Alexa is the cloud-based voice assistant developed by Amazon for use in devices enabling them to respond to certain human needs intelligently. It was first launched in 2014 with the first generation of Amazon Echo smart speakers that work as both ordinary speakers and smart home hub.
The development of Alexa was inspired by computer speech synthesis and dialog speech used in Star Trek and related series.
And as of early 2019, over 100 million Alexa-enabled devices were sold all over the world. It is clear that home automation with Alexa is well received despite tough competition from the ever-growing tech industry.
Alexa's work is to make your life easier.
Does that sound too ambitious?
It should not. Alexa’s work is to automate activities you do regularly at home, at work, or on the go making your life more adventurous.
Think of the many times you have wanted your smartphone to talk to you because all your friends were too busy for you. Alexa does the dirty job of looking for a good story from one of the many online shelves. You only need to give the voice command for the story to start running.
“Alexa read me a bedtime story from Audible”.
You can expect something in the line of ‘Timeless Tales of Beatrix Potter’ by the same writer. And that is before you link Alexa to other features.
Alexa can also turn off your lights, gather the family for dinner or fill your home with your favorite music as you do the laundry. You are spoilt for choice!
How does Alexa work?
Forget buying smart speakers you have no budget for at the moment. You can start listening to the bedtime story right from your smartphone now with Alexa.
But first, download and install Alexa App from the Amazon App Store, Google Play, or Apple Store on your smartphone. The App is supported by both Android and iOS. Create an account to allow you to log in. Access the Home tab, the first on your bottom left corner, and scroll down to located Browse Skills; that is where all of Alexa’s abilities are hidden.
Select the search icon at the top of the new page and type ‘bedtime stories’, select the option you find favorable, and Enable it for use.
The command for each Skill differs, make sure you read through the details to find the right way of asking Alexa to initiate it and play on your phone.
But if you have your Echo or any other Alexa-enabled speakers, after installing the App on your smartphone, link and manage them so you can listen to the stories from the speakers.
All Alexa-enable devices you want to install in your home are installed and managed from the App.
Make sure the devices are powered and your Wi-Fi is on so the smartphone and the device can connect. The internet connection needs to stay on for most of the services to work.
Amazon Echo, among other smart speakers, makes instructing Alexa easy. The instruction process is governed by three important parts; the speaker, an array of microphones, and the analog to digital converter.
As long as the microphones are not muted, upon spitting out the ‘Alexa' wake word, they activate and begin listening to what you have to say.
Then the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) running in these Alexa-enabled speakers records your instructions, send them to the cloud so the search for the bedtime stories or any other instruction can begin.
The response is then delivered to the requesting device or wherever you ordered it to be taken. All this time, your smartphone is not bothered.
It is that simple.
Alexa as a virtual assistant sitting in a device is not so powerful, but when coupled with the cloud, its huge database and its ability to seek the needed answers top its smartness.
Whether you give instructions to Alexa on your smartphone or smart speakers, the response is the same.
Alexa Skills. What Are They?
There at least 70,000 features besides reading bedtime stories that Alexa can offer today. And since developers around the world are nowhere near the end of creating such, you can expect more.
Amazon calls these features, Alexa Skills.
Some Skills operate on their own to meet your demands while others interact with online services like your preferred music service or other Alexa-enabled devices like your Fire Edition TV to serve you.
These Skills are categorized into over 20 groups, from Business and finance to Lifestyle, to News, to Kids, and even Travel and transportation.
And since new Alexa Skills are developed every day, Amazon makes it easy for you to search for and learn a new skill using the Skill Finder. Call out, “Alexa, tell Skill Finder to give me the skill of the day”.
Or you can use your laptop to browse through Amazon’s Alexa page after logging in with your App’s credentials to have a wider view of the details, ratings, and reviews of different Skills.
Once you identify the Skills you like, you can enable them right on your browser and they will reflect on Alexa App allowing you to use them.
How much does Alexa cost?
Nothing, it is free.
You will not even need to be an Amazon Prime member to use it. But you need a Prime membership to order products from Amazon.
There are many services you can get for free by using Alexa. Such include reading your emails, giving real-time updates on traffic, weather, sports, and current news, making phone calls, playing music, and accessing general information from the internet.
Even streaming music from a free Spotify account is free, at least in the USA, Australia, and New Zealand if you are using speakers from Amazon, Bose, and Sonos.
The major expense coming from using Alexa for your smart home is the internet cost. You need stable Wi-Fi to keep the devices online accessing the cloud-based virtual assistant. And that maybe some monthly fee charged by your Internet Service Provider.
The other expense comes from premium services offered by some of the Skills you need. While most Alexa Skills are free, some like the 1-2-3 Math by Sermo Labs, Quiz of the Day, and Knight Manager have premium features.
They serve you with basic content but require you to pay for the advanced features. If you have used creative Apps before, this is the norm. So carry on and pay for the juicy content.
But ‘free’ is not a word dangled before users’ eyes only. Amazon is a little more daring than you can imagine.
Are There Other Brands Using Alexa?
