January 12, 2016
Last year, around this time, I got an invite to get early access to a strange device from Amazon. Amazon was releasing a speaker that you could talk to. This was something that I would expect out of Google more than Amazon.
I was extremely skeptical of the device and even the video demoing the features. Overall, it just seemed wonky. Amazon did two things that always makes me want to order: They put it behind and invite and gave me an early bird discount.
When I first received it, it was a bit underwhelming. I showed off the speaker to my wife and a few friends. Everyone thought it was cool but, I don’t think that anyone wanted to buy it right away.
Slowly, over the year, I kept getting email after email with updates and notices for Alexa.
Everything from being able to shut off your lights in your house to being able to control you TV if you had certain devices.
One thing that always amazes me about the device. It is superb at being able to pick up your voice. I have been 10 feet away and have said the hot word “Alexa” and it recognized and was ready for instructions.
Amazon has recently released an app store for the Echo. They have labeled the section “skills” in the companion app. There are now over 100 new skills that you can add to your device. The skills range from asking Alexa to “fart” to walking you through the seven-minute workout and even a game of cat facts.
The product seems to be in a continuous development cycle. There has not been a week go by where there are not new integrations and services to tie into your device.
I want to walk through some of the more notable and interesting upgrades that have come to the product recently. These are also features that I find myself using more and more each day.
“Alex What’s On My Calendar”
You can give Alex access to your Google calendar. Each morning you can ask what is on the calendar and get a nice recap of what is coming up. If you are like me and have a shared calendar with your partner, this is a key to no longer having forgotten events. This is an awesome hack to use in the morning.
Alex just updated this week with the ability to quick add events into your calendar. The functionality is in the “skills” store.
An example of the phrase is “Alexa, tell Quick Events to add go for walk tomorrow at 3.”
Doing, that can be a little on the wordy side if something is big. Sometimes, it is nice to be able to at lease quickly block off time for an event.
Alex has its shopping list that goes into the Alex app or shows up on your Amazon account. On Amazon.com, there will be shopping and a todo list under your wishlist section.
Being able to add casually things to your shopping list, or to do list, while in the house has become an awesome experience.
Amazon does have voice purchases for products. You can ask Alexa to order you some soap. Alexa will look into your order history to see it will say something like
“I didn’t find that in your order history, but Amazon’s Choice for soap is x. The order total is $. Should I order it?”
You do get prompted to confirm or reject the purchase. But, that is one feature that I am too scared to try just yet. I don’t want to randomly order five hundred bars of soap.
IFTT is a service that connects apps and web services to together. So, for example, you can have Alexa’s shopping list go to a Trello board. You can then have Alexa’s to-do list function go to a different service such as Evernote. You can have Alexa call your missing phone.
Amazon has partnered with Yelp to get restaurant data for the speaker. How many of us have been trying to figure out what places to eat? So all you have to do is ask Alexa: “Alexa, find me a nearby Chinese restaurant.” It will even tell me if stores are open since Yelp has the hours in their database.
I am lucky to have a 3-4 minutes commute to work each morning. However, in the Alex companion app you can set a home and destination address and simply ask, “Alexa, how is traffic.”
Amazon Echo has come a long way since it was released last year. Also, this Fall Amazon has announced that they are going to release Alexa inside the latest FireTV. I have the old one, and that software has not been rolled out to my model. Amazon is secretly going to own the house with these devices and their low-cost tablets as well.
Amazon’s Alexa tech is something that I want baked into more tech products. I want to see it in cars. I also find that when I use the companion app, I want to dedicate voice commands inside of it. That would be another fascinating twist as well. If Amazon wanted ever to get back into the phone game making Alexa, the core would be the best way to do it.
The attempt Amazon made into phones was a complete disaster. However, Amazon can take a page from what Microsoft is doing with Cortona and release an Alexa app that would become an assistant.
Alexa is one of those devices that make you feel like you are using something for the future and the best part about it is that works and works well.
Written by John Siwicki who lives and works building interesting things. You should follow him on Twitter