AMZN)—Amazon today announced that developers have now released over 1,000 skills for Alexa, the cloud-based virtual assistant behind Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Amazon Fire TV, Amazon Tap, and other Alexa-enabled devices. With every new skill, Alexa gets smarter, giving developers a new way to delight their customers with voice-enabled experiences.

Creating an Alexa skill is easy and fast. Developers can use the Smart Home Skill API within the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) to easily extend smart home capabilities for Alexa. They can also create custom skills with ASK by designing their voice UI and simply building cloud-hosted code that interacts with Alexa cloud-based APIs to process customer requests. Alexa does the work to hear, understand, and resolve the customer’s spoken request, and then maps the service call to the developer’s endpoint.

“Less than a year ago we released the Alexa Skills Kit, making it possible for any developer to create voice experiences for Alexa,” said Rob Pulciani, Director, Amazon Alexa. “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, and introducing their own users to the magic and simplicity of hands-free, voice-driven interactions. We’re excited about the 1,000 skills that are already available, and can’t wait to see what developers create with the next ten thousand.”

Here’s what developers are saying about building skills for Alexa:

Capital One is using ASK to give its customers voice access to banking information. “At Capital One, we’re continually exploring new ways to harness technology to help our customers confidently and securely manage their money, wherever they are,” said Ken Dodelin, Vice President of Digital Product Management, Capital One. “Through the Alexa Skills Kit open APIs and developer tools, we were able to easily give our customers direct voice access to their accounts so they could hear how much money they have in their accounts, make credit card payments and stay on top of recent account changes. Voice helps make the interaction more accessible and intuitive, and provides us with a new way to engage existing and new customers.”

Domino’s, a pizza delivery company, is using ASK to give customers a hands-free way to order and track their pizza. “We’ve been thrilled with our experience building a skill for Alexa, which brings Domino’s ordering capabilities and pizza tracking to our customers with a simple voice command. The tools Amazon provided to us as developers made the process straightforward and intuitive,” said Kelly Garcia, Vice President of E-Commerce and Development at Domino’s.

Fitbit, the leader in the connected health and fitness categories, is leveraging ASK to provide users with voice access to their health and fitness stats. “The integration between Fitbit and Alexa gives our customers a new and fun way to stay on top of their health and fitness objectives,” said Tim Roberts, Executive Vice President, Interactive at Fitbit. “Leveraging the open APIs offered through the Alexa Skills Kit, we created the Fitbit skill to give our users hands-free access to their data within seconds. By creating an easy way to find out their step count or how they slept last night, users can know if they’re on track with their goals – all without needing to check your tracker or Fitbit app.”

KAYAK, the world’s leading travel search engine, is using ASK to give customers a way to access their travel details with their voice. “The KAYAK skill for Alexa has already delivered strong user insights that emphasize the power and potential of voice-enabled travel search. We are moving quickly to build on it,” said Matthias Keller, Chief Scientist, KAYAK. “The development process was seamless and enabled us to take our work with natural language processing to the next level.”

SmartThings, an open platform for the smart home, is using ASK and the Smart Home Skill API to offer customers voice-activated control of their home. “Offering customers the ability to control devices connected to the Samsung SmartThings platform with their voice was a natural next step,” said Brett Worthington, General Manager for Americas and Vice President of Global Business Development, SmartThings. “The Alexa Smart Home Skill API made it simple and easy for us to write, test, and deploy a Skill. Bringing this increased functionality to our open platform makes it even easier for our users to create customizable solutions that solve real problems.”

Uber, a global transportation network company, is leveraging ASK to easily let customers order a ride without using a device. “The integration of Uber with Alexa has taken simplicity to a new level for our customers and development team,” said Matt Wyndowe, Head of Product Partnerships at Uber. “We had the idea to give our customers the option to order an Uber with their voice and the Alexa Skills Kit made it easy with open, cloud-based APIs that worked seamlessly with our Uber API.”

Haiku Home by Big Ass Solutions is leveraging ASK to give their customers voice control over their home fans. “Bringing together Haiku Home by Big Ass Solutions and Alexa was a natural fit,” said Landon Borders, Director of Connected Devices at Big Ass Solutions. “We launched integration between Haiku products and Alexa just over two weeks ago and since then, our customers have used Amazon Echo to control their fans and lights 9,000 times a day. We look forward to watching that number grow as even more users experience the convenience and comfort of Haiku and Alexa.”

Genady Okrain is using ASK to help stop people from missing the Caltrain. “People who use public transportation are always looking for ways to better keep track of schedules and prevent the dreaded missed train,” said Genady Okrain, developer of the Next Train for Caltrain skill. “The feedback I’ve received on a daily basis about the skill is truly amazing. I like to think of it as I get to put a smile each day on someone’s face when they use the skill and trains align. The Alexa Skills Kit made it easy for me to get the skill up and running and in the hands of California commuters who have made checking in with Alexa before they leave the house part of their daily routines.”

Ken Westphal used ASK to bring to life voice-activated fan trivia. “Amazon made it very easy for me to develop and publish my Seinfeld Fan Trivia skill, “said Ken Westphal, developer of the Seinfeld Fan Trivia skill. “The open APIs that are part of the Alexa Skills Kit allowed me to bring a passion to life and I’m excited to give other Seinfeld fans a fun way to test their knowledge through Alexa-enabled devices!”

The Alexa Skills Kit is a free SDK for developers that provides a low-friction way to build for voice and get an Alexa skill up and running in just a few hours. No experience with speech recognition or natural language understanding is required—Amazon does all the work to hear, understand, and process the customer’s spoken request so a developer doesn’t have to. Developers also benefit from the Alexa integration with AWS Lambda, an innovative compute service that runs a developer’s code in response to triggers and automatically manages the compute resources in the AWS Cloud.

Since the launch of ASK, Amazon has added new features to make it easier to create Alexa skills including new built-in intents and slots, account linking, and audio clips. The company has also made it more convenient for customers to find and use skills, with skill sorting, ratings, and reviews and relaxed invocation phrases.

The Alexa Skills Kit is free—learn more and get started at

About Amazon opened on the World Wide Web in July 1995. The company is guided by four principles: customer obsession rather than competitor focus, passion for invention, commitment to operational excellence, and long-term thinking. Customer reviews, 1-Click shopping, personalized recommendations, Prime, Fulfillment by Amazon, AWS, Kindle Direct Publishing, Kindle, Fire tablets, Fire TV, Amazon Echo, and Alexa are some of the products and services pioneered by Amazon.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.