Category Archives: Alexa

Amazon Expands Hiring for Alexa

Recode has noticed that Amazon’s Alexa group is on a massive hiring spree. They note that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said that they have over 1000 engineers working on Alexa and Echo back in May. They also spotted an additional 400+ open positions on Amazon’s Alexa Job Page.

Presumably they did some hiring in the May to October gap that isn’t covered. If Amazon were able to fill those open 400 jobs, they might be within striking distance of 2000 employees. That’s a lot of people working on a product.

I think they’ll need each and every one of them. They’ve recently ramped up advertising efforts and are saturating the market with Echo Dots for under $50. I’m obviously biased, but I feel like everyone should own at least one, and families should own several.

Another way to look at this is that Amazon needs to continue to invest in the Alexa/Echo platform. Google is expected to announce their version of the Echo in a few hours. That product will be called Google Home and it should go on sale soon after the announcement… or maybe even right away.

Top Ten Amazon Echo Things To Do with Kids

My friend J. Money at Budgets Are Sexy recently got an Amazon Echo. Since he has kids around the same age as mine (3-4 years old), I thought I’d share some of the ways we’ve used our Echo.

And what better way than to do than with an old fashioned top ten list. Everyone loves them, right?

Top Ten Amazon Echo Things To Do with Kids

  1. Practice Speech – My oldest son was slow to start speaking and when he did, I was the only person who could understand him. I originally got the Echo because I thought that he’d enjoy asking Alexa about so much stuff that he’d work on his pronunciation so that she’d understand him. I don’t think it helped, but that might be because I didn’t stick with it or that he quickly improved so much on his own.
  2. Practice Spelling – We spell everything from our names to simple words like “ball.” One of my oldest’s favorite games is to find an object in the room and ask Alexa how it’s spelled. I think a lot of it is sticking, which pretty good for a 3 year old.
  3. “Alexa, spell supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” – It’s fun to throw this curveball at Alexa because she’ll spend the next 20 seconds or so calling out letters. It’s a nice silly way to break up the spelling game in #9.
  4. Simple Math – Alexa is great at adding and subtracting numbers (and probably more, but we haven’t gotten there). I can show my son what 2 and 3 M&Ms look like and we can count them to get to 5. Then we can reinforce that by asking Alexa what it is. We can even do the reverse and see if Alexa is right. (She hasn’t been wrong yet.)
  5. Fun Questions with Wise Answers – Here’s a list of 50 fun questions that Alexa has wise answers for. My favorite is the definitive answer to which came first, the chicken or the egg.
  6. Read a Kindle Book – It’s always fun to read a book together, but it’s also fun to have Alexa read it while the both of you follow along on a tablet. Robots reading, if you are young kid what’s not to like about that?
  7. Another Bunch of Fun Questions with Wise AnswersHere’s another list. My favorite is, “ALEXA, WHAT’S THE MASS OF THE SUN IN GRAMS?”
  8. Turn the lights on and off – If you have a compatible light switch or system such as Philips Hue, you can have fun with Echo’s smart home features.
  9. Open The Magic Door – There’s an Alexa Skill named The Magic Door which is like a Choose Your Own Adventure. It’s great for kids’ imagination.
  10. Play a Math Quiz – There is a very good math skill game called 1-2-3 Math which gives you math questions to answer. This is little advanced for my 3 year old, but I think he’ll be able to do the easy level in a year.

I don’t want to pretend that any of these things are going to change your life with your kids. However, that’s not really the point. Think of them as a nice bonus on top of all the other things that you can do with an Echo.

Alexa Needs Macros/Recipes for Consumers

Amazon Alexa
Amazon Alexa’s Logo

Jason Perlow has a good article at on ZDNet: Lesson learned from Amazon Echo: Don’t turn customers into developers. The other subtitle is: “Don’t depend on your user community to bring in core functionality for your IoT device.”

I don’t think that Amazon depending on it’s user community to bring functionality to Alexa. When Uber and Domino’s partner with Alexa, it’s not because one of their users created an Alexa Skill. It’s because they worked closely with Amazon.

That said, Perlow’s got a great point to make. If a consumer wants to do something simple on the Alexa platform, they should be able to do it without being a hardcore Node.js developer.

Perlow wanted to do something pretty easy, “Play white noise on a loop.” I agree that it seems like something that Alexa should be able to do. It’s reasonable and fair that Amazon didn’t think of this previously. They can’t think of everything, right?

I’d like to have a way to tell Alexa to play my night-time script with Jack Johnson. (Hmm, maybe I’d word it quite a bit differently). The idea would be apply a descending volume music over some length of time for any given artist. The next night I might want it to apply to a particular James Taylor album for example. The idea is to create a custom script to do the basic things that Alexa is already good at.

