Alexa Skills may have proved popular for adding new functionality to Amazon’s virtual assistant, but the company is aiming to make the chatty smart home tech clever enough that users don’t need to go out looking for third-party add-ons. Currently, there are more than 100,000 Alexa Skills – effectively apps for the voice-first assistant – available, and with that comes confusion.
Out of the box, an Echo smart speaker or Echo Show smart display has a number of talents. Alexa can give weather forecasts and recite the news, answer questions about general knowledge topics, play simple games, and link up with connected bulbs, cameras, and other smart home tech.
However, with Alexa Skills, third-party companies can integrate their own platforms, or offer their own functionality, too. That might mean being able to remotely check on your electric car’s current charging status by voice, or controlling your smart shades. Thousands of games, entertainment, and more are available, and while that’s just what Amazon was hoping Alexa would encourage among developers, it also makes for a crowded and potentially confusing experience for users.
More recently, Alexa has become better at tapping contextual cues to figure out what users might want to do, but the future the company envisages might bypass manually installing Skills altogether. The plan is that users would be able to simply ask for what they want, and Alexa would figure out the best Skill route in order to achieve that, Amazon’s Dave Limp, SVP of Devices and Service, told Axios. In effect, it’ll send Alexa to look through its own third-party app store, rather than requiring users to know what they want from the outset.
“For customers it just means we find the expert in the room and automatically route that question,” Limp explained.
The challenge is that, in a primarily voice-first environment, actually showing all the possibilities for Alexa is tougher than it would be for, say, Apple’s App Store on an iPhone or iPad. Alexa Skills are typically browsed and installed through the Alexa app for smartphones, separate from the user-experience with smart speakers and displays that people are familiar with. Without a visual interface on the Alexa hardware spread around the home, Limp says, making it clear just what is available and what can be achieved is tougher.
It’s unclear at this point just how rapidly Amazon might be able to roll this sort of intuitive Skill management out, and it’s likely to run into some hurdles as it does it. While there may only be one, official Skill for integrating Alexa with your car, for example, there’s no shortage of competing general knowledge games, weather apps, and Skills in other categories. Deciding which of those to pick by default could see some developers left frustrated.
Meanwhile, the reality is that some Skills do need a display, at least to begin with. Alexa may be able to intuit that you need the Mercedes-Benz app if you want to remotely unlock your car’s doors, but you’ll need to go through the authentication and setup process to link the Alexa Skill and the Mercedes platform for it to all work. That will likely require some degree of handover to a device with easier input than chatting with Alexa to complete.