Alexa Echoes is a technology blog about Alexa, Amazon's new voice platform.

It is the official blog of SplashDocs, an all new cutting-edge, voice-powered office.

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Hey Roger
   07/11/16 -- Dan Vis

Pebble Core Gets Alexa!
   06/07/16 -- Dan Vis

Tip of the Iceberg
   06/02/16 -- Dan Vis

Apple's Knowledge Navigator
   05/27/16 -- Dan Vis

Google Home Challenge!
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Here are some of the Cool Things you can do with Alexa.

Rants and raves about Alexa--its importance, and its future.

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Nucleus Tablet

Posted August 5, 2016
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A new Alexa powered tablet just came out from a new startup called Nucleus. In addition to the usual capabilities of being able to ask Alexa to answer questions or play some music, it also comes with a camera, microphone, speakers, and touchscreen. Here's the promo:

It is being described as an easy way to watch your baby in the next room, call the kids down for supper, chat with your spouse (via an app on their phone), or even connect with the grandparents in the next state over. Though the specs are sparse--it doesn't seem to run on Android. Rather, it has a streamlined screen with simple buttons you can use to connect to your favorite person in 1-2 seconds. Alexa also seems to require a button press, like the Amazon Tap.

It does seems to have decent hardware. The camera is wide angled, promising a view of the whole room. It has far field microphones, so you can speak from anywhere in the room. It has stereo speakers. And it comes with both a wall mount and desktop stand. The pictures suggest it is able to run on battery, or you can power it directly from an ethernet cable. The hefty price tag ($250) suggests a decent build quality as well. It's currently available at Amazon and Lowe's.

Overall it seems like a great device. Perhaps it is a preview of what the new (rumored) Alexa tablet from Amazon will be like. Though my preference would be to beef up Alexa so it can place your calls for you: Alexa, call grandma. How hard could that be? And make sure it is a full Android tablet--so you can get access to any apps you want. And since it is Amazon, build in all your Fire TV stuff, and give Alexa real voice control of all that. And if you are serious about making Alexa a new voice os, give her the ability to launch your Android apps, execute menu commands, and perhaps even dictate text, etc. I realize some of these might be a bit challenging, but get started, build out your api's, and add functionality step by step. In a year or two you will have a truly robust voice assistant.

Someone really needs to kick this can down the road a bit...

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Prime Day!

Posted July 13, 2016
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While this blog is primarily about Alexa, the growing assortment of Alexa powered devices, and more generally about voice computing--I do want to chime in about Amazon's second "Prime Day" event yesterday.

Last year's event didn't really register on my radar--but this year I decided to check it out. According to news reports, it was a decent success. While total sales figures have not yet been released, the total number of participating merchants doubled over last year. The number of tweets about it was roughly double the number from last year. And the #PrimeDayFail hashtag which went viral last year because of various glitches stayed for the most part quiet. There were evidently a few glitches early in the day--but overall things seemed to go smoothly. And as for the specials, analysts are saying they were equal to, if not better than last year's Black Friday and Prime Day deals. Discounts averaged in the 20-30% range. Some were better.

For me personally, they were much better. By keeping my eyes open through the day, taking advantage of special financing offers, and sticking (mostly) to lightning sales--I was able to get close to $700 worth of electronics for a little over $200. I even made some of the purchases through my Echo for additional savings. I probably would have bought more, but two items sold out before I committed to their purchase. One was a heavily discounted Tap. Still, I'm quite happy, and eagerly looking forward to all the packages coming in over the next couple days!

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Amazon Phones?

Posted July 11, 2016
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Another thing I've suggested for awhile is that Amazon ought to get back into the phone business. And it seems Amazon is moving that direction, or at least dipping it's feet back in the water.

This article, is reporting that Amazon is quietly planning to release a custom version of the Moto G on prime day (July 12) for just $149--unlocked. It comes preinstalled with all the core Amazon apps, and is linked to your Amazon account to make access easy. But like the kindle and fire tablets, it will have ads on the lock screen. Still, it's a great phone for the price!