In short, it needs something that I’ll call “recipes.” And those recipes need to be built on basic building blocks of “ingredients” and/or “actions.” This may sound like object-oriented program and that’s exactly the kind of thing that I’d like to see. The best software engineers could create new “ingredients”, while beginner programmers could put write simple recipes from the ingredients. A visual interface might allow them to drag and drop ingredients to create recipes as well.

Most consumers probably wouldn’t care to create recipes. They may be interested in installing new “recipes” with just a few clicks through the Alexa portal. Links to the recipes could be spread through social media or embedded on a webpage. This could create a buzz of people sharing Alexa recipes. People who don’t have Alexa might wonder what all this buzz is about.

If Alexa had this, Perlow could not only create his white noise on a loop, but he could share it with the world. And I can could share my night-time script with Jack Johnson.

Alexa Can Now Add Calendar Events!

There’s a lot of Alexa functionality that I’m not very interested in. You can dig through the Alexa Skills and find a lot of stuff that will make you say, “Meh? Do I really need a Magic Eight Ball?” (Actually, that’s probably a bad example as it does sound kind of fun to play with the kids.)

However, on Friday, Alexa announced some functionality that I’ve been waiting for a long, long time. When I first got my Echo, I wanted the ability to tell it to add things to my Google calendar. Too often, I’ll have a thought that I don’t want to lose. I often add those thoughts to my calendar so that I can investigate them at a later date.

For a long time, we could get Alexa to tell us what’s in our Google calendar… but we couldn’t tell it to add items. That’s all changed. Here’s how it’s supposed to work from the weekly Amazon Echo newsletter.

“Alexa, add an event to my calendar.”

“Alexa, add ‘brunch with Mom’ to my calendar for Saturday at 10 a.m.”

(Unfortunately, the newsletter isn’t easy to link to on a webpage. In addition, the examples of things you can ask are images and not text I can copy and paste. Thus expect transcription errors.)

Unfortunately, in practice, it was a LOT more difficult for me.

First, I noticed that my calendar had become unlinked. I’m not sure when that happened, but now you know how often I use Alexa to get my days’ schedule. I thought that it wasn’t linked because I was trying to use my Echo Dot instead of my Echo where I originally set up my calendar. I presumed that calendars were tied to a device. (That might be nice since my wife could get her own Echo and have it linked to her accounts by default instead of mine.) There’s pros and cons to that and I’m not saying that Amazon made the wrong choice, but just one that I didn’t expect when my calendar became unlinked.

Once I realized that calendars were account specific and not device specific, linking my calendar was very easy. I just wish adding an event was that easy.

I started off with

“Alexa, add an event to my calendar.”

That brings up a dialog asking when you’d like to add. Since this was a test, I said, “In 10 minutes.” I found that works great for Alexa alarms, but Alexa was confused by it for calendars.”

I decided to try to set an alarm for 2PM (which was 45 minutes from when I was writing the article). That initially seemed to go well until I got to the day. I wanted to set an alarm for “today” which didn’t work either.

On the next attempt, I got a little further. I was able to communicate “2PM” and “tomorrow.” That only broke down when I gave Alexa the name of the event at her prompting. Since this was a test I was calling the event, “Test Alexa.” Unfortunately, that triggered to be confused and report that it doesn’t know what I want it to do and shut down. Fair enough, but let’s hope you don’t have to pick-up your daughter named Alexa at the airport.

I was finally able to successfully set up an appointment to say hello to my dog tomorrow at 2PM. Alexa read it back to me (which I wasn’t expecting) and asked if it was correct. Because it was unexpected, I missed the date and time and simply agreed to set it up. Alexa confirmed she added it to my calendar.

Unfortunately when I looked at my calendar, there was nothing added. I tried to search my calendar for any of the words and couldn’t find them.

At that point, I simply gave up. I may try it again with the longer form that I quoted above.

I need to recognize this is just the first version of adding things to calendars… the bugs aren’t really surprising.

Let me know if it works better for you. If not, maybe we should let Amazon put this back in Alexa’s oven and bake it a little longer.

CoWatch with Alexa

CoWatch: Alexa Coming to Watches

It seems like interesting in getting Amazon’s Alexa is growing. The latest evidence is that there’s an Indiegogo campaign to package Alexa in a watch.

It’s easy to create an Indiegogo campaign, but this particularly notable because it comes with some pretty extensive media coverage. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first I’d like to point out that they already reached their funding goal.

And before we get to the media coverage, it’s worth describing the watch. In my opinion it looks beautiful. What do you think?