Though Alexa was developed by Amazon 126 Lab in California, USA, it is used by other non-Amazon brands. In particular, the AVS service is available for free to brands around the world. At least to a certain extent.
This enables such brands to integrate it on their devices to record and digest commands as is done by Amazon Echo speakers.
Whether out of generosity or desire to dominate the voice assistants market, we are yet to understand, but the latter seems more probable.
Alexa-compatible devices outside the Amazon family include security cameras, smart locks, light bulbs, thermostats, and garage door openers.
This list continues to grow as more gadgets are created and the desire to inject life into them grows.
The dominating non-Amazon devices using Alexa in the security sector include the 1080 Pixel Logitech Circle 2 security camera that marries well with Amazon Fire TV or Echo Show digital display, Yale Assure SL Connected keypad lock by August, and iSmartGate Pro Garage door opener.
In the lighting section, there is the Yeelight Smart LED color bulb that syncs with your music, Lutron Caseta Wireless in-wall smart dimmer, and the Wi-Fi enabled Wemo Mini Smart Plug.
Then there are smart home appliances such as the Breville Joule Sous Vide machine that helps you regulate the doneness of your food while cooking, Orbit B-hyve 12-zone smart sprinkler that works both in and outdoors, and PHIYU Robot vacuum cleaner A3V.
In the home theatre section, Yamaha Hi-Fi Audio Receiver leads the pack, followed by Sonos Beam smart TV soundbar and finally the Samsung 32-inch Class frame QLED smart TV that can transform into some kind of picture frame when it is off. When in art mode, it can either remain in landscape position or lean up in portrait.
Though most of these appliances work with other voice assistants, Alexa dominates the market by far.
Who are Alexa’s Top Competitors?
Even with a free voice assistant, Amazon is not exempted from facing competitions from fellow goliaths in the tech industry.
While some keep off the home automation arena and remain safe in the software sector, others take Amazon head-on and make a dwelling in devices.
The top five close competitors are Google Assistant, Siri by Apple, Bixby by Samsung, BlackBerry Assistant, and Cortana by Microsoft. And the race continues.
Each one of these works hard to woo different manufacturers to integrate their voice assistant in their devices. That heightens the completion.
As of the writing of this review, the top competitors were Alexa and Google Assistant. Alexa dominates the online buying market and Wikipedia search, while Google Assistant clutches on the web-based queries.
None wants to let the other dominate. That explains Amazon’s heavy investment in Alexa to enable continuous updates of the App and relentless machine learning on both products.
And since both voice assistants; Alexa and Google Assistant are cloud-based, the race continues.
What’s Next With Alexa?
Alexa supports several languages; English, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and Hindi. Some countries even have a multi-lingual advantage.
For example, people in Canada can either use Canadian French or Canadian English. Those in India have Indian English and Hindi while those in the USA enjoy US English and Spanish.
Alexa also allows various accents for commonly spoken languages. It accommodates English accents from Australia, Canada, India, UK, and the US.
French comes in two accents; Canadian French and the original French accents. Meanwhile, Spanish is available in the original Espanol, Mexican, and the US. Though the accent in some cases sounds a little off, those who speak the languages understand it better.
The downside of accents is, if the Skill you want to use does not have your preferred accent included, you will not have access to it. You need to revert to its original accent. Tough luck!
As the voice assistant evolves, chances of Alexa evolving to accommodate those who prefer husky male voices, slang, and other speaking styles are high. Who knows, Alexa may even give you the chance to have your to-do list read for you in Rihana’s voice. Or any celebrity of your choice!
The good news, you can have a few activities managed by Samuel L. Jackson himself. He can let you in on the weather, give a bit of advice, tell you a story or a joke, and even set your alarm.
You only need to ask, “Alexa, introduce me to Samuel L. Jackson” then proceed to set your wake name to “Hey Samuel”. From then on you ask him to do what you need to be done.
“Hey Samuel, tell me a joke”!
Being a celebrity, expect to pay about $3 for Samuel’s voice with the ability to go down to $1 during festive seasons. This is a fair amount for the iconic baritone voice for your stories and roasts, profanity included if you can stomach it. Just try, “Hey Samuel, Roast me” and wait for it.
Oh, and the Skill has Geographical restrictions; it works well for the USA.
Alexa for Techies
The possibility of the kind of growth seen and expected in Alexa is made possible with the introduction of the Skills Kit to enable developers all over the world to build their own skills.
If you are a developer, you do not need to work for Amazon to join the bandwagon. Just hop in and concoct a Skill for your buddies or customers, Amazon gives you the tools to create one.
At the moment, there are five types of Skills to meddle with.
Custom Skills enable you to build Skills to handle various requests for your buddies and customers.
You can create a Skill to look up information from the web, especially Wikipedia, integrate a web service for ordering services such as Uber rides or take away foods and interactive games.
Think of it as an App to carry out tailored activities.
Smart Home Skill API allows you to create Skills to enable your customers to control and query cloud-enabled smart home devices.
They can ask their security cameras for the feed, ask the thermostat to adjust the temperature of the room, or regulate dimmable lights.
