Amazon Alexa Hits 10,000 Skills. Here Comes the Hard Part

A year and a half ago, Amazon opened up its Alexa voice assistant to developers. With the Alexa Skills Kit, Alexa and its hardware hosts–the Echo, Dot, Tap, and now dozens more from third parties–became more than simply speakers and digital weathermen. It became a platform, capable of supporting a full ecosystem of abilities, which are essentially apps that you talk to instead of touch. Today, there are 10,000 abilities available on Alexa. Its an exponential increase since last summertime, a rise that presents a host of new opportunities–and new challenges.

While 10,000 appears to have been an arbitrary milestone, its an instructive one, especially when you consider how fast its arrive. Last June, a full year after the ASK launched, Amazon announced that Alexa had reached 1,000 abilities. By September, that number had tripled. In January, Alexas skills catalog swelled to 7,000. It took simply over a month to tack on another three thousand.

Alexa still doesnt arrive anywhere close to rivaling its mobile equivalents; the App Store and Google Play both count their offerings in the millions. But the 10,000 abilities mark represents a beachhead in the the brave new( and increasingly competitive) world of voice assistants. Where it goes from here will help define the next generation of user interfaces. As will, more importantly, how it gets there.

Skills Set

While Alexa became a developers playground in 2015, Amazons vision for a home-grown voice deputy started a full four years ago.

We had this inspiration of the Star Trek computer, tells Steve Rabuchin, who heads up Alexa voice services and abilities at Amazon. What would it be like if we could create a voice deputy out of the cloud that you could just talk to naturally, that could control things around you, that could do things for you, that could get you info?

Amazons first key innovation wasnt voice itself, or even responsiveness; speech recognition has been around for decades, and Apple introduced the conversational Siri in 2011. Amazons accomplishment was freeing its voice deputy from the smartphone, nudging users closer to a truly ambient experience. The second breakthrough? Giving those users things to do.

At the end of 2015, a few months after the ASK availability, Echo proprietors had 135 abilities to choose from. Today, theyll find among their 10,000 options a bevy of smart home controls, multiple vehicle companies, Starbucks, and not one but two national pizza chains. There are even a handful of games, like Jeopardy, and the whimsical Magic Door.

In that time, too, its also get easier to use those abilities. While previously Echo proprietors would have had to dig into a companion Alexa app to enable, tell, Jeopardy, they can now do so with a simple voice command. Similarly, the developers behind the skills have added features as they better understand the style their customers use them. GE Appliance, for instance , noticed that customers frequently used Alexa for hands-free oven operation( the company sells over 70 connected gadgets in all; the future is full of odd wonders ).

We saw how popular those features were, so we started rolling in presets, tells GEs Bill Gardner. Now, customers can simply ask Alexa to set the oven for chicken nuggets, or pizza, or cookies, or whatever else theyre heating up that night. We tried to make it one step quicker.

So the number of skills has grown, as has the range of available features, as has the consumer embrace of the platform, which Rabuchin describes as commensurate with the hockey stick uptick in Alexa abilities. So far, its one of the great tech success tales of the past decades. Now arrives the hard part.

Undiscovered Countries

If the Alexa abilities origin tale sounds familiar, thats because so far it maps pretty neatly with that of Apples App Store. Its a smaller scale, but the pacing is about right, as well as the types of developers that are signing on in the early days.

For Amazon, thats promoting. The App Store is an indisputable success. But its growth wasnt without aches, some of which Alexa may be feeling soon, if it hasnt already.

We know what happened when Apple opened up the App Store and developers started pouring applications in there, tells Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey. Suddenly “its become” genuinely, really hard for developers to get in front of their intended customers. There became this big problem of clutter.

A problem that , notably, persists even today, virtually nine years later. And while Amazon has fewer abilities to get lost among, its voice-first paradigm induces searching through those abilities much more difficult. That generates potential frustrations for customers and developers alike; the former doesnt know where to find abilities they might enjoy, and the latter doesnt watch a return on the invested the amount of time spent creating the ability in the first place.

Not surprisingly, Amazon has taken steps to mitigate the problem. It sends weekly emails to Alexa users highlighting lately added abilities. And after a year of the skills interface consisting of simply a listing within the Alexa app, the company last summertime launched a abilities store online, complete with ratings and reviews. All of which helps, but still requires staring at a screen–which Alexa “re supposed to” free you from in the first place.

Were working on styles with your voice to better navigate the skills that are there, tells Rabuchin. Youre able to ask Alexa what the top skills of the week are, what the new abilities are, a whole bunch of categories simply by voice.

All of which brings much-needed clarity to the skills search. And at the rate things are going, Amazon will find out soon enough if the same answers for 10,000 abilities can scale up to 100,000 and beyond.

Expansion Pack

Today the skills Alexa offers fall broadly into two categories. There are the hobbyists, who attain abilities for fun, and the corporations who wring a lot of marketing value out of being on the front line of the voice revolution. What do they have in common? They arent too pay particular attention to turning abilities into profit.

[ Alexa] s not going to make a real solid transition to professional development unless theres a style to make money, tells McQuivey. This is how the App Store runs as well; even though most apps arent cash cow, the opportunity that one might hit is motivating enough for high-level developers to put resources in.

Thats not to single Amazon out. Its a common challenge across not only voice assistants but also chatbots and other next-generation platforms. These are early days.

Everybodys learning how their business models are going to be set up on these platforms, and these ecosystems, where theyre letting companies to play and not play, tells Dennis Maloney, chief digital officer of Dominos, an early Alexa enlistee whose AnyWare program has put it at the forefront of multiple next-wave technologies. Its two steps forward, one step back as we continue to grow and learn in this space.

Amazon declined to comment specifically on monetization schemes, but a spokesman tells the company is listening closely to our developer community to identify new features and tools that will improve the ASK experience.

In many styles, its as much an opportunity as it is a challenge. The first company to figure out how to both create and share the voice-enabled wealth will stake out a dominant position, an increasingly heated race as Google Home encroaches on Echo’s turf. And Amazon may be better situated than anyone to do so. It has a history of app store experimentation, including Amazon Underground, which normally dedicates apps to customers for free, and pays developers based on usage hour. There could also be more straightforward approaches, especially for retailers; Maloney looks forward to the day that a Dominos customer can simply tell Alexa what kind of pizza she wants to order from scratch, rather than involving her to fill out a form on the internet first.

Besides, whatever roadblocks like ahead clearly havent obstructed Alexas growth so far. Rabuchin tells Amazon has thousands of people on the team, with tens of thousands of developers signed up for accounts. And while the first batch of abilities have been mostly centered around the smart home, streaming music, or simple timers, or marketing tie-ins, there are signs that Alexas starting to broaden its horizons.

In fact, Alexa’s 10,000 th ability, approved just last night, isn’t any of those things. Its Beat the Intro, a name that tune game that already detected success on the App Store and Google Play. Now, with a few voice-friendly tweaks, its going to give Alexa a try.

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