CoWatch with Alexa
CoWatch with Alexa

The CoWatch seems to come from a Chinese company called iMCO. A lot of good things come from China, but there are also a lot of things such as media sticks that aren’t particularly high quality. It seems like this intention is to bring a very quality product, but I’m a little skeptical that’s possible for the pricing.

One concern I have is the battery. A 300 mAh battery isn’t very strong. It’s powerful enough to work for a watch, but as we’ve seen with the Amazon Tap having Alexa work, even by touch, requires a fairly large battery. In fact, a teardown of the Amazon Tap shows that it has a 2850 mAh battery. So at nearly 10x the battery it doesn’t have hands-free, always on listening like the Echo or the Echo Dot.

My initial reading of “With up to 32 hours of battery life in an always-on mode, CoWatch works as hard as you do…” lead me to believe that Alexa is always on. Unfortunately this just applies to the watch. (Which begs the question, “It’s a watch supposed to be ‘always on’?”)

It wasn’t clear until that I read the reviews that you’ll have navigate to an Alexa app and then speak a voice command to it. Suddenly the battery life makes a lot more sense. Of course, if the watch isn’t used to play music like the other Alexa devices from Amazon, perhaps the battery will last longer. Then again, the watch adds fitness tracking sensors such as an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and optical heart rate sensors.

I’m not sure the value of Alexa on a watch when you have to navigate to an app and then tell it what you want it to do. The suggestion is that you can do simple home automation tasks, but those typically have their own apps. What do I get by using the Alexa app when I can use my Nest app? At a minimum an Amazon Tap-like dedicated Alexa button would be useful. That would avoid navigating through apps, which really takes full advantage of Alexa’s potential. Of course, it is easier to get information back than having to type on a watch screen. That said, it would seem like this is what Google Now and Siri are for. It’s not that Alexa can’t do it, but that functionality already exists on smart watches.

The watch uses Cronologics OS which is neither the two obvious watch OSes from Google or Apple. That’s an initial cause for concern, but the Cronologics OS is based on Google’s Android, so maybe it is a good choice. That said, I’d feel more comfortable about the watch if Amazon itself was making it using Google’s official Android Wear.

There’s a lot of skepticism in this post, but I’ll end it with a big media review, The Verge and what they say:

Normally we approach crowdfunded hardware with a fair amount of skepticism, given just how hard it is to make hardware. But CoWatch, which has been in the works for a year, and Cronologic OS have shown me just enough to think they might be on to something.

If they can convince a writer at The Verge, then who am I to argue?

Alexa (Echo) and Nest Thermostats are Friends… Finally!

Finally, perhaps the two most popular smart home devices work together without a messy IFTTT. I just completed linking my Nest thermostats devices.

I got the news yesterday through the weekly Amazon Echo newsletter. Unfortunately, the set-up was a little more difficult than it said,

“To control your thermostat with Alexa, go to your Alexa App and link your device. Then just ask…”

There’s an additional step of telling Alexa to “discover” your devices. So even though you might be linked, you may not necessarily good to go. Fortunately, this is easily solved by scrolling down that smart home page and using the Discover Devices link at the bottom of the page.

After that, everything works beautifully. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing too new. Alexa has worked with other thermostats over the last couple of months… so this is just another example. However, it’s a very popular example.

Personally, it is great to be able to make use of Alexa/Echo’s smart home features. I haven’t been able to justify the prices for lights and bridges. The prices are coming down, and maybe in the coming months I’ll be adding more Alexa/Echo enabled smart home features.

Sonos Future Depends on Alexa/Echo?

For more than a decade Sonos music players have been the pinnacle of whole home music systems. Unfortunate for me, I haven’t been able to afford them in my budget. I’m not why, but things are no longer going well at the company. Maybe people are buying too many Chromecasts and using their smartphones.

In any case, the CEO of the company is featured in this Verge article saying that Sonos’ future will echo Amazon’s Alexa. While the speakers may still be top quality, the natural language artificial intelligence of Amazon’s Alexa Voice Service combined with the 7-directional microphone of the Echo is a winner.

The article mentions that the Echo Dot or similar device might be the best fit for Sonos. It isn’t the first time we’ve heard a Dot/Sonos combination solution being suggested.

It’s another example of how the once-kooky product, Amazon Echo, is changing entire industries.

Alexa Adds New Fitbit Skill

It seems like every company is looking to integrate with Alexa nowadays. Add Fitbit (NYSE: FIT) to the list. The popular fitness tracking devices has sold an estimated 21 million trackers.

As a longtime owner of a Fitbit Ultra, I was able to set-up the Alexa skill in just a few seconds. I just visited the echo site, clicked on “skills” on the left side, searched for “Fitbit” and activated it. It quickly took me to my Fitbit login where I gave the Echo permissions to everything except my friends. (I don’t have a lot of Fitbit friends, but Alexa doesn’t need to know them anyway.)

