Discovering Alexa Skills

Skills are to voice assistants what apps are to smartphones.  They extend the capabilities of your smart voice assistant speaker so that it can do more.  Skills might let you control smart home tech, they might let you order takeaway, check the status of your car, or even simply guard your home!  In this post I explore a little about how it works.

In Amazon speak they're 'Skills', in Google speak they're 'Actions', but regardless of the terminology, they're ways to extend the features of your smart voice assistant speaker. Here, I'll refer to them as skills, since I'm focussing on the Amazon Echo Dot device we have. Developers can create skills that are then available in what we can think of as a 'skills store'.

Lots of skills are available, with more being added daily.  We've already explored a couple when we looked at Controlling Philips Hue with Alexa, and Controlling Sonos with Alexa.  Both of these capabilities are 'Skills' that are enabled in Alexa.

Enabling Skills is a simple affair.  Just head over to the Alexa app on your smartphone, and go to the 'Skills' section from the menu, where you'll find all the skills you can enable.  They're broken down into various categories, and of course you'll see a ranged of 'featured' and 'recommended' skills on the main page.

Enabling a skill is as easy as tapping an 'enable' button, but depending on the skill you're choosing, some extra steps might be required.  If you are enabling a skill that interacts with some third party service or technology (such as the aforementioned Philips Hue and Sonos), you'll need to 'link' your Alexa to your online account for those services.  That process is all carried out on the smartphone, and you're walked through the process in the app.  This is a one-time process.

Other skills require a verbal setup process.  Essentially, some skills when activated by voice for the first time will require you to have a little chat with Alexa.  For example, there's a 'Phone Finder' skill that you can enable.  Using it simply requires that you say 'Alexa, activate mobile phone finder'.  When you do this the first time, you'll be asked to make a call to a phone number to pair your phone.  Subsequently when you activate the skill, you're simply asked if you want the service to phone you.

The way certain skills work can vary.  For example some skills simply allow you to ask Alexa a question or issue a command in a fairly 'natural' way - without having to remember to say something specific.  For other skills, you might need to be specific about the skill you're invoking.  For example, my car is a BMW, and there's a BMW skill for Alexa.  I can use this to do things like find out what the range of my car is, based on the current fuel.  Saying 'Alexa, what's my range', won't work. However, saying 'Alexa, ask BMW what's my range', will result in an answer.

Some skills are even activated automatically.  If you ask Alexa for a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, it will actually enable a skill to play the game automatically for you, rather than making you go find it in the store.

Some of the skills I've got enabled? Philips Hue, Sonos, BMW, Just Eat (take away), Mobile Phone Finder, Plex, Train times - and many more!  They vary in quality and capability, but of course these things can and should improved over time.

The state of the skills store at the moment is a little like the early days of smartphones - lots of unofficial and third party apps, but not so many 'official' first party ones.  As smart voice assistant speakers get more popular, this will likely change.  The technology itself will need to develop for certain things to become a reality though.  For example many of us might enjoy things like mobile banking apps on our smartphones, but making that work for a voice assistant? You'd have to ensure good security to avoid another person being able to get your bank statement or transfer money!

This is one to watch, as voice assistant devices are proving popular, and there's fierce competition here as Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft are all either in, or getting into this game.  It's one example of competition working well for the consumer, as all the major players are focussed on delivering the best possible experience they can.  Just as with smartphones though, the viability of these devices can be made or broken based on the additional skills that are available.  Alexa is in a healthy place right now with Amazon having gotten to market first.  Time will tell who emerges on top though.