The lack of promotion, however, is surprizing. I suspect Amazon is being quiet about this after the embarrassment of the Fire Phone debacle. But it would have been better if they had put a bit more effort in to customizing it: incorporating Alexa directly into the device, restoring Mayday and Firefly and some of the other ideas from the Fire Phone, and even building in some variant of the FireOS--which I personally prefer to stock android. Scrap the 3D perspective thing, of course and anything else that would drive up the price. And then promote it like crazy. They could have even called it, Fire Phone 2--and got all the press talking about the great product, and how Amazon really got it right the second time. But that's not the route they seem to be taking.

To be really cool, they could have partnered with Republic Wireless and sold a version ready to go on their network. Republic Wireless is an awesome wifi-first phone service that offers some incredible plans. I currently use the Moto G on Republic Wireless--and love it. I have no problems with the phone and it cut my verizon bill by about 75%. (And I get no income from saying that!) Combining this network with the best of Amazon would have been a dream come true.

From my perspective, Amazon is being too cautious. Hesitant moves like this communicate Amazon has given up any serious aspirations about getting back into the mobile phone game. Amazon may sell a few of the new phones, but it missed a great opportunity to do something more.

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A Few Small Steps

Posted July 11, 2016
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I'm sure it had nothing to do with my last post, lamenting the slow pace of improvement in the Alexa ecosystem, but the last few weeks have been marked by several significant improvements:

1) An all new and improved app store (technically, they are called skills). It provides categories, ratings, and other search features. This was a really important step as the number of skills is growing, and the previous store was pretty bad.

2) Skills can now be enabled from within Alexa. Rather than having to pull out your tablet or phone to enable a skill, you can do it now by voice. Great idea!

3) Amazon finally brought prime shopping to Alexa, giving users access to more than 1,000,000 products by voice. It remains to be seen how many people use the Echo for shopping, but having the capability is nice.

These are all significant improvements. But to me, they just raise a big question: why did it take so long? It seems a no-brainer these should have been in place from the start. Or at least implemented as soon as Amazon realized it had a hit.

Perhaps Amazon just wanted to do tons of testing to make sure it had a handle on things--before doing a lot of innovation. If so, we can hope they have now reached some threshold of confidence, and we're destined to see a flood of new innovation. Only time will tell.

Regardless, it's good to see Alexa inching forward, in at least a few significant ways.

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Is Amazon Really Racing?

Posted June 26, 2016
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Wired recently wrote a piece claiming Amazon's Echo was "winning the race to a screenless future". It cited the Echo's surprising sales success, and the fact it surpassed 1000 skills this month. "This third-party enthusiasm could create a virtuous cycle where the more Echo does, the more it sells, just like the iPhone after Apple opened the App Store." Plus, it pointed out, Amazon has 19 months of sales, giving it lots of data it can use to improve its service. I'd also add Amazon is the only major player to completely open its voice assistant to both developers and manufacturers--meaning anyone can create a skill or put Alexa on their device. Throw in the fact none of these competitors even have a device ready for market, and its pretty clear Amazon has a commanding lead!

But is Amazon even racing? I was one of those who responded to the initial invites to get an Echo, and have been following the device and dabbling with developing skills for it ever since. During that entire time, there has been virtually no improvements to the eco-system. When Google or Apple hold their annual developer conferences, they typically announce dozens or even hundreds of improvements to their software. Amazon has offered virtually nothing.

There are plenty of things Amazon could do that don't seem particularly difficult. To get it on more devices, Alexa should be build right in to the Alexa app on both IOS and Android--so you can use it right from any phone. Amazon has not yet put Alexa on its Fire tablets or Kindle readers--and its integration with Fire TV is quite limited. It couldn't be hard to write some software to put Alexa on my desktop or laptop either--most already have a mic and speakers. And why not put it my Chromebook while you are at it. This should have all been done a long time ago.

