Amazon Offering Developers Alexa's Voice Powers

amazon-alexaImagine if you could easily add voice recognition to your app or service even if you have no experience with voice-based sevices. Amazon hopes you'll do just that with the new Alexa Skills Kit, a collection of self-service APIs, tools, and code samples that make it a snap to add skills to Alexa. 

Alexa is the voice service that powers Amazon's Echo device. The Echo is a small, internet-connected speaker that responds to voice requests and can do things like manage calendar appointments and shopping lists. The Echo had been available in limited fashion to Amazon Prime subscribers until this week, when the online retailer made Echo available to anyone for $179. The Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) promises to let the Echo (and your apps) do much, much more than it already does. 

Alexa is based in the cloud, Amazon says developers can use ASK to enable customers to interact with devices, apps, and services in more intuitive ways using their voice. Specifically, ASK lets developers add skills to Alexa's knowledge base. For example, the ability to play music, answer general questions, set alarms, and so on. As developers add skills to Alexa, its powers will grow exponentially and people will be able to make a wide range of requests. 

Amazon says developers should be able to teach Alexa new skills in a matter of hours. Since Alexa runs in the cloud, developers won't have to worry about adding bulky downloads to their own apps or services. 

Amazon touts a number of benefits to adding skills to Alexa. It believes speech-based user interfaces are the way of the future and represent the next major disruption in computing. Amazon also suggests adding voice powers to apps/services can be fun and novel for customers used to clunky screen-based UIs.

Don't have cloud-based services already in place? Fear not. Amazon is offering its AWS Lamda computational service to build cloud-based apps/services that can interact swiftly with Alexa. The best part? ASK is free, and AWS Lambda is free for the first one million calls per month.

If you're familiar wth Apple's Siri or Microsoft's Cortana, you can grok Alexa. With the Echo, consumers say "Alexa, please do this." The word "Alexa" is the trigger to turn Alexa on and prep it for commands, much like how people say "Hey, Siri" or "Hey, Cortana." Amazon says ASK can support sophisticated multi-command dialogs and parameters. 

The ASK includes a number of tools. Amazon suggests developers begin with the Getting Started Guide, which provides some basic details and suggestions for how people might prefer to interact with Alexa. The ASK includes documentation covering AWS Lambda and a Voice Design Handbook for best practices when designing voice-based UIs. The package also features code and syntax samples. 

Amazon highlighted the efforts of several launch partners. For example, StubHub is using ASK to make it possible for customers to speak requests for concert and event tickets, or to perform searches. 

Last, Amazon launched the Alexa Fund, $100 million of seed money for developers, makers, and start-ups that use ASK to create unique and innovative products/services. 

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Eric Zeman I am a journalist who covers the mobile telecommunications industry. I freelance for ProgrammableWeb and other online properties.