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Posts tagged with "Amazon Echo"

Voice Control is Coming to the Alexa App Soon

Amazon is adding voice control support to its Alexa app on Android and iOS. According to TechCrunch:

The addition of voice commands means users can speak directly to their handset the way they would an Echo — to play music, trigger Alexa skills and the like. The update is being rolled out over the course of the coming days through Google Play and Amazon’s own Appstore. A similar update is also on the way for the iOS App Store, but its timing is still up in the air, likely due to Apple’s stricter vetting process.

Unlike Google and Apple, Amazon doesn’t have a smartphone platform for its smart assistant. That puts Amazon at a disadvantage because it precludes users from activating Alexa with a trigger word on Android phones and iOS devices. Still, the move feels like a natural extension of the services surrounding Alexa and Amazon’s Echo products.

There’s precedent for this sort of app on iOS too. Astra is a simple iOS utility that acts like an Echo device. It’s registered in the Alexa app alongside any Echo products you own. Pressing the microphone button lets you issue the same commands you can to an Echo. It remains to be seen what Amazon’s update to the Alexa app will mean for Astra, but in any event, it will be interesting to see where Amazon’s push into mobile leads.

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Apple and the Alexa Ecosystem

I recently read two interesting takes on the ever-growing Alexa ecosystem as it relates to Apple that made me think about the future of Siri and HomeKit. Here's M.G. Siegler on Amazon's plan to put Alexa everywhere:

The Echo Dot was the number one selling device across all of Amazon during the holiday shopping season. (The Fire TV stick with the Alexa-enabled remote was the second-most popular product.) Again, no absolute sales numbers beyond “tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices” — more than we usually get, by the way — but no matter: tens of millions is impressive enough.

I’ve been thinking about this recently not just in the context of putting Echoes in hotels, but also relative to Apple. As we’re all well aware, Apple had to delay their foray into the space, the HomePod, into 2018. But not only did they miss the all-important holiday shopping season, I’m increasingly thinking that they may have missed the boat.

Believe me, I know how dangerous this line of thinking is with regard to Apple. Apple is almost never the first-mover in a market. Instead, they prefer to sit back and let markets mature enough to then swoop in with their effort, which more often than not is the best effort (this is both subjective in terms of my own taste, and often objective in terms of sales). But again, I increasingly don’t believe that this will be the case with their smart speaker.

Amazon has entered the speaker and home automation market with Alexa-enabled devices in two ways: first with their own Echo products, then with a growing roster of third-party manufacturers that are baking Alexa into their devices and almost treating Amazon's assistant as a "standard" feature like WiFi or Bluetooth. There's a fascinating parallel between Amazon Web Services – a suite of components embedded in the majority of modern websites and web apps – and Alexa Voice Service – a suite of voice APIs now embedded in hundreds of automation devices, general-purpose accessories and appliances, and web services.

Here's Ben Bajarin on what Alexa's presence at CES tells us about the ecosystem surrounding Apple:

While many Apple defenders want to dismiss the momentum we are observing with the Amazon ecosystem on display here at CES, while Amazon is similarly not present just like Apple, I believe it is a mistake to do so.

It is easy to say that because Apple was never present at CES that the show didn’t mean something to them or their ecosystem. It is easy, and correct to say that CES was not, or never was, a measure of the health of Apple’s products. It is, however, incorrect and dangerous to miss that CES had been, for some time, a barometer for the health of Apple’s ecosystem.

As I mentioned, our ability to measure any platforms ecosystem from what we observe at CES, is the main reason so many are paying attention to what is happening with Amazon’s Alexa platform. Google Assistant is certainly more present than it was last year, however, when you look at how third parties are talking about-and marketing-their support of these assistants they are putting significantly more effort into talking about Alexa than Google Assistant. Which is a telling signal. Again, to reiterate this point, third parties used to market, and spend energy talking about their integration with iOS or support of iPhone/iPad with the same rigor they are now talking about Amazon’s Alexa. This can not be ignored.

You could argue that most Apple-compatible gadgets and accessories announced at CES used to appear in tech blogs only to be forgotten a few months later because they were fads, vaporware, or ultimately not essential to the growth of the iOS ecosystem, and that the same will happen with Alexa-enabled devices we've seen this year. The difference, I think, is that this new generation of home automation products is an ecosystem in itself with higher value than, say, the iPad keyboards or stylii we used to see at CES. Alexa hasn't "won", but it has momentum among third-party companies making products that are or will soon be in our homes, sharing the same space of our TVs, routers, consoles, and mobile devices.

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A Roundup of CES Home Automation and Apple Accessory Announcements

CES is a big, messy spectacle that has everything from vaporware and products you didn’t know you needed – and probably don’t – to truly cool new gadgets. We’ve been following the announcements this week and have rounded up a collection of the most interesting and promising gear we’ve seen so far. Many of these products have not shipped yet, so we haven’t had an opportunity to try them, but these are gadgets we will be watching closely throughout 2018 and that are likely to turn up again on MacStories later this year. CES doesn't end until Friday, so be sure to check back for updates on any additional announcements that catch our eyes.

