With Better Skills Discovery & E-Commerce Capabilities, Amazon Alexa is Growing up

Alexa Skills

Amazon Alexa, the voice interface behind Echo, took two huge steps forward in the last few days. First, Prime products can now be bought via Alexa. TechCrunch:

The retail-super-mega-giant, which had previously enabled reordering through Alexa, is now adding search/shopping to its AI voice assistant. Users with Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Tap or Fire TV can shop for new products by saying, say, “Alexa, order a Frisbee,” at which point the program will suggest a relevant Prime product and price. Likely some manner of flying disc.

This now works for “tens of millions” of products with more getting added. (as fast as the meta data about products allow, I suppose)

The second big step forward for the Alexa platform is the introduction of an easier way for users to find “skills”. (Alexa “apps” as in third-party integrations)


Through an accompanying Echo app for mobile devices, Echo owners, as well as those who use the virtual assistant Alexa via Amazon’s smaller speakers like Tap and Dot or Fire TV, can add Skills to their device.

This section of the mobile app has gotten an (overdue) revamp.

Now Skills are organized into categories like “Smart Home” and “Lifestyle,” for example, which you can browse with just a tap on the new “Categories” button at the top of the screen. Meanwhile, the Alexa Skills homepage features collections of Skills to enable better discovery of these add-ons, with groups like “Make your home smarter,” “Get entertained,” as well as sections that highlight customer favorites and those that are currently trending.

If you’re looking for a particular Skill, the search feature has also been improved.

Also, users can now add skills by voice.

To grow a platform, the platform provider has to make it easy for both sides to find each other. Amazon did just that with the addition of adding skills by voice and a big improvement of the visual discovery on mobile.

Alexa is growing up, fast.

According to the press release for Alexa Skills Kit’s one year anniversary (and the introduction of the improved ‘skills’ discovery), Alexa now has 1.400 ‘skills’, with the catalog having grown by 50% in the last month. (That’s a hockey stick right there.)

More interesting numbers from the press release:

  • Customers have made over 3 million requests using the top 10 most popular Alexa skills
  • There are now over 10,000 registered developers using the Alexa Voice Service to integrate Alexa into their products
  • There are tens of thousands of 3rd party developers currently working on Alexa projects
  • The Alexa Fund has invested in 16 startups, with a focus on smart home and wearable products to date. Over the next year, The Alexa Fund will be expanding investments into startups that focus on robotics, developer tools, healthcare, accessibility and more
  • Some of the most popular Alexa skills are Jeopardy!, Daily Affirmation, Magic 8 Ball, Fitbit, and The Bartender

“The Amazon Echo Is Winning the Race to a Screenless Future”, writes Wired:

And this month the Echo surpassed more than 1,000 “skills,” or apps, after the company opened up the software developer kit last spring. This third-party enthusiasm could create a virtuous cycle where the more Echo does, the more it sells, just like the iPhone after Apple opened the App Store.

Not only has the Echo been on sale for 19 months, helping Amazon build on what the Echo can do and what it can understand, but the company also has the massive Amazon Web Services cloud infrastructure, which underpins everyone from Netflix to the CIA.. “The great thing about Alexa is it’s based in the cloud, so we can improve it every minute,” says Dave Limp, Amazon’s head of devices. “Alexa is constantly getting smarter.”

It is hard to overstate in how good a position Amazon is right now with everything touching Alexa.

Technology insider and entrepreneur Anil Dash recently wrote about Amazon Echo and Alexa, and why they “really matter”:

The Amazon Echo is the first smart consumer electronics product since the smartphone that’s poised to become a daily habit for millions. (…)

Echo works because people like and trust Amazon. Because Amazon is truly a mainstream consumer brand, there’s no reluctance to purchase the product, and very little resistance to trusting it to be reliable and useful. Similar to Kindle, it’s almost seen as not really being high-tech; iPhones are all about ultra-high-resolution Retina screens but Echo doesn’t even have a screen. (…)

Echo is meaningful because it’s also the first hugely popular smart device that’s connected to a place rather than a person. (Video game consoles are obviously dedicated to the living room, too, but they’re a purpose-specific device, and none have crossed over into general app platforms.) Apps for places are different than apps for people. (…)

Building skills for Alexa is more like building a chat bot than it is like building an iPhone app. The greatest challenges in building Alexa skills will be about understanding phrasing and context, and in responding with appropriate voice and tone. (…)

It’s really interesting that both Siri and Alexa fall back on using Bing (which of course, Cortana does as well). Except for Google’s own products, all the next-generation voice-activated search devices rely on Microsoft’s platform, which could be a meaningful advantage for them in the future.


There are a lot of implications in there for Amazon’s strategy going forward.

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