First came the computer. Then the network emerged, allowing multiple devices in the same location to share information. From there the internet evolved, giving humanity the ability to store, sort, and find information with nothing but a typed request.

All signs point to digital assistants being the next revolution in computing. iPhones have Siri, Google has Assistant, Microsoft has Cortana, and Amazon has Alexa, and all of them can get you results with nothing but a voice command.

Alexa has dominated the digital assistant space in the past few years, quickly becoming a household name. Amazon has established an early foothold in the war for digital assistant supremacy, but for those that don’t use Alexa or one of its competitors, there’s still the question of what exactly they are.

TechRepublic’s cheat sheet about Amazon Alexa is an introduction to this digital assistant, as well as a “living” guide that will be updated periodically. There is also a free PDF version of this article: Amazon Alexa: An insider’s guide.

SEE: 5 Internet of Things (IoT) innovations (free Pdf) (TechRepublic)

Executive summary

  • What is Amazon Alexa? Alexa is Amazon’s digital assistant, first launched in 2014 along with the Amazon Echo smart speaker. Alexa can provide results for web searches, order products from Amazon, and act as a hub for compatible IoT devices all via voice commands.
  • When was Amazon Alexa released? Amazon Alexa has been available to the general public since 2015. Amazon recently made Alexa’s API available to developers, allowing for integration in non-Amazon devices.
  • Does Amazon Alexa compromise user privacy? Alexa’s always-on microphone can be a privacy concern, and rightfully so. The truth is much simpler, however: Alexa isn’t transmitting any audio until it hears its wake word, and everything sent to Amazon can be viewed in the Alexa app. In September 2019, Amazon revealed more privacy-focused changes that can make worried users feel safer, and in 2020 it added additional privacy features to protect users.
  • Why does Amazon Alexa matter? Amazon Alexa is a prime example of machine learning in action and is one of the most successful applications of consumer-based use of the new advances in artificial intelligence. Systems like Alexa are an early sign of a massive shift in how we interact with machines.
  • Who does Amazon Alexa affect? Amazon Alexa primarily affects consumers who use it in an Echo or other Alexa-based device, but it affects competitors as well. Microsoft, Google, and Apple all have digital assistants that are being forced to play catch-up with Amazon.
  • What do developers need to know about Amazon Alexa? Developers may interact with Alexa in three different ways: Developing Alexa Skills, Integrating Alexa with third-party hardware, and adding Alexa support to IoT hardware. All of the necessary documentation and materials is available in Amazon’s Alexa developer portal.
  • How can businesses use Amazon Alexa? There are two ways businesses can use Amazon Alexa: Making use of existing Alexa capabilities to accomplish business tasks, or building new skills and integrations to benefit consumers or workers through the Alexa for Business platform.
  • How do I use Amazon Alexa? The best way to start using Amazon Alexa is to buy a device it runs on, or by installing the Alexa app. There are several third-party Alexa devices available with varying features and prices.

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

What is Amazon Alexa?

Amazon Alexa is an intelligent personal assistant that makes use of machine learning and artificial intelligence. It is designed to be always on and woken with a voice command.

Alexa can perform web searches, create calendar events, modify to-do lists and notes, order products, play music, read Twitter posts, recite email, and perform dozens of other tasks.

When you speak to Alexa it uses natural language learning and speech recognition to transmit your request to Amazon’s servers, which is where the real work is done. Machine learning software processes the spoken request and sends a response back to Alexa, all in a matter of seconds.

An Amazon Echo unit, or any other supported Alexa device, comes with basic features out of the box. Amazon’s Alexa Skills store offers hundreds of additional capabilities, allowing it to play games, request an Uber, add items to your grocery shopping list, get recipes, find out if something is recyclable, or even get random cat facts.

Additional resources

When was Amazon Alexa released?

Alexa first launched on the Amazon Echo in November 2014. The Echo, and Alexa with it, was initially only available to invited Amazon Prime members. General release for the Echo and Alexa was June 2015.

2017 was the year in which Amazon Alexa truly began to capture the public’s attention, with CES 2017 dominated by new Alexa integrations and third-party products. It may have taken Amazon Alexa a few years to ramp up, but so far, there’s no stopping it in the digital assistant space.

Amazon announced in September 2018 a wide range of new Alexa capabilities, including the Alexa Presentation Language for building visual Alexa Skills for use on Alexa-powered devices with screens.

Amazon’s September 2019 Alexa updates focus around privacy and are likely a direct response to news prior to the event that revealed Amazon employees listen to what you say to Alexa, and Amazon stores transcripts of Alexa recordings indefinitely, even after users deleted the recordings.

In September 2020, Amazon announced several new Alexa features designed to make Alexa part of what Amazon calls “the ambient home.” The ambient design philosophy makes Alexa a proactive part of the Amazon-powered smart home, taking the initiative to lock doors in the evening, turn off lights, and remind you to do things based on the time of day.