Amazon could also improve the developers portal. I can think of a half dozen ways to simplify the interface for the intent scheme, slot types and sample utterances. It's not difficult as is--but it could be improved. And the testing feature offers no capabilities for testing or debugging your skill's security protocols, which proved an almost insurmountable obstacle to me in developing my first skill. Nor was there any real support available. There's no way at present to monetize your skills. In fact my last skill was rejected simply because it linked to a site that charged a membership fee. It would have added great features to Alexa, but as of now--Alexa is off limits. Worse, when I ask for clarification as to what was and was not allowed--they said they had no information about that at this time! Actually the while submission process still seems a bit buggy. My last skill was seemingly lost in the queue for nearly a month--until I finally reached out to ask what happened. The feedback I get is generally cryptic, petty, or irrelevant. There have also only been trivial improvements to the Alexa skills marketplace--which is widely reported as not being particularly good. After 19 months, you would think there could have been some progress besides simply changing skill icons from square to circle.

More important, there have been no real improvements to the tools available to developers. Simply allowing an option to send text in and/or get text out rather than voice would open up all kinds of possibilities. Imagine an Alexa chatbox on your website, an email Alexa skill, or accessing Alexa on your Pebble watch. I know it's possible--because you can do it in the developer testing area. Besides, it's all converted to/from text anyway. There also needs to be support for financial transactions. Granted, this is less trivial, but offer something to get developers started and then keep improving. And allow me to set reminders beyond 24 hours, and/or set recurrent reminders. In other words, don't keep Alexa pull only, give developers some push capabilities. (I appreciate some of the complexities here, but they hardly seem insurmountable). And while I appreciate Amazon's voice first approach--it absolutely MUST give Alexa the ability to interact with screens: Tablet, Phone, TV, computer. If Amazon doesn't, Apple and Google will leave Amazon in the dust. Voice first, yes. Voice only, no. Screen are not going away for a very long time. And while we're talking about screens, let's not forget the GPS. With Alexa becoming more and more mobile--this is essential. You don't have to create everything, just give developers and manufacturers hooks for these things to happen.

Amazon, you have 1000 employees devoted to this project. It's been 19 months. What are they doing? There's no question you came out with a great product--and you have taken a commanding lead. But competitors are jumping on board soon, and if you don't get moving soon, they will pass you quickly. It's one thing to say Amazon is ahead in the race, but another thing to say it is racing ahead.

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Apple's Anti Echo Strategy

Posted June 14, 2016
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Apple held its Worldwide Developers Conference yesterday, and the tech industry watched with bated breath to see Apple's response to the smashing success of the Echo. Everyone knew Apple had to do something, but the question was "Is Siri just catching up, or does Apple have a leapfrog move?"

Now the conference is over, and people are mulling over the response. On first glance, Apple seemed to completely ignore the Alexa phenomenon. Other than opening Siri up to third party apps--Apple seemed to offer nothing but incremental changes to its software platforms. USA Today reported it this way:

Apple's developer conference Monday presented an avalanche of evolutionary updates but no broad vision for its future. While many tech world observers had hoped to hear CEO Tim Cook tackle hot topics such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality, he instead kicked off two hours of app-focused upgrades ultimately aimed at making the company's phones and other devices easier to use.

But I'd like to suggest Apple is actually doing something very smart.

First, Apple is not a copy cat company. It doesn't like to enter a product category unless it can offer something ground breaking. It also tends to march to its own drum, so to speak. Apple does software in the spring and hardware in the fall. It's not going to break up its routine just to please a bunch of eager tech enthusiasts. More important, it has a different strategy for voice control with real potential--and if you read between the lines, Apple's WWDC reveals that strategy beautifully.

In a post dated June 1, I highlighted an insightful article at Market Exclusive, which claims Microsoft and Apple are invested in devices with screens and were committed to embedding voice in its devices -- whereas Amazon and Google are invested in web services and were therefore leading the way toward ambient, screenless computing. Microsoft putting Cortana on XBox, and now Apple putting Siri on the Mac reinforce that analysis. Amazon's Echo and Google's Home Assistant, both follow it too.

