Alexa, Amazon's digital assistant, is everywhere—it's in smart speakers (from Amazon and other manufacturers), it's on smartphones, and its platform called Alexa for Business helps enterprises integrate Alexa into next-generation smart offices.
Alexa is impressive, but it's still limited to the capabilities Amazon has given it. Where Alexa truly shines is with its Skills, which are third-party apps that give it all sorts of new abilities.
Alexa Skills, like mobile apps, have the potential to make life and work easier and can be great for businesses from both an employee and customer perspective. This guide to Alexa Skills will tell you all you need to know about using, creating, and benefitting from these fantastic additions to Alexa's capabilities.
SEE: Smart office technology: What's working, what's failing, and what users want out of it (Tech Pro Research)
What are Alexa Skills, and how can I enable Alexa Skills?
Amazon Alexa is a digital assistant, but it's also a platform like iOS or Android. Like those more full-fledged systems, Alexa has apps that can extend its usefulness—Amazon calls those apps Skills.
Alexa Skills come in a variety of categories, including business & finance, productivity, news, weather, and more on Amazon's Alexa Skills page. All Alexa Skills are free, though some require a subscription service to operate properly.
Unlike Google Home, which has a limited number of skills that are enabled on all units by default, Alexa Skills don't come preinstalled. In order to gain access to a particular Skill, like CNET News, you have to ask Alexa to enable the particular skill, or click Enable on Amazon.com or in the Alexa mobile app.
You can ask Alexa about particular categories of skills to have it list applicable popular ones, which is a good option if you're exploring what's available.
SEE: Amazon Alexa: An insider's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
Alexa Skills can also be used in a completely different way—as part of Alexa for Business. Designed to integrate Alexa-controlled Amazon Echo units into offices, Alexa for Business comes with the tools needed for businesses to build custom skills to suit the needs of their environment.
Alexa Skills can be built to control meeting rooms, adjust smart thermostats, turn on lights—essentially anything that can be connected to Alexa can have a custom skill built for it.
- Top 5: Ways Alexa can help you get work done (TechRepublic)
- Amazon Alexa adds ability to send SMS messages by voice (ZDNet)
- Hey, Cortana: What do you think of Alexa for Business? (ZDNet)
- How we learned to talk to computers, and how they learned to answer back (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)
Why do Alexa Skills matter?
Amazon Alexa is arguably the leading digital assistant on the market—it has more third-party connectivity options, it is more open, and it is available on a wider range of devices than Google Assistant, Siri, or Cortana.
Competing digital assistants don't come close to matching Alexa in terms of skills—Siri and Cortana don't have comparable app-like abilities. Google Assistant has Actions, but it has barely eclipsed 2,000 Actions, and Alexa has over 25,000 Skills. Alexa is also the only digital assistant to have a dedicated store for its Skills—look around online, and you'll have an impossible time finding what's available for Google Assistant. There may be more noise to get through on the crowded Alexa Skills store, but the ease of accessing new Skills is much easier with Alexa than competing platforms.
Until Google does a better job of advertising Actions, it's going to have a hard time competing with Alexa Skills, which is just one reason why Alexa Skills matter: They're the leader in apps for voice-activated digital assistants.
Tech companies including Google and Amazon are making big bets on the future of voice-activated technology, and it's possible we'll be talking to our computers even more within the next decade. With Alexa being the current leader for voice-controlled apps, it's also the best place for developers and businesses thinking of working with Alexa Skills.
- Amazon brings its digital assistant to the office with Alexa for Business (TechRepublic)
- Welcome to CES 2018 also known as Microsoft Cortana's funeral (ZDNet)
- Why businesses are lining up behind Amazon Alexa in the virtual assistant race (TechRepublic)
- Five ways voice assistants are going to change the office (ZDNet)
- The brains behind Geneva, GE Appliance's Alexa skill (TechRepublic)
How do I use Alexa Skills?
Assuming you've already visited the Alexa Skills store on Amazon's website or the Android or iOS Alexa apps, using an enabled Alexa Skill requires knowing how to access it, which varies based on the type of Skill it is.
Typical skills that function like apps have an invocation name that is essential for using them. Most skills are accessed by asking Alexa to "open/play/start/ask [invocation name] [request]," which should activate the skill and give a response.
Other skills have different methods for activation—smart home skills in particular. Smart home Skills that integrate with Alexa don't require an invocation to activate—instead, users make a request, such as "turn off the hallway light," or "raise the temperature three degrees," and Alexa relays the information to the applicable light, thermostat, or other smart home device as programmed in your smart home app.
News skills, like the aforementioned CNET News Alexa Skill, are in their own category; instead of calling them up manually, news skills are rolled into the Alexa Flash Briefing, which gives a rollup of all the top stories of the day when a user asks Alexa for it.
All publicly available Alexa Skills can be found on Amazon's Alexa Skills website or in an Alexa mobile app.
- These new features could make Amazon Alexa a true office assistant (TechRepublic)
- Amazon Echo: 6 interesting Alexa skills to try with your new speaker (ZDNet)
- How to add Alexa skills to your Amazon Echo (TechRepublic)
- Amazon Echo: 10 Alexa productivity skills to try (ZDNet)
- You can finally talk to Alexa in Amazon's Alexa app (CNET)
- Amazon Alexa Compatible Products (CNET)
- Amazon Echo Dot (2nd Generation) review (CNET)
How can SMBs and larger businesses use Alexa Skills?