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Automating Your Holiday Lights Inside and Out

It’s easy to get carried away with elaborate and expensive home automation projects when you’re just starting out. A better place to begin though, is with a simple, temporary setup that doesn’t cost a lot but will still give you a glimpse of some of the conveniences of home automation without making a big commitment. When I heard that iHome had introduced a reasonably-priced outdoor smart plug, I knew immediately that it and some holiday lights would make an excellent home automation starter project.

This is by no means a Clark Griswold-level undertaking. My family’s holiday decorations are fairly simple. In the front yard, we put up lights in the bushes and on the columns on either side of our front door. Inside, we have a Christmas tree in our living room with lights. The first step was to put up the outdoor lights the weekend after Thanksgiving on what turned out to be a mercifully warm day.

After the lights were up and working, I plugged them into the iHome’s iSP100 Outdoor SmartPlug, which I connected to an outdoor outlet near my front door. The iSP100 is about as simple as you can imagine. It has a short cord attached to a plastic box that holds its electronics. One end plugs into a standard US outdoor electrical outlet, and the other end takes two or three-pronged electrical devices.

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Amazon Announces Multi-Room Music for Echo Devices

In a press release today, Amazon announced the newest feature addition to its Echo devices:

Amazon today announced an all-new Alexa feature that lets you control and synchronize music across multiple Amazon Echo devices in your home. Starting today, you can target music to a specific Echo device or a group of devices—just ask. Soon, this ability will be extended to control multi-room music on other connected speakers using simply your voice.

The feature is currently only available on Echo devices, but Amazon has also announced a couple new tools to help expand Alexa-powered audio to other speakers. There’s a new Alexa Voice Service SDK that device makers can adopt to enable their speakers to play music in sync with Echo devices. That SDK will be made available early next year. And there is also a new set of Connected Speaker APIs, available today, which allow third-party speakers to be controlled via an Alexa-enabled device.

It should be noted that multi-room audio is only available through a handful of music services. Amazon Music, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn are available today, while Spotify and SiriusXM support is coming soon.

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Email Service Newton Launches Amazon Alexa Support

Newton, the email client for power users, today launched Amazon Echo integration with an Alexa skill. The skill enables email management with nothing but your voice; in addition to having Alexa read emails to you, you can perform the following list of actions by voice:

  • Snooze
  • Mark as read
  • Delete
  • Archive
  • Mark as spam

Replying to or composing new emails is not possible with Alexa, but personally, I don't think I would trust a voice assistant to write my emails anyways – at least not until the technology grows more foolproof. The option to perform simple actions by voice, like archiving or snoozing messages, is much more appealing.

Newton's expansion to Alexa-equipped devices follows the introduction of a Windows version of the client in beta form earlier this week. As a daily Newton user, I wrote about the iOS and macOS versions last Friday for Club MacStories members, and look forward to seeing the service continue to grow and improve.

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Alexa Comes to the Amazon iOS App

Today Amazon announced that its digital assistant, Alexa, is being integrated with its iOS shopping app.

Using the app's current microphone button, which is available to the right of the search bar, users can make nearly any type of Alexa request. This request can consist of things you might ask of an Amazon Echo, such as playing music, turning on smart lights, checking the weather, and so on.

Both first-party and third-party skills will work from within the Amazon app. The one limitation so far, noted by Khari Johnson of VentureBeat, is that the Door Lock API is not currently available, so smart locks can't be controlled through the app. Johnson also shares that while Alexa will be available to some users in the Amazon app today, it will be rolling out to all users over the next week.

Today's announcement hopefully means that existing Amazon Echo users will have a solid first-party experience on iOS, something that surprisingly has not been provided by the company's current Amazon Alexa app. It also opens up Alexa to any Amazon customer who doesn't currently own an Echo.


Starbucks Adds Voice with iOS Beta and Alexa Skill

Starbucks has started a limited beta test of voice-assisted ordering via its iOS app. The beta is currently limited to 1000 users but will expand through the summertime. Android support is slated for later this year.

The feature, called My Starbucks barista, is part of the Starbucks iOS app and gives customers the ability to order, make changes to their order, and pay via voice. The feature’s interface is reminiscent of a messaging app and lets you interact by typing into a text field if you prefer that to voice.

Starbucks also announced the Starbucks Reorder Skill for the Amazon Echo. Customers can say ‘Alexa, order my Starbucks’ to order items designated as their ‘usual’ food and beverage order.

What Starbucks is implementing in its iOS app isn’t possible with Siri yet. Hopefully, this sort of experimentation will push Apple to open Siri faster to avoid the fragmentation that could result in multiple solutions being implemented across many vendors.