8 ways to make Amazon’s Alexa even more awesome

Amazon’s voice assistant works remarkably well, but these improvements could dramatically extend its range and usefulness

I’ve been using an Amazon Echo for a while now, yet I still find myself amazed at how well its voice assistant technology works—at least within the relatively narrow confines it has set for itself. By sticking to what she can do well, Alexa mostly avoids the common trap of heavily hyped new technology delivering a disappointing experience in real life. 

+ Also on Network World: The ultimate upgrade to Amazon’s Alexa +

That said, though, Alexa’s limitations sometimes seem arbitrary and frustrating. And the system’s obvious competence in its core areas only whets my appetite for more. So here are eight suggestions for Amazon’s Alexa team, ranging from the seemingly simple to the obviously ambitious, on how to make its voice assistant even more awesome: 

1. Let Alexa run on iPhone and Android devices

This feature is apparently coming to some Android devices, but it remains to be seen how powerful and intuitive it will be. And though Alexa already works on some Amazon Fire devices, the ultimate goal is to turn Alexa into an app anyone can download to any device powerful enough to run it 

2. Expand Alexa’s connections

Alexa pulls in a fair amount of content right out of the box, and Amazon has been aggressive about letting you connect even more things, notably home automation devices. But actually getting stuff out of that Amazon Echo in your kitchen can be much more difficult. Yes, you can export Alexa content to Amazon Fire devices, but Alexa needs to offer easy connections to all kinds of mobile devices, from iPhones to Android tablets. After all, what good is a shopping list if I can’t easily access it when I am at the store? (Yes, you can see lists on the Alexa app, but I don’t have that app on all my devices.)

3. Allow Alexa to communicate more freely

Device connections are only part of the issue. Why can’t I use Alexa to send a text, a tweet or an email? Why can’t I use it to make a Facebook post or update my LinkedIn status? And to look at it the other way, why can’t Alexa read my texts/email/tweets, etc.? This should not be that hard. After all, as I reported almost three years ago, Amazon Web Services CTO Werner Vogels has spent years extolling the power of APIs

4. Make Alexa easier to set up

By current device standards, Alexa isn’t that difficult to get going, at least for the basics. But the setup process for an Amazon Echo or Dot is still orders of magnitude more complicated than using the device. There are lots of tech-averse folks who could get real benefit from Alexa’s slick voice interface, but they would never be able to set up the system themselves. 

For example, I have given Echo devices to several elderly family members who love how easy it is to use, but they would never be able to figure out how to get it working, much less how to get the most out of it, without hands-on assistance from a tech-savvy helper. 

Ideally, you should be able to set up an Echo using only your voice, perhaps by speaking a simple code phrase that could do the job remotely without making you go searching for passwords to link to services you rarely use. At the very least, an audio chat to walk you through the process of set-up and common use cases would help more people get on board. 

5. Radically simplify Alexa Skills creation

One of Alexa’s nicest features is the ability for programmers to create new capabilities (called “Skills”) for the system. But the key word there is “programmers.” If Amazon could create a drop-dead easy, visual (or even voice-activated) way to build your own skills, we’d likely see a huge explosion in the kinds of things Alexa could do. That could prove a real boon for specialty skills that might be very useful to small subgroups but of little interest to the wider market. 

6. Make it easier to find existing Skills

I know Alexa can do lots of things (up to 7,000 as of January 2017, according to VoiceLabs, which provides Voice Experience Analytics), but my Alexa still mostly plays music, gives me weather reports and answers random trivia questions. While Amazon tries to surface Alexa skills via emails and notifications in the Alexa app, the whole point of using Alexa is that you should be able to get what you need simply by speaking to it.

There has to be a better way for Alexa to alert users to the full range of its capabilities in a non-intrusive yet useful way. Voice prompts or audio notifications seem like promising possibilities, but Amazon will have to be careful that Alexa doesn’t turn into a shrill shill, trying to sell you something instead of doing your bidding. 

7. Enable a robust and sustainable Alexa ecosystem

Amazon also needs to help skills developers retain the Alexa users they get, something that is currently not happening. VoiceLabs estimates there is just a 3 percent chance that new users will still be using a new skill the second week after trying it. That’s a pretty challenging number. Also, so far there is hardly any way for Skills developers to make money from their creations. If Amazon can find a way to help developers monetize their apps, without spoiling the Alexa experience, who knows what new applications might be invented.

8. Contribute to a common voice assistant interface

From Apple’s Siri to Google Now to Microsoft Cortana, Alexa is hardly the only voice assistant with a significant market presence. But so far, each voice assistant ecosystem is entirely separate from its competitors. That forces users to choose an ecosystem, severely limiting the devices, home automation appliances and services they can use. In turn, that raises prices and frustration levels. 

One solution might be to create a common voice assistant API that lets any device and service work with any voice assistant. Or at the very least, the voice assistant makers need to work with device and appliance makers to encourage them to work with all major voice assistants.

Similarly, software evolves much more quickly than durable goods like appliances and cars, and no one wants to be locked into what could become an outmoded technology just because it’s built into their refrigerator. One possible solution is to take a modular approach that would let consumers upgrade the technology built into their appliances, for example, without having to buy a whole new device.

If you don’t think these suggestions go far enough, check out my most ambitious Alexa idea.

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