But let’s not forget those Alexa skills. Perhaps one of my favorite (and most challenging) projects last year was building a multi-modal Alexa skill for none other than the National Hockey League.
Alexa’s been around for years. What, pray tell, would be so challenging for a developer creating an Alexa skill now? In 2018, Amazon released APL – their new presentation language – designed to make life easier on designers and developers creating voice experiences for multiple devices, i.e. smart speakers, smart speakers with screens (Echo Show, Spot), TVs, and more.
They changed their code base almost daily as we worked our way through their new rendering engine, which added visual elements to their skills repertoire. We would often accidentally delete large blocks of code because the export and delete buttons were put right on top of each other (with no confirmation step, might I add). Oh the joys of working with newly released systems – always fun, always challenging!
So naturally, what did I do after immersing myself in Alexa land for over a month?
I went out and bought an Alexa enabled device for basically every room in my house: smart plugs, Alexa enabled home security, you know… the works. My wife might say I went a little too far, but I’d just call it consumer research necessary to help advance my career… and because I have a tendency to be “extra” when it comes to learning about tech.
For the record: I did NOT buy the microwave because I’m not an animal. I’m more sensible than that.
It’s been a lot of fun, wildly frustrating, and a great experiment to see how voice has enabled me and my family to be less reliant on those little glowing rectangles Apple has us hooked on like catnip. My one-year-old knows she can point up at any of the little speakers we have in a room and go “Baby!” to play “Baby Shark.” My wife and I frequently ask Alexa questions, rather than whipping our phones out. We have room configurations set up so when we go to lay down at night we just walk into our bedroom, say the magic words, and our nightstand lamps are on with the fan ready to go.
It’s really been a generally positive experience for our family thus far. Let’s be honest though, what we’re doing now isn’t new or novel in the voice space. So what additions to Amazon’s ecosystem can we look forward to in 2019?
Ok, the reason you opened this article was to learn more about what I’m hyped to see from Alexa-land in 2019. In order of my hyped-ness, I give you… the list!
Let’s be honest Echo Auto is going to be everything that we had wished Siri would be in our cars, but hopefully without all the yelling. And without the price tag.
I mean, you can go spend thousands to buy a new car with CarPlay or Android Auto, but even then it’s fragmented which cars come standard with CarPlay or have the option to include either option. For $300+ you can buy a new stereo system and pay a little more to have it installed. This is 2019 though, and I’m not going back to my high school years where everyone had to buy a new stereo to get that sweet multi disk CD player. No. You can’t make me. I refuse
An Amazon Echo Auto is $25. Need I say more? Per The Verge, “Amazon is only trying to work one thing — Alexa — into the in-car experience, not a whole touchscreen-based operating system.” Take the Echo Auto out of the box (or be creative and use an Echo Dot for an extra DIY feel) and it is simply stuck to your dashboard where it connects via Bluetooth to your car, using your phone as its access point to the web. Can I get an Amen?! No need to rip out my perfectly fine stereo system, just do the thing that for some unknown reason Siri and Google Assistant have been unable to do consistently – change my music.
Reality check: the Echo Auto does still miss the bus when it comes to making calls and the like, but the “drop in” feature does allow my wife to ring me (or vice versa) from all of our other Alexa devices. It’s not all roses, but I won’t have to fumble around with my phone or dashboard while driving just to get “Baby Shark” to play again (I hope you’re feeling the theme of my life over the past year and a half of being a father).
Alexa getting smarter, and letting you know in the process.
Undoubtedly Alexa will be getting “smarter” in 2019. I don’t mean smarter in the human sense where Alexa will start to better understand the interpersonal nuances of human relationships and learn how to communicate with me on a deeper level. Nope, I simply mean Alexa will have access to more random trivia.
“How many races did Lance Armstrong win?” (trick question!)
“Which Hogwarts house was the one with the snake?”
“Are my wife and I astrologically compatible?”
You get the gist. It’s one of my most common use cases, where I just don’t want to get my phone, but want to know something specific.
Google Home is dominating in this space right now, which should be a surprise to exactly no one. Google has access to more information and knows how to surface it better (see: the world’s best search engine and the core of their business). Adweek said it best: Google Home is 6 times more likely to answer a user’s question correctly than Amazon Alexa.
Enter Answer Update (among many other things), Amazon understands it’s not the clear leader in this space, so it’s offering users the ability to have Alexa come back at a later date and give them the answers they never got. Yes, that’s right – it’s a “let me get back to you” feature.
This alone is not going to solve Amazon’s knowledge gaps, but 2019 will see dramatic shifts in this space; be that with third parties jumping in the game and contributing where native Alexa falls short, or Amazon itself going through each question and building up Alexa’s abilities missed query by missed query.
Skill Development Opportunities
It’s not likely that businesses find a good way to advertise or sell things through any voice experience this year. I don’t know that I’ve seen or heard of any seriously compelling use cases for businesses to make money on the skills stores.
That said, Amazon and Google are basically tripping over each other to get as many smart, voice-enabled devices into our lives as possible on the premise of “hey, we can play your music really well… and set a timer” (which, with 100% certainty, are killer applications and should not be overlooked). 2019 will bring about more and more incentive for Google or Amazon to see who can build the better (which in our culture means, profitable) ecosystem for voice developers (i.e. see any stat that has ever been published about the Apple App Store and how it’s more profitable than the Google Play Store …though the margin is shrinking).
Money plays a central factor in this game and while 2019 may not result in tons of people making money off of their voice skills, there will undoubtedly continue to be a big rush to see who can get there first by encouraging developers and companies to keep throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.
Who wins in this game? I have no idea, but the two big players did the hard work of getting these devices in the home and now the door is open for more skills. We will see advancements here in 2019 that should benefit all parties (consumers, developers, and the like).
Caveat: All of this assumes that parties involved continue to evolve and iterate with some semblance of privacy and consumer protectionism in mind. *sigh*
Alexa SDKs making it easy to add Alexa to almost anything
This is going to get technical quick, but Amazon released a series of really key SDK’s in 2018 to allow engineers to integrate Alexa into basically anything with a circuit board and a connection to the internet – oh, the Amazon Hot Tub. This means that any random John, Jane, or company can for the most part, walk up and say “Hey, I think I’ve got some hardware that would be more usable or just better when integrated with Alexa”. Finally! Our internet of things dreams are coming true!
I’ve sincerely considered how nice (and debatably unnecessary) it would be to get an Alexa connected – did anyone say “Preheat my oven to 425 degrees?”
Compare that to Apple, which basically refuses to let a developer use Siri in any meaningful way… when they are building an app… for iOS… that Apple approves… and has tacit control over. I’m not bitter that I was basically forced out of the Apple ecosystem for voice because of price point and extreme lack of innovation… (SiriKit does begin to bridge this gap here or even potentially completely eliminate it, but some might argue it’s too little too late.)
The best part about this for Amazon is that it means that you as a consumer can have a single Echo Dot in your home, but control basically an infinite amount of hardware devices. Compare this to Google, which is basically trying to force a Google Home on you because they need you to spend time in their software ecosystem (i.e. giving them more information on you so they can push you more ads).
In all fairness, Amazon hasn’t exactly been a great faith actor in using sellers data to ultimately price out smaller retailers by making their own Amazon Basics version of their products, but that’s a blog post for a different day.
There are my thoughts for 2019 in the Amazon Alexa space and what I’m excited to see unfold over this year! If you have any questions, comments, or thoughts please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.