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 just speakers and digital weathermen. It became a platform, capable of supporting a full ecosystem of skills, which are essentially apps that you talk to instead of touch. Today, there are 10,000 skills available on Alexa. It’s an exponential increase since last summer, a rise that presents a host of new opportunities—and new challenges.
While 10,000 may seem like an arbitrary milestone, it’s an instructive one, especially when you consider how fast it’s come. Last June, a full year after the ASK launched, Amazon announced that Alexa had reached 1,000 skills. By September, that number had tripled. In January, Alexa’s skills catalog swelled to 7,000. It took just over a month to tack on another three thousand.
Alexa still doesn’t come anywhere close to rivaling its mobile counterparts; the App Store and Google Play both count their offerings in the millions. But the 10,000 skills 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.
While Alexa became a developer’s playground in 2015, Amazon’s vision for a home-grown voice assistant started a full four years ago.
“We had this inspiration of the Star Trek computer,” says Steve Rabuchin, who heads up Alexa voice services and skills at Amazon. “What would it be like if we could create a voice assistant 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 information?”
Amazon’s first key innovation wasn’t voice itself, or even responsiveness; speech recognition has been around for decades, and Apple introduced the conversational Siri in 2011. Amazon’s accomplishment was freeing its voice assistant 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 owners had 135 skills to choose from. Today, they’ll find among their 10,000 options a bevy of smart home controls, multiple car 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, it’s also gotten easier to use those skills. While previously Echo owners would have had to dig into a companion Alexa app to enable, say, 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 way their customers use them. GE Appliances, for instance, noticed that customers frequently used Alexa for hands-free oven operation (the company sells over 70 connected appliances in all; the future is full of odd wonders).
“We saw how popular those features were, so we started rolling in presets,” says GE’s Bill Gardner. Now, customers can simply ask Alexa to set the oven for chicken nuggets, or pizza, or cookies, or whatever else they’re 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, it’s one of the great tech success stories of the last decade. Now comes the hard part.
If the Alexa skills origin story sounds familiar, that’s because so far it maps pretty neatly with that of Apple’s App Store. It’s 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, that’s encouraging. The App Store is an indisputable success. But its growth wasn’t without pains, some of which Alexa may be feeling soon, if it hasn’t already.
“We know what happened when Apple opened up the App Store and developers started pouring applications in there,” says Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey. “Suddenly it became really, 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, nearly nine years later. And while Amazon has fewer skills to get lost among, its voice-first paradigm makes searching through those skills much more difficult. That creates potential frustrations for customers and developers alike; the former doesn’t know where to find skills they might enjoy, and the latter doesn’t see a return on the invested time spent creating the skill in the first place.
Not surprisingly, Amazon has taken steps to mitigate the problem. It sends weekly emails to Alexa users highlighting recently added skills. And after a year of the skills interface consisting of just a list within the Alexa app, the company last summer launched a skills store online, complete with ratings and reviews. All of which helps, but still requires staring at a screen—which Alexa was supposed to free you from in the first place.
“We’re working on ways with your voice to better navigate the skills that are there,” says Rabuchin. “You’re able to ask Alexa what the top skills of the week are, what the new skills are, a whole bunch of categories just 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 solutions for 10,000 skills can scale up to 100,000 and beyond.
Today the skills Alexa offers fall broadly into two categories. There are the hobbyists, who make skills for fun, and the corporations who wring a lot of marketing value out of being on the front lines of the voice revolution. What do they have in common? They aren’t overly concerned with turning skills into profit.
“[Alexa]’s not going to make a real solid transition to professional development unless there’s a way to make money,” says McQuivey. This is how the App Store works as well; even though most apps aren’t cash cows, the chance that one might hit is motivation enough for high-level developers to put resources in.
That’s not to single Amazon out. It’s a common challenge across not just voice assistants but also chatbots and other next-generation platforms. These are early days.
“Everybody’s learning how their business models are going to be set up on these platforms, and these ecosystems, where they’re allowing companies to play and not play,” says Dennis Maloney, chief digital officer of Domino’s, an early Alexa enlistee whose AnyWare program has put it at the forefront of multiple next-wave technologies. “It’s two steps forward, one step back as we continue to grow and learn in this space.”
Amazon declined to comment specifically on monetization plans, but a spokesman says the company is “listening closely to our developer community to identify new features and tools that will improve the ASK experience.”
In many ways, it’s 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 gives apps to customers for free, and pays developers based on usage time. There could also be more straightforward approaches, especially for retailers; Maloney looks forward to the day that a Domino’s customer can simply tell Alexa what kind of pizza she wants to order from scratch, rather than requiring her to fill out a form on the internet first.
Besides, whatever roadblocks like ahead clearly haven’t hindered Alexa’s growth so far. Rabuchin says Amazon has thousands of people on the team, with tens of thousands of developers signed up for accounts. And while the first batch of skills have been mostly centered around the smart home, streaming music, or simple timers, or marketing tie-ins, there are signs that Alexa’s starting to broaden its horizons.
In fact, Alexa’s 10,000th skill, approved just last night, isn’t any of those things. It’s Beat the Intro, a “name that tune” game that already found success on the App Store and Google Play. Now, with a few voice-friendly tweaks, it’s going to give Alexa a try.