An Opportunity For Responsible Innovation With Amazon’s Alexa

There has been a need in the ever-expanding universe of Internet of Things (IoT) devices for some unifying factor. I’ve written about this before, calling for an open standard to make IoT devices interoperable.

Mar 30, 2017

There has been a need in the ever-expanding universe of Internet of Things (IoT) devices for some unifying factor. I’ve written about this before, calling for an open standard to make IoT devices interoperable. This is important because without a common standard or other unifying factor, these devices, designed to facilitate ease in our lives, only create frustration out of poor interoperability and inconsistent user experiences, and what we are beginning to see – thanks to the success of their Echo product line and engagement with the developer community – is Amazon’s Alexa becoming that unifying nucleus of the IoT in a way that could last over the long term. With that, there is an opportunity to launch new enterprises, using Alexa as a springboard, oriented towards socially conscious, responsible action because of how integrated the IoT will be in our lives.

Amazon’s line of Echo products, while on the market for about two years, have become increasingly popular in the past six months thanks to the release of the smaller, cheaper Echo Dot product. For only $50, consumers can lay the foundation for their own smart home of IoT devices using the Alexa-equipped Echo Dot. From there, Alexa can accept installation of new “skills” in the same way one adds apps to an iPhone using a simple interface. Users can then begin engaging with those skills via Alexa’s voice-controlled interface. These skills are often offshoots of the same apps consumers are already using such as music services like Spotify, news outlets like CNN, and productivity tools like Todoist. Because of that, Alexa serves as an elegant voice-powered extension to existing personal ecosystems of apps. You don’t even need to use Siri on your phone now that Alexa runs on the Amazon app.

The design of the Echo line and the Alexa system as products facilitate easy adoption by consumers, but what will drive this success in a much broader and outwardly-facing way is how Amazon is providing new, fertile ground for cultivation by entrepreneurs. Alexa’s “Skills Store” is an open system whereby virtually anyone with a product idea can introduce new potential and abilities for Alexa. Unlike Apple’s Siri which offers only limited extensibility, Amazon designed Alexa with a low barrier to entry for developers — stating it takes only an hour to cobble together your first custom Alexa skill. It’s a system that encourages, rather than hinders, experimentation as evidenced by Amazon’s choice to allow Alexa to run on devices beyond what they manufacture such as this developer kit released last year.

Amazon is even offering incentives to developers in the form of free resources on their cloud computing service, Amazon Web Services (AWS), to use for the backends of new skills. (All Alexa skills need to have some sort of server to process requests for Alexa, and while hosting costs are declining year over year, this is still a significant expense for upstart teams looking to craft the next killer app.) Amazon’s courting of the developer community in this way causes there to be little reason for all new web and mobile apps to not begin offering an Alexa skill as a way to offer an easy interface for their service.

Because of this success and continued outreach by Amazon, we are about to see a land rush of services that make novel use of Alexa’s voice-based interface in the same way we saw the outpouring of enthusiasm for Apple’s App Store almost a decade ago. The product success is already there to provide the user base, and Amazon’s engagement with the community appears to be working with a growth from 1,000 skills in June 2016 to 10,000 skills in February 2017. This growth does bring its own form of troubles. Where Apple was noted for its strict quality review process in the early days of the App Store, Amazon will perhaps need to begin considering some sort of quality assurance process for the skills store. But despite the quality control challenges ahead for Amazon, this explosion in new skills is indicative of a rising tide for Alexa.

What makes this opportunity unique for entrepreneurs is that the IoT is so much more integrated into our lives as consumers. When we begin to see Alexa having a more embedded presence in our kitchen appliances, smart mirrors, TVs, cars, and more, an opportunity emerges for services that help us act out more socially conscious and responsible behavior. A kitchen powered by Alexa could give consumers tips on what products in their fridges and pantries are raised responsibly or sourced fairly. A skill built around an incentive or gamification model could reward users for making more efficient use of resources their homes such as power and water. Wherever there is a nexus of consumer action and a smart device, there can be an opportunity for good in this “skills”-driven revolution.

While these ideas have existed since the concept of IoT gained traction, there has been little motivation to make these services work. However, Amazon seems to be taking the same strategic route Microsoft took with Windows: get as many devices running it and as many developers building for it as possible, and it will be impossible for consumers to ignore. Like Windows, it could then cement itself for decades. Building on that, startup hoping to make this vision of services encouraging responsible behavior can realize a rapid path to a wide user base and establish a strong, early foothold in Alexa’s vast IoT landscape.

The path for Alexa to succeed is not without barriers. In addition to the potential issue of managing quality with the sudden growth in new skills, there are also external issues Amazon must negotiate. While Siri was a brief fascination when Apple released it, the assistant never quite lived up the hype — representing a setback for all voice-powered digital assistants. This is somewhat a reflection on Apple’s recent shortcomings but also a reflection on the still burgeoning field of “voice” as a user interface medium. Despite it being a part of science fiction for decades, we have yet to write the playbook on the core tenants of a good voice interface. That combined with some unique security concerns introduced by an audio-based interface make for interesting adoption hurdles that Amazon will need to help consumers overcome.

If Amazon can negotiate these challenges and continue to foster an environment of experimentation and innovation for the developer community, Alexa stands to be the next major platform for innovation and the nucleus of the Internet of Things for the foreseeable future. The right teams just need to capitalize on that.

And what better way to embrace this trend than to take part in it? I’ve been speaking with some friends in the development community about the skills they are building as side projects. Some have a social good component to them and others are just proofs-of-concept to understand how the Alexa developer kit works. It’s time for me to also join in and create my own Alexa skill. What do you think the next great skill for Alexa should be? Tweet the idea to me @johnjones4!