Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant, is everywhere—it’s in smart speakers (from Amazon and other manufacturers), it’s on smartphones, and it’s in mobile accessories. 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. With more than 100,000 Alexa Skills to choose from, there’s sure to be one that suits your needs.

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. It is also available as a download, Alexa Skills: A guide for business pros (free PDF).

SEE: Amazon Alexa: An insider’s guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

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, and weather, all of which can be found on Amazon’s Alexa Skills page. All Alexa Skills are free, though some require a subscription service to unlock their full functionality.

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 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: Smart office technology: What’s working, what’s failing, and what users want out of it (TechRepublic Premium)

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 any smart device that can be connected to Alexa can have a custom skill built for it.

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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, Cortana, or Bixby.

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 while Google says on the Assistant Actions page there are over one million actions available, digital assistant news website reported that there were just under 19,000 actions available (in English) as of January 2020. It is worth noting that Voicebot also said Assistant actions in English matched Alexa’s growth in 2019, so Google may be catching up.

At its September 2019 keynote, Amazon said that the number of available Alexa Skills has surpassed 100,000, which was confirmed by Voicebot in January 2020, though the site also noted that the overall growth in Skills for the US market has slowed to levels seen in 2016. Whether that’s due to saturation or a loss of interest on the part of developers is unknown.

SEE: All of TechRepublic’s cheat sheets and smart person’s guides

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.

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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.

SEE: How to optimize the smart office (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

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.

Note: You can’t actually use Alexa Skills from inside the Alexa mobile app, but you can talk to Alexa in the Amazon apps for iOS and Android. The experience is best from an actual Alexa device.

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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, 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.

SMBs that need custom Skills, but don’t have the developer or budget to build them in house, should check out Amazon’s Skill Building Agencies page, where links can be found to companies that are experienced at producing Alexa Skills.

SEE: Internet of Things policy (TechRepublic Premium)

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.”

In September 2019, Amazon announced the new Alexa Education Skill API, which is designed to interface with classroom management software to give students and parents instant feedback. Questions like “how did my child do on their math test?” or Zoom “what’s my history homework?” can now be asked to Alexa, making neglecting to inform parents of a bad grade or forgetting to write down assignments, a thing of the past. The Education API is still in preview mode, but Skills from Kickboard, ParentSquare, Coursera, Canvas, and Blackboard will be released soon, giving users of those platforms a chance to try out features brought by the new Education API.

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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#.

SEE: Programming languages and developer career resources (TechRepublic on Flipboard)

Amazon breaks down the kinds of Alexa Skills that can be written into five 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.
  • Music and radio Skills, which are designed to deliver audio content over Alexa-enabled 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, video, and music 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.

Amazon has added a variety of different APIs that, while unique, don’t put them into a separate category from the five it mentions as specific ones. Those include APIs for cooking appliances, education software, smart home security, and more.

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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.

SEE: Get our latest AI coverage (TechRepublic on Flipboard)

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. Google does have a Google Assistant for Business website, but its focus is on building consumer-facing skills to enhance business reach, not building a Google Assistant-powered smart office.

Google did add Assistant connectivity for a limited number of G Suite applications, but that’s as far as it has gone recently toward making Assistant a practical enterprise tool for internal use.

If your business is considering an 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.

Additional resources

Editor’s note: This article was updated on June 10, 2020.

Image: Chris Monroe/CNET

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