Video Skill API enables you to build Skills for your clients to control cloud-enabled video services such as searching for TV shows, playing movies, and changing channels on TV.
With Flash Briefing Skill API, you can build a Skill for your customers to access original content for a flash briefing from various feeds and News.
Then there is the Music Skills API, used to build Skills to include audio content like radio stations, songs, and playlists for your users. All except the custom Skills are prebuild models making developers’ workers easier.
Using Alexa to Increase Your Productivity Daily
Imagine coming to the end of your day with every item on your to-do list crossed. To most people, that is a miracle. Not only do they mix up the activities but also forget to do the most important things.
You only have 24 hours to do it all; that is where Alexa comes in. To end this review, here are the top five Skills and commands to rock your day.
1. Alexa Calendar Link
Instead of setting your calendar manually or thumbing your phone to see if you have any appointments for the day, connect your Apple, Google, or Microsoft Outlook calendar to Alexa.
This way, you can use your Amazon Echo speaker to add new appointments and get alerts on upcoming events by asking Alexa to do so.
Open the Alexa App and head to the More tab and on to Settings. Select the Calendar and Email option then on the next page link the email account you want Alexa to work with.
You may need to sign in to the email service to access it. You can link more than one calendar service but must choose the default one.
Once ready engage with, “Alexa, what is my next appointment?” You can even find out what your week entails so you are ready.
2. Create Multiple To-Do Lists
Alexa now allows you to create several to-lists to cater to unrelated activities. Say you needed to your usual grocery list and do not want to mix it with the list of things you need your car mechanic to attend to when servicing your car. Alexa App allows you to place different items on a different list.
To create a new list, you need to ask Alexa to ‘create’ and follow that with the name of the list. Thereafter you can add all the items you need there. Should you want to top it up later, use “Alexa, add (item) to (name of the list) and you are done!
If you are uncertain of the contents of any list, ask Alexa to read it out, so you do not have any duplicates.
3. Set Reminders
While making your to-do lists is vital, if you forget to read and act on them, they will not serve you any good.
That is where reminders come in.
Alexa allows you to set reminders for things you need to do including when you need to do them; time and date. This message is played out on your active devices.
Reminders and Alarms are in the same section as the Lists so no enabling is needed. But there are other reminders provided as Alexa Skills for your health especially while working.
How about enabling the Water Reminder Skill on your Alexa App?
You initiate it with, “Alexa start Water Reminder”. The Skill reminds you to take water after every hour for the next eight hours. That is adequate for the rest of your day.
You may want to use the same reminder to stand up from your desk and stretch.
4. Walkthrough your Workout
Instead of subscribing to the gym, why not jig to the voice of your personal trainer?
The famous 7-minute workout does a great job of getting you flexy, sweaty, and healthy. Enable the Skill then ask Alexa to start it.
Once active, Alexa asks you about the kind of exercise you need; low impact, standard or advanced. You also need to let the voice assistant know if you need fast, chill, or no music for your workout.
The exercises are demonstrated on images and explained via text. Alexa guides you through each exercise; hand-release push-ups, side leg raises, half squats, high knees walking in place among others.
At the end of each exercise, Alexa asks if you are ready for the next. Should you need any assistance, shout “Help” and it will be provided.
The basic part of the 7-minute workout is free but if you want advanced workouts, you need to pay for them.
Other Skills have great free workouts, Browse through the Skills section for the adventure.
5. Calming Sleep and Relaxation
Ending your day with sounds that calm your system allows you to ready your body for deep sleep.
Sleep and Relaxation Sound by Voice Apps, LLC has soundtracks for heavy rain, white noise, cat purring, whales, babbling brook to mention but a few. It comes with over 120 high-quality free sounds to play from. There are also premium sounds for you to purchase.
You need to instruct Alexa on the kind of sounds to play. “Alexa tell Sleep Sounds to play Thunderstorm.” When you need a different sound, replace the word ‘thunderstorm with the one you want. You can even set the time limit so it does not play all night long.
Bonus Skill for Parents
Tired of having to manually gather the family for dinner after a long day at work?
These two Skills will do the trick. Drop-In allows you to connect to another supported Echo device so you can have a 2-way conversation.
This includes the Echo devices of your friends and family provided the device in question is activated for the Drop-In feature. "Alexa, drop in on Kids Bed Room" to deliver the audio message to them there and give them a chance to respond. No need to shout from downstairs.
Drop-In does not need you to enable it on Skills, it is available by default on all Alexa devices.
There is also the Announce feature that allows you to broadcast announcements to all enabled speakers in the house so you can deliver a common message to everyone at home. "Hey Alexa, announce to all that the guests are here."
Where Does That Leave You and Alexa?
Every day Alexa continues to grow wiser, more helpful, and useful for the automation of activities around us.
That leads to more devices getting intelligent by the day. Whether that works towards the ultimate benefit for humankind, it is hard to tell.
But at the moment, there is a lot of good coming from this cloud-based voice assistant. A call to get the feel of Alexa.