It sounds like “work” when I type it out, but it was really easy. I was soon asking Alexa:

“Alexa, ask Fitbit how I’m doing today”

The response was more in-depth than I imagined. I got my step count (15,000+ woo hoo!), and word that I passed my daily active rate as well as having been active for the last 90 minutes. (Yes, keeping up with two toddlers will do that.)

I think it is easy for some to criticize Amazon Echo for not being super useful, especially with this skill. I think most Fitbit users would have a smartphone or a computer that they could easily get the information from. I’m obviously a fan of Alexa and the Echo so I might be in the minority here.

More and more, I’m finding my head buried in a laptop or a cellphone. The Echo bucks this trend by allowing me to get the information without getting sucked into notifications and temptations of Facebook. It most certainly isn’t worth buying an Echo for checking your Fitbit stats, but it’s a very nice perk considering the rest of the features that come with it.

Get in Shape With Amazon Alexa

When I first purchased an Amazon Echo, I certainly didn’t think it would be useful for getting me in shape. In fact, I was worried that it would do just the opposite. With the Amazon Echo available at my beck and call there’s often no reason to get up.

So imagine my surprise when I read about a new Alexa Skill called The 7-Minute Workout. Surely a 7-minute workout can’t be any good, right?

Well as this NY Times article suggests it can actually be pretty sound.

The downside is that workout isn’t easy. The upside is that at 7 minutes, accessible starting with just your voice, you lost a lot of excuses to be a couch potato.

Unfortunately the reviews aren’t nearly as good as they are for the Alexa devices themselves. It’s still better than nothing and hopefully the start of many more workouts in the future.

Why You Should Get on the Amazon Echo Bandwagon

The short answer is, I’m on the bandwagon and it’s great! There’s plenty of room up here so come aboard!

Recently, Jim Wikert of Digital Book World wrote why he’s not ready to climb on yet. I don’t mean to single him out, but I think he brings up a good discussion point. Plus, I have a lot of friends who have the same opinion. Of course most of those people have never used an Amazon Echo. Even when I first started using an Echo, I thought it was mostly a glorified music player.

It seems to me that Wikert isn’t actually against the Amazon Echo, it just doesn’t fit into his lifestyle because he spends a lot of time in his car. That’s understandable. I work from home where I’m mostly alone. I rarely spend much more than 15-20 minutes in my car for the whole day… different things for different people.

Wikert continues to explain an Echo that would be useful to him. First he explains that like stand-alone GPS and fitness bracelets, they’ll be replaced by his phone. I don’t buy into his argument. Fitness bracelets and smart watches perform better than phones and have additional features in them to improve the experience. It’s almost like saying that I don’t need a microwave because I have a oven.

However, to bring this back to Amazon Echo, the key feature is the always-listening, no hands use. I don’t know when phone batteries will get there. I don’t know IF they’ll ever get there. There’s a reason why the Amazon Tap requires you press a button despite having a big battery and no screen.

That said, in a car environment that Wikert describes, there is power. It isn’t that hard to imagine an Echo Dot working in the car. That might be useful because of the microphone. It can connect via bluetooth to his car speakers and use his phone as a mobile wifi hotspot. This wouldn’t cost the $5 per month that Wikert is willing to pay, but probably a one-time cost of around $120 (including a D/C adapter). Yes it wouldn’t be mobile, but it would cover what seems to be his most common use case.

Now if you just want your phone to do it, there is an Alexa App. It is more about reporting what your hardware has already done than being a bridge to the Alexa service itself. However, it wouldn’t be overly difficult for Amazon to make that happen.

The question then becomes: “Isn’t that just what Google Now, Microsoft Cortana, and Apple Siri are?” I’m going to give Amazon Alexa the edge because it isn’t just an information service and it has demonstrated the ability to work with third parties. It’s “work” to get Google Now to work with Nest, a company in its same Alphabet umbrella. I don’t have confidence that Apple is going to open up their ecosystem to companies that compete with them like Pandora and Spotify. (Maybe I’m off-base here, I’m not in the Apple ecosystem.)

At the end of the day, I want all the things that Wikert wants (especially the dictation ability). I think we’ll get there, but let’s take a step back. Not much more than a year ago, the Amazon Echo was kind of a goofy device that didn’t do much more than play music. It didn’t turn on your lights, order you an Uber, or a pizza. It couldn’t change the temperature in my home. It couldn’t play Jeopardy. It can do all these now. (Okay the Nest functionality is coming this month.)

Let’s enjoy all the things we can do, especially when they are free of monthly fees.