On Thursday, Amazon began rolling out Alexa for its iPhone app, and will make it available to all US users by next week. It's contained within the free Amazon shopping app, but it's for far more than just shopping. Thousands of Alexa skills can be used by pressing the microphone icon near the top of the screen on the app. This means that if you've got an iPhone, you can now talk to Amazon's voice assistant without buying an Echo, Echo Dot, or other Alexa-enabled product.
The only downside is you have to open the app to use Alexa, unlike iPhone's Siri, which iPhone users can access simply by pressing the home button on their phone, or saying, "Hey, Siri." But once accessed via the app, Alexa will work like any other Alexa-enabled product, allowing users to do everything from turning on smart lights at home to setting a smart thermostat to a cozy temperature. It can be used to look up facts, make purchases, or control other smart home products as well.
The iPhone isn't the first time Alexa has been on a smartphone. Huawei's Mate 9 smartphone, which came out in January, was the first to have Alexa pre-installed. Lenovo announced last month that it is making a version of Amazon's virtual digital assistant available for its Moto Z modular smartphones with an Alexa-enabled Moto Mod later this year. And, other third parties have created apps that allow users to add Alexa to their smartphones, although some have already disappeared from the market.
SEE: Amazon Echo: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)
Enabling Alexa on Amazon's app is a significant step as it makes AI accessible for a broad audience of iPhone users. Alexa dominated the scene at CES 2017, showing up on products ranging from smart TVs and refrigerators, to sleep-aid systems and home alarms. Additionally, Ford showed the beta version of its new in-vehicle Alexa controls for vehicles running the Sync 3 voice platform.
While the smart home is an important place for Alexa, adding it to the smartphone, a device most people keep with them at all times, could make Amazon's voice assistant a major rival for Siri, Google Assistant on the Google Pixel smartphone, and Microsoft's Cortana.
There are more than 10,000 Alexa skills currently available, and more are being developed all the time. This is due in large part to how accessible Amazon has made the Alexa Voice Service (AVS). It's a self-service API with documentation that developers can use to build other devices that embody Alexa, said Charlie Kindel, director of Alexa Smart Home.
"A lot of the devices you saw announced at CES, those were built using AVS," Kindel said.
The amount of devices that include Alexa surprises even the Amazon team, Kindel said. "There's a lot of things we've seen over the last couple of years since Echo was first launched in November of 2014 that have delighted and surprised us. You build something with an idea of how it's going to materialize for customers and it just takes off. It's really a sign of a healthy platform when developers build things using the API you expose."
Any developer who wants to add new functionality to Alexa can use the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) available free on Amazon.
Three takeaways for TechRepublic readers:
- Amazon's Alexa began rolling out on the Amazon app for iPhone recently, and will continue to roll out for all US users through the next week.
- As a result of the addition of Alexa to the Amazon app, iPhone users can talk to Amazon's voice assistant without buying an Echo, Echo Dot, or other Alexa-enabled product.
- This isn't the first time that Alexa has been available on a smartphone, but it is still a major step toward making Alexa a broader player in the mobility market.
- How to add Alexa skills to your Amazon Echo (TechRepublic)
- 10 Amazon Alexa skills to add to your Echo today (TechRepublic)
- Cracking Open the Amazon Echo cloud-connected speaker (TechRepublic)
- Amazon Echo: The four hard problems Amazon had to solve to make it work (ZDNet)
- Amazon's Fire TV Stick adds remote control with Alexa (ZDNet)
- Amazon Echo review: Alexa is the first digital assistant that is actually helpful (ZDNet)
Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including People, W and Women's Wear Daily.