Ever since Amazon released the Amazon Echo, there has been a growing market for “smart speakers” along with unique features for each. Amazon in particular has grown a very large set of “skills” by allowing anyone to interface with it in some way. While these skills offer some additional functionality, they don’t offer a lot of tangible value for most users. Recent statistics suggest the majority of users are only using these assistants to set timers, play music and read the news.
When it comes to setting timers, playing music and reading the news, this is something most assistants already can do. Some other items on that list included smart home control and adding items to shopping lists, and while Amazon hopes to make money off of the shopping list side of things, this functionality may just as easily be a reminders list instead of actually buying through Amazon.
The Alexa skill set is vast, but as noted, not terribly useful for a lot of people. Some of this comes down to the difficult phrasing required to trigger them. Alexa treats voice more like a command line than an actual assistant who you can speak to naturally. This can frustrate users and ultimately lead to them not using a lot of the potential. One challenge here is that not only does Alexa not do the best job at natural language parsing to trigger skills, but these skills also don’t have an easy job for handling things from there. Any natural language parsing has to be programmed by the developer of the skill, which can end up giving a very inconsistent experience.
Overall, I don’t think Amazon expects to make huge waves with their skills, but they definitely need to rethink some of the design in order to keep their leg up in this space. While Apple’s Siri is often ridiculed for a lack of such skills, their SiriKit Domains approach actually works very well. It does limit things to just a handful of domains, but these domains require very little effort from the developer and provide a natural language parser that works very well.
The voice assistant space is still very young, and while Amazon has a lead in a lot of areas, I don’t think skills are really one we can boast as making them leaders. Alexa Skills in their current incarnation won’t be paying the bills for Amazon any time soon. There’s a lot of potential for Google, Apple, Microsoft, or anyone else really, to come along and blow away the lead Amazon is said to have.