But as I wrote then, and believe even more now, this is a false dichotomy. To quote myself:

Google is almost certainly going to incorporate Chromecast into its device, and Amazon is sure to bundle Alexa more tightly into its Fire TV in coming releases--meaning both will soon have access to screens as well. The recently rumored Alexa tablet (code named Knight) may bring even more screen capabilities. Furthermore, neither Microsoft nor Apple dare miss out on providing full voice functionality to their voice assistants. Even if it is essentially nothing more than a decent far-field microphone plugged into an Apple TV box or XBox, they will have to provide voice only support.

To put it differently, Apple seems intent on bringing all the best features of its ecosystem to all of its platforms--so everything works seamlessly in the most user-friendly way. For Apple, it is all about the perfect customer experience. Siri of course is one part of that integration, but it is not the only piece. Once Apple has everything in place, it can easily add always listening microphones to its arsenal of devices and it will have a killer product. And if that comes out in the fall, Amazon will have another serious competitor. This, it seems to me, is their strategy.

Here are some of the things announced at WWDC that impressed me about Apple's approach:

Siri received various updates as well, with promises it will understand natural language constructions, remember context, and incorporate information from throughout your Apple devices and services to intelligently provide the assistance you need. In particular, Apple promised some amazing things with photos using AI to make it possible to search for pictures with a horse, near a mountain, or containing some friend automatically.

Overall, it was an impressive presentation. Everything tightly and neatly interconnected. Exquisite attention to ease of use and consistency throughout. All Apple needs now is an always listening device and it will have a killer system. With 200,000,000+ i-phones being sold in 2015 (compared to a couple million Echos), you can be sure developers will jump on board with new Siri powered apps. It will quickly outpace Alexa's ability unless Amazon can give it lot's of new features quickly (maps, messaging, phone, pictures/video, web browsing, etc). Google won't even be able to compete well because of its highly fractured hardware environment.

So while it may have seemed like Apple is not taking the Alexa threat seriously, I'd suggest it is laying plans for a full frontal assault at its own appointed time. If Amazon wants to compete it is going to have to add lot's of new capabilities to its voice system--and fast.

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Alexa in My Car, Again

Posted June 9, 2016
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Just got back from my first trip with Alexa in the car. My evaluation is a bit mixed. On the one hand, it worked great. I loved having access to Alexa while driving. It had no problem hearing me and everything sounded great through the car speakers. It's definitely something anyone who does a lot of driving would like!

On the other hand, I had several problems. Here's my list:

1) My bluetooth connection was a bit dicey and broke up two or three times--requiring me to reconnect. Not sure if that was the car, my Dot, or just the nature of bluetooth. It was also a hassle, because the car kept trying to connect to my phone. It's also nice being able to use phone through the car bluetooth--but can't do both.

2) I burned through almost half a gig of data in about two hours playing Pandora. That could get a bit pricey. I'm planning to get a T-Mobile hotspot, which gives pretty cheap 4G data, and unlimited 3G afterwards. I'm hoping 3G is fast enough.

3) I couldn't get Alexa to read any of the e-books I purchased from Amazon. I suppose that is because they were on my tablet rather than my phone. But it would have been nice if Alexa could sync with the cloud and download them as needed. Seems they read just fine on my Echo at home.

4) There are still some important features missing in Alexa--like emailing, texting, etc. I'm hoping apps will soon come out for these things. I'm currently developing one that will bring many new capabilities to Alexa--but it is still going through the certification process. More news on that in another post.

It still feels a bit jury-rigged, but we're close. In a year or two, I can see this being fully integrated into cars, and expected.

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More Posts...

Jun 09, 2016   Alexa in MY Car!
Jun 08, 2016   New Alexa IDE
Jun 07, 2016   Virtual Alexa
Jun 07, 2016   Cortana Coming to XBox
Jun 02, 2016   Pebble Core Gets Alexa!
Jun 02, 2016   The Future of the Internet
Jun 01, 2016   Tip of the Iceberg
Jun 01, 2016   Tech Titan Brawl Brewing
May 27, 2016   A $19 Alexa Device?
May 27, 2016   Apple's Knowledge Navigator
May 25, 2016   Alexa on Pebble?
May 22, 2016   Hey Roger
May 22, 2016   Echo Battry Base