Tech giants have spent the past few years pushing aggressively into the digital-assistant realm. Apple has Siri; Google seems intent on getting every Android user to rely on Google Now; and Microsoft has big hopes for Cortana.
Amazon recently leapt into the same pool with the Echo, a black cylinder that acts as a combination stereo speaker and digital assistant, capable of responding to verbal queries. Ever since it unveiled the Echo last year, Amazon has touted the device as a hub for “smart homes,” compatible with a variety of apps and hardware; but now, as the hardware approaches actual release in July, the company has offered up more about the APIs and SDKs that will help build that ecosystem.
The new Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) includes APIs, tools, documentation, and sample code for developers who want to integrate their third-party app or service with Echo. Amazon claims that developers won’t need any prior experience with natural-language processing or speech recognition to get started with the platform. (ASK is named in part after Alexa, the voice-recognition software that powers Echo.)
Based on Amazon’s own materials, building third-party support into Echo seems relatively straightforward, hinging largely on simple commands such as “Ask… to.” Those who quickly master the platform’s basic abilities can also build for more complex multi-command dialogues.
While it’s questionable how much use some developers will get out of the platform (anyone building games or enterprise apps is unlikely to find much of use here), those who create software with relatively simple outputs—weather apps, for example—could find some utility here. Amazon also intends on offering up Alexa to other hardware makers, spreading the platform into those households that don’t purchase an Echo device.
Even if developers don’t gravitate in droves to Amazon’s new platform, ASK might encourage the company’s rivals to open up their own digital assistants a bit more to third-party tinkering, which could make this new, voice-driven market much more interesting.