There’s nothing short of the future at stake as tech companies vie for command of an increasingly connected world.
The top contenders — Google, Amazon, Apple, some would argue Samsung, and others — each bring their own vision, vested interests, strengths, and shortcomings to the party.
But given its plethora of proprietary products; a robust loyalty program in Prime; a burgeoning library of popular and original content; and a disembodied assistant to rival Star Trek’s computer, one might be inclined to give the edge to Amazon.
Of course the e-tailer wasn’t the first to develop, produce and sell its own line of tech goods: Think Tandy computers and Realistic A/V from RadioShack, and Insignia devices from Best Buy.
But beginning with the Kindle e-reader, progressing to Fire-branded tablets and streaming video devices, and culminating, thus far, in the Echo, Tap and Dot family of voice-controlled wireless speakers and smart-home hubs, Amazon has created an assortment of consumer-facing tech products that have insinuated themselves into people’s homes and lives.
Newly central to the plan is Alexa, Amazon’s voice-activated, Cloud-based cyber assistant that can variously play music, tell a joke, make a shopping list, set a timer, pass wind, order an Uber, and control numerous household functions. At last count the platform can perform over 3,000 such operations, or “skills,” which began billowing after Amazon opened it up to developers 16 months ago by issuing an Alexa Skills Kit (ASK).
Indeed, the selection of Alexa smart-home API skills has grown more than fivefold as of June, with over 10,000 registered developers using the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) SDK to integrate Alexa into their products, and tens of thousands of third-party developers working on Alexa projects.
Amazon has helped the effort along by updating the platform with added voice functionality and an improved mobile app. Now, users can add new skills to Alexa’s lexicon by merely voicing them (“Alexa, enable NBC News”) and, using the app, can browse all 3,000-plus capabilities by category, such as smart home or lifestyle, or access previously-enabled skills online within a “Your Skills” section.
Amazon said current customer favorites run the gamut from the healthful (1-Minute Mindfulness, a 60-second sound meditation) to the trivial (Magic 8-Ball) to the utilitarian (Capital One banking). Indeed, Capital One account holders can check their balance and pay their credit card bills through Alexa, while Citigroup is testing bill payment, fund transfers and peer-to-peer payments via voice command.
But for this industry, the ramifications are profound. Other top skills include Venstar smart-thermostat control and Home Control Assistant for use with an HCA server, and home-automation vendors including Wink, Smart Things, Belkin, Philips Hue and Insteon, were early Alexa adherents, followed this year by Crestron, D-Link and Lutron, among other.
More recently, GE Appliances has been swayed by Alexa’s siren song, DTS is making its Play-Fi audio ecosystem compatible with the platform; and Sonos said its speakers will offer voice control via Amazon’s own Alexa-enabled products beginning next year, further extending the e-tailer’s tentacles.
Amazon’s private-label products too are being infused with Alexa. Current Fire, Fire HD 8 and Fire HD 10 tablets will join the party in coming months via an over-the-air update, and the latest Fire HD 8 iteration was released last month with Alexa already on board. Similarly, the latest generation Fire TV Stick has been imbued with the digital assistant, enabling it to search across more than 90 channels and apps, rewind and fast-forward programming, and execute Alexa’s thousands of skills, all by the sound of one’s voice.
The end game? Whereas Alexa had previously been limited to Amazon reorders and a pre-selected pool of recommended products under the Amazon’s Choice program, the platform is now capable of ordering tens of millions of Prime-eligible items by voice.
Like Amazon’s Wi-Fi-based push-button and automated Dash re-ordering system, which replenishes frequently-used household and office products, the new Alexa skill set is another way the e-commerce colossus is tightening the noose and making it easier to buy its stuff. — Additional reporting by John Laposky and Lisa Johnston