Alexa Skills can benefit businesses from the single-person LLC to the 1,000+ enterprise—it's all a matter of finding, or building, the Alexa Skills you need to do the work you do. The right Alexa Skills for an individual business will vary greatly based on the company's size, need, and location (some Alexa Skills are only available in certain countries).
Small businesses will find plenty of Alexa Skills already available that make day-to-day work easier, for instance: The Expedia Alexa Skill can check flight and hotel availability; Newton Mail can read emails out loud, smart office lights can be controlled with Skills like Philips Hue, and thermostats can be controlled with Skills like those from Nest; and some third-party developers have even stepped up to provide Skills that connect Alexa with popular apps like Wunderlist.
Small offices don't need to blow the budget with enterprise-level software and hardware to make Alexa Skills practical for use at work—all it takes is an Alexa device and some time spent browsing Amazon for the right Skills.
SEE: Internet of Things policy (Tech Pro Research)
Larger businesses that want to go beyond using stock Alexa Skills can go a step further with Alexa for Business.
Built to be a complete enterprise tool for integrating Alexa into the office, Alexa for Business offers tools that go far beyond what's available in the Alexa Skills store. It gives IT managers the ability to provision Alexa devices, manage voice services and users, and connect Alexa to dozens of software providers (including Salesforce, Zoom, Polycom, and more) that have created ways for Alexa to work with their products.
Alexa for Business customers can take advantage of public Alexa Skills, but it's the private Alexa Skills that really make the platform stand out. Developers in an enterprise with an Alexa for Business subscription can use the Alexa Skills Kit to build Alexa Skills applicable to a particular business environment that are only available to a particular Alexa for Business instance.
There's also an Alexa for Business API that further extends Alexa's functionality by allowing businesses "to integrate Alexa for Business into your existing tools, automate administrative tasks, or build your own portals for tasks like user enrollment."
- Cheat sheet: Alexa for Business (TechRepublic)
- Alexa for Business: 10 key takeaways (ZDNet)
- Crestron, Amazon partner to bring Alexa to meeting rooms (TechRepublic)
- Microsoft's Cortana now has 230 skills (and Amazon's Alexa, 25,000) (ZDNet)
- IT leader's guide to the future of artificial intelligence (Tech Pro Research)
How can developers create Alexa Skills?
Independent developers wondering how to get in on Alexa's growth and business professionals using Alexa for Business to build private Alexa Skills both do so using the Alexa Skills Kit. (The Skills Kit is just one of three ways of developing for Alexa, but it's what we're going to focus on here. Check out the Alexa developers portal for info on using the Alexa Voice Service and the Alexa Smart Home and Gadgets tools.)
Here's one fact about developing for Alexa that all developers will love: It's language agnostic, at least to an extent. That's right—The Alexa Skills Kit doesn't care which language you use as long as it makes a call to the correct Alexa API. The one big exception is if you're building smart home skills, which require an Amazon Lambda function, so they can only be written with Node.js, Java, Python, or C#.
Amazon breaks down the kinds of Alexa Skills that can be written into four categories:
- Flash Briefing Skills, which add news or information to the Alexa Flash Briefing.
- Smart Home Skills, which interface with and control Wi-Fi connected smart devices.
- Video Skills, which allow users to control streaming services and internet-connected video playback devices.
- Custom Skills, which are pretty much everything else that isn't one of the other three categories of Alexa Skills.
Flash briefing, smart home, and video Alexa Skills all have particular APIs to work with, making them much more straightforward than building a custom skill. Regardless, building custom Alexa Skills isn't that complex—simply follow the steps laid out by Amazon and be sure you have an AWS account to use a Lambda function, or a cloud provider that allows web services connections over HTTPS.
- How to become an Alexa developer: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)
- Alexa and Google Home's dirty little secret: 97% of voice apps are only used for one week (TechRepublic)
- Amazon redesigns Alexa Skills Developer Console (ZDNet)
- Why dumb Amazon Alexa conversations are actually really smart (TechRepublic)
- Amazon adds voice control to Alexa app for Android (ZDNet)
- Video: Why developers love working with Amazon's Alexa (TechRepublic)
Why should my business choose Alexa Skills over Actions on Google?
Google Assistant is gaining a lot of traction on Alexa, due in large part to the fact that it comes with most Android devices. Having the same digital assistant with the same capabilities in both a mobile device and a stationary smart speaker can seem appealing for consumers and business users.
There isn't much real competition from Google for business dominance, though. Bloomberg reported in January 2018 that Google plans to go after Amazon's consumer-facing Alexa services, and Google's actions since then point much more to a smart home, family-centric system that isn't trying to compete with Alexa for Business.
Google Assistant doesn't have an enterprise-ready tool like Alexa for Business, which means any Google Home devices in the office would be stand-alone units with limited capabilities.
If your business is considering investment in a voice activated digital platform with a high degree of customization, there's no contest: Go with Alexa and its diverse Skills tools.
- 16 technical Alexa skills IT pros should know (TechRepublic)
- Google Home vs Amazon Alexa: Which one is smarter? (ZDNet)
- 10 Amazon Alexa skills to add to your Echo today (TechRepublic)
- Alexa for Business likely to win in smart office, leverage AWS, Echo, developers and consumers (ZDNet)
- TechRepublic launches the 'Smart Home Office' (TechRepublic)
Brandon Vigliarolo has nothing to disclose. He does not hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Brandon writes about apps and software for TechRepublic. He's an award-winning feature writer who previously worked as an IT professional and served as an MP in the US Army.