Other new features added to Alexa in September 2020 include the ability to trigger routines based on certain sounds (like snoring, a dog barking, or a baby crying), Alexa Care Hub, which allows two Alexa accounts to link so that one can monitor activity from the other, and a natural conversation mode that will allow back-and-forth conversations with Alexa.

Additional resources

Does Amazon Alexa compromise user privacy, and how can I enable more privacy features on my Alexa?

Having an always-on microphone in the office or home can send the most level-headed person into a fit of paranoia: No one wants to be spied on, and a voice-activated Amazon Alexa unit can seem like an invitation to that nightmare.

If you take Amazon at its word, there’s not much to be worried about, and what Alexa is broadcasting is just short, simple commands that it hears after you wake it up by saying “Alexa.”

Prior to being woke by a voice command, Amazon Alexa units like the Amazon Echo record a continual loop of the past three seconds, constantly overwriting the information in a buffer. Only when it hears “Alexa” does it begin recording, transmitting your voice to Amazon’s servers, and using voice recognition software to determine what you want.

SEE: Malicious AI: A guide for IT leaders (TechRepublic Premium)

That said, Amazon has been accused of being less than transparent in its handling of user data, especially since it was revealed that it was keeping transcripts of conversations users had deleted. If you’re worried about Alexa spying on you there are several things you can do to make it safer, but still usable.

  • You can stop Amazon Alexa from listening in by clicking on the microphone button on an Echo or a similar unit. It won’t be able to hear wake words, but it also won’t hear anything else until you tap that button again.
  • Disable Drop In, which allows you to connect to any other Amazon Alexa unit on your account and use it like an intercom. If someone managed to gain access to your Amazon account or Alexa devices, they could silently listen in.
  • Review all of your recordings in the Amazon Alexa smartphone app, where you can also delete them. This can also serve as a privacy boon, as you can see a record of everything your Alexa has sent to Amazon. Deleted voice conversations do live on as transcripts that Amazon said are used to further train its machine learning tools.
  • Physically protect devices in public spaces—exploits on older Amazon Echo models can allow attackers to install malicious firmware that records everything the device hears. Make sure devices in out-of-the-way areas are physically protected from tampering.
  • Enable the Alexa feature that automatically deletes voice recordings after 3 or 18 months. This can be activated in the Alexa app in the privacy menu.
  • Use the new Alexa voice commands that can play back audio recordings and repeat what Alexa hears.
  • Be sure you enable the optional mode that automatically deletes voice recording as soon as Alexa has finished processing them. This won’t delete text records, which are still kept for 30 days and need to be manually deleted via the Alexa app.
  • Amazon plans to add a voice command for deleting recordings “Alexa, delete everything I’ve said,” later in 2020.

Read Amazon’s privacy notice, and take a look at its Alexa terms of use as well—both may help you feel a bit safer.

Why does Amazon Alexa matter?

Digital assistants like Amazon Alexa are leading the AI and machine learning revolution currently underway in consumer tech. Humans traditionally interact with computers through typing or touch, and up until recently voice recognition was spotty at best, as anyone who tried using it on Windows XP likely knows.

The past decade has brought enormous leaps in machine learning and speech recognition, which has finally made voice commands viable for consumer products. Amazon and Alexa have jumped to the front of the pack by opening their API for integration into third-party apps and hardware.

With Amazon Alexa sales surpassing 20 million in late 2017, it’s safe to say Alexa is everywhere, and it’s actively changing how we see and use the internet and computers in daily life.

Additional resources

Who does Amazon Alexa affect?

Amazon Alexa primarily affects several groups of people: Businesses, developers, consumers, and competing companies. The way Amazon Alexa affects each group varies greatly.

As Amazon Alexa continues to be the de facto leader in the digital assistant field the possibilities for businesses grow as well. Amazon Alexa has the potential to become a standard feature of the office through Alexa for Business, companies can develop Alexa Skills for consumers, executives can use Alexa to manage their calendar and make calls, and more.

SEE: What is AI? Everything you need to know about Artificial Intelligence (ZDNet)

It’s only a matter of time before Amazon Alexa, and products like it, are a basic part of our online experience. Businesses that don’t make use of this technology in its infancy risk playing catch-up, just like Google, Apple, and Microsoft.

As businesses get more involved in the world of Alexa and other digital assistants developers can expect to be more involved as well. Devs that work in the enterprise may be expected to support Alexa for Business setups, design Skills, and help users adjust to more voice controlled interaction with technology.

Amazon designed Alexa to be a digital assistant, an IoT hub, an entertainment device, and a web searcher. All of those possibilities in one audio-only device completely changes how the average person interacts with technology.

Consumers with sophisticated smart home or smart office setups can use Amazon Alexa to turn on lights, adjust the temperature, do laundry, turn on the oven—there are too many possible integrations to mention here.

SEE: How we learned to talk to computers, and how they learned to answer back (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)

The sheer number of Alexa integrations also puts competitors in the hot seat: Despite increased usage of their digital assistants in 2017, Google, Apple, and Microsoft haven’t captured nearly as much of the digital assistant marketplace as Amazon, largely due to Alexa’s head start over its competition.

