Last week, Amazon rolled out a variety of new hardware products integrated with Alexa, its voice-activated digital assistant. While it’s questionable whether these products will succeed in the same way as Amazon’s ultra-popular, Alexa-enabled Echo speaker, this rapid growth of the Alexa ecosystem might intrigue technologists and developers who want to break into voice-activated software.
These new devices include Echo Buds (a pair of wireless earbuds), Echo Frames (a pair of smartglasses), and the Echo Loop (an Alexa-enabled ring, so you can shout at your finger). What’s the theme that unites all of these devices? You guessed it: mobility. Amazon’s attempt at creating a popular smartphone crashed and burned in 2014, leaving the e-commerce giant at a serious loss when it comes to competing against Google and Apple, which have solidified their dominance of the smartphone market.
If Amazon wants people to use Alexa while they’re walking around, it needs to dominate the wearables market—hence this wave of new devices. For developers and other technologists, this massive expansion into wearables might create new opportunities for programming in Alexa—and maybe even earning a little bit of cash in the process.
Over the past few years, Amazon has updated the APIs that allow developers to build new routines and skills for Alexa. In mid-2018, it unveiled a “Skill Blueprints” program (blueprints.amazon.com) with templates for various skills with a minimum of programming. A few months later, it upgraded its programming ecosystem yet again with the introduction of in-skill purchasing (ISP) for Alexa skills (unlike “Skill Blueprints,” ISP requires quite a bit of coding, specifically the ASK Command-Line Interface (CLI)).
The latest APIs and tools include a Web API for Games, which helps developers build voice-activated games; a Presentation Language (APL), which can provide visuals on devices with screens (for example, weather cartoons can accompany a weather report); and new ways to personalize skills to a specific user.
(For those totally new to programming voice-activated assistants, Amazon provides a useful tutorial that’s actually pretty good; it digs deep into the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) and the voice user interface (VUI).)
While the Alexa skills library is nowhere near as crowded as Apple’s App Store or Google Play, it’s nonetheless growing at a steady clip, with 100,000 skills as of September 2019. That’s a good sign that developers are finding a lot of use for the platform, although Amazon is typically tight-lipped when it comes to giving out details on earnings and payouts for skills.
The following Alexa skills are eligible for payouts:
- Education & Reference
- Food & Drink
- Games, Trivia & Accessories
- Health & Fitness
- Music & Audio
Fortunately, any number of these work in a mobility context, whether asking Alexa-enabled earbuds to change a song or your “Echo Loop” about the location of the nearest good restaurant. However, it remains to be seen whether any of these devices will become a genuine marketplace hit.