Integrations and the full suite of development tools for Amazon Alexa also make it a big deal for developers and third-party hardware manufacturers, too. As of right now, the Alexa Voice Service can be integrated into a variety of products, making it the most fully accessible digital assistant for developers and businesses that want to add voice command features to their IoT products.

The only other digital voice assistant to function as a standalone unit is Google Home, but Google has yet to completely open the door to third parties. Actions on Google, the development platform for Google Home, is open to developers, and its Google Assistant directory opened in January 2018, but it has a ways to go before it’s on par with Amazon Alexa’s Skills offerings and compatibility.
With HomePod, Apple has barely started to join the product battle, and Microsoft is completely out of the IoT hub game right now; if Apple and Microsoft plan on leveraging Siri and Cortana, respectively, as competitors to Amazon Alexa they need to step up. Time is running out, and Amazon Alexa is soon going to become synonymous with IoT digital assistants.

Additional resource

What do developers need to know about Amazon Alexa?

Alexa developers interact with Amazon’s virtual assistant in three ways: By building new skills for Alexa devices with the Alexa Skills Kit, integrating Alexa into existing voice command-capable products using the Alexa Voice Service, and connecting smart devices to Alexa using the Alexa Smart Home and Alexa Gadgets platforms.

All three methods of interfacing with Amazon Alexa involve using different SDKs, working with different APIs, and having different skills. Individual developers may want to focus on building Alexa Skills—the Voice Service and Smart Home products are designed more for enterprise-level developers working on new products.

SEE: How to become an Alexa developer: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

Amazon expanded Alexa’s capabilities in September 2018 with the introduction of the Alexa Smart Screen and TV Device SDK for developing Alexa-powered devices with a visual interface.

This new SDK, and the Alexa Presentation Language that goes along with it, signal a shift in Amazon’s Alexa development path away from only voice-driven skills and toward those with a visual component as well. This makes perfect sense considering that 97% of digital assistant skills are only used for a week before being forgotten about—humans need a visual component to remind us of what our devices are capable of doing.

Amazon has a wealth of information for potential Alexa developers available at its Alexa developers portal—anyone who is interested in developing Alexa Skills or for an Alexa device can find all the tools and documentation needed there.

How can businesses use Amazon Alexa, and what is Alexa for Business?

The simplest and most obvious way businesses can make use of Amazon Alexa in the office is by purchasing an Amazon Echo or other Alexa device, finding useful business or smart home/office Alexa Skills that could make work around the office smoother, and giving it a shot.

Amazon Alexa can be used to control meeting rooms, check on travel reservations, and even turn up the temperature of the office Keurig machine. Amazon Alexa is readily capable of being a smart office hub and a backup executive assistant for when the human assistant is too busy.

Businesses may want to integrate their smart products with Alexa, build a new smart speaker, or simply get a Skill up in the Alexa Skills store—all of which Amazon can help you do.

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

Amazon has a rundown of Alexa for Business that deals with how to integrate Alexa into an office, and the Alexa developers portal has all the information needed for businesses looking to get a slice of the digital assistant pie.

Alexa for Business is a full-fledged, enterprise-level Alexa integration suite that includes the ability to manage and provision devices, manage users, configure custom skills and device rolls, and connect Alexa units to conferences rooms to work as voice-activated control systems.

In September 2019 Amazon added a new feature to Alexa called Alexa Guard, which allows Alexa-compatible smart speakers to act as alarm devices that can detect windows being broken and smart/carbon monoxide alarms. While designed for home users, this feature can be great for businesses worried about security at the office.

In September 2020 Amazon announced Alexa for Residential, which is a new program for landlords and property owners that want to integrate Alexa-powered smart home features into rental properties. A new Alexa for Residential API allows developers to build custom skills that can help residents put in service requests, connect with property managers, and allow staff to communicate with tenants.

Any organization that wants to go beyond simply using Amazon Alexa hardware for publicly-available skills should look into Alexa for Business.

How do I use Amazon Alexa?

Amazon Alexa is available on the entire line of Amazon Echo products. Several third-party units are available as well, so there’s no need to stick to an Amazon Echo to get the Alexa experience.

Don’t get confused by the presence of Alexa apps in Google Play or the Apple App Store—those are just hubs for controlling Echo units. The Amazon app on both iOS and Android offer Alexa, and they act like a full-fledged Alexa device. On the home screen of the Amazon app, look for the Alexa circle symbol to the right of the search bar.

If you want to see what Alexa is like without buying a speaker or installing the Amazon app, you can head over to Amazon’s site. Logging in with your Amazon account takes you to a page where you can try voice commands out without needing to spend $50.

The best way to use Amazon Alexa is to buy an Echo or one of the third-party products that function the same way.

Editor’s note: This cheat sheet has been updated with the latest information.

Image: Chris Monroe/CNET

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