Alexa Skills Can Now Make Money

Alexa Skills Can Now Make Money

Developers of Alexa skills now have a way to make money off their offerings.

Alexa skills can now include money-making features, according to The Verge. If you use Alexa skills, you have probably noticed they’re all free. This is a refreshing change of pace from other services, like app stores on phones that can offer apps for large amounts of money. With Alexa’s available skills, you never have to worry about whether a skill you’ve found is going to end up costing you.

But now the developers of these skills do have some small ways to make money. The Verge notes that now skills can offer one in-skill purchase. This means they can have extra content or special features available for a cost. This can be a one-time fee or a subscription that continues. Compared to many apps, having one in-skill purchase is still a nice change of pace, since so many apps lock feature after feature behind a pay wall.

Developers can also now allow users of their skills to buy items. With Alexa, users could already use their voices to buy products from Amazon. But now they’ll be able to ask to buy things within other skills. This new feature will make use of Amazon Pay, letting developers offer a way to order through the skill. The Verge mentions that TGI Fridays and 1-800-Flowers are already making use of this new feature. With these skills, you can now directly place orders for the companies’ products.

While the skills themselves are still free (and there seem to be no plans to change this in the near future), adding a way for developers to make money through in-skill purchases and the use of Amazon Pay could end up being a big change. It could make Alexa skills seem more appealing to other developers who have yet to bring their ideas to the Alexa skill format. It may also make ordering items from companies other than Amazon much easier. Keep watch on Alexa’s skills to see which ones begin making use of these new capabilities.

Alexa Has New Alien-Themed Game, Is Getting Major Update

Alexa Has New Alien-Themed Game, Is Getting Major Update

Alexa has gotten an interesting new addition, and in the near future the smart assistant may also be able to continue a discussion without using a wake word.

To correspond with what’s known as ‘Alien Day,’ Alexa has a new skill called Offworld Colony Simulator. According to Fortune, you can use the skill on all devices that have Alexa. The skill is a game that’s similar to roleplaying games and that uses voice prompts and responses to challenge you to get away from a Xenomorph. There have been other voice-based RPGs available on Alexa (like The Magic Door). This one, though, is for sci-fi and Alien lovers.

There’s also news that Alexa may soon gain some more useful abilities. TechCrunch reports that Alexa users will be able to talk with Alexa more naturally and have Alexa remember certain things they choose.

Currently, when you want to use Alexa, you have to use a wake word (like “Alexa” or “Echo”). But in the future, Alexa will not always need you to use the wake word when you’re asking follow-up questions. So if you ask a question and then need more information, you won’t have to wake Alexa up all over again and form a complete new question. This will make conversations with Alexa flow more smoothly and be a little easier to manage.

As TechCrunch notes, you’ll also be able to ask Alexa to remember things. You can ask her to remember peoples’ birthdays or other important pieces of information. Then you’ll be able to ask her about that information in the future and retrieve it easily.

All of this is meant to give Alexa a more expansive and useful memory. It will make her more personal to each user’s account and it will make conversations with her feel a step closer to a conversation with a human (though, of course, we’re not fully there yet).

Offworld Colony Simulator is available to play now, while Alexa’s new memory updates are coming soon (TechCrunch says there’s not yet a launch date).

New Alexa Skill Blueprints Offer Further Customization

New Alexa Skill Blueprints Offer Further Customization

Amazon has now given Echo users a new way to make Alexa even more personalized. Skill Blueprints, added this past week, allow Alexa users to program their own customized skills for personal use.

Amazon announced the new ability for Alexa on their Alexa blog last week. Skill Blueprints is a feature that makes it easy to further personalize an Alexa device by creating your own trigger phrases and setting Alexa’s response, building your own trivia game, making personalized stories, and more.

On the Alexa Blueprints website, the feature is explained and the many different Skill templates are described. After logging in to the Amazon account that’s connected to your Alexa device, you can choose from a template and customize your personal skill. These skills are only available on your Alexa devices and aren’t publicly published. You can also have as many Skill Blueprints as you want.

Alexa is known for having some silly quips and fun easter eggs when she’s asked the right phrase. Now you can make your own fun responses with the Q & A Blueprint. You can set up a phrase like “Who’s the best basketball player?” and program Alexa to respond however you’d like. You can also have fun with other Blueprints like the one that “roasts” your guests with custom insults. There’s Family Jokes, which lets you put in your own jokes, as well as Compliments, Trivia, Inspirations (with your favorite quotes), and much more.

Plus you can use these Blueprints to make your smart home easier to navigate. You can use the Pet Sitter Blueprint to enter all the information someone might need to care for your pet (like where to find the food, how often to feed your pet, who to call in an emergency, etc.). And Houseguest has you enter information about staying in your home (and the nearby area) so that if someone is house sitting or visiting, they don’t have to keep texting you with questions about where to find extra paper towels or how to turn on the dishwasher.

There are many other Blueprints available, as well. In fact, there are currently 21 different Blueprints to choose from. Whenever you’ve created a Blueprint, you can go back to it and edit it whenever you want. Amazon’s blog says that your newly-created skills show up on your Alexa devices “instantly,” though it’s important to note that it takes a moment or two for the skills to actually be created. (The Blueprints website asks you to wait as the skill is actually finalized and ready to use—this seems to typically take less than a minute.)

Alexa Skill Blueprints are now available for use in the US. For more information, take a look at the Alexa Blueprints website.

Smart Assistant Updates

Smart Assistant Updates

A number of different updates about smart assistants and smart speakers have been announced recently (including current and upcoming updates). Google, Amazon, and Facebook have all provided updates on their smart assistant plans. Here’s some of what you might have missed this week!

Google Home now lets you play through Bluetooth speakers

When comparing smart speakers (as I did recently; read about it in my article from last month), people typically take a closer look at the smaller, less expensive versions of the products. For instance, the Amazon Echo has the Echo Dot and the Google Home has the Google Home Mini. One of the things that set the Echo Dot apart from the Home Mini was that the Echo Dot could connect to other Bluetooth speakers. This meant that the less amazing speakers in the Echo Dot weren’t a deal-breaker, because the Dot could be connected to a better Bluetooth sound system.

Now the Home Mini can also improve its sound. The Verge is reporting that the smaller version of Google’s smart speaker can now connect to Bluetooth speakers. Previously, the Home Mini had a lot of great features but had the drawback of featuring unimpressive sound. Now that it can do what the Dot was already able to do, it’s even more of a competitor. If you already have a nice Bluetooth speaker, you no longer need to worry about the Google Home Mini’s sound quality.

Amazon’s Alexa plans to integrate more with your home products

Amazon has now announced their plans for more upcoming devices with Alexa built in. In their post this past week, Amazon detailed three upcoming products that will have Alexa enabled. These “white-box solutions” are part of Amazon’s plan to be more fully integrated into homes.

One product stands out in particular. The Lamp Speaker from Adition mostly looks like the typical smart speaker from Amazon: it’s a tall cylinder. However, it’s also a lamp. This means even typical household devices, like light sources, will soon be able to respond to voice commands and perform the Alexa capabilities we’re used to.

Facebook’s upcoming smart speaker announcement pushed back

You may remember the news at the beginning of this year about Facebook’s planned smart speaker. As I wrote in my article, Facebook has been planning to release a smart speaker currently referred to as ‘Portal.’ The smart system is supposed to include cameras and a screen for video chatting, and the focus is on social connection.

However, The Verge has reported that Facebook’s planned announcement about the smart device has been stalled. According to most reports on this postponement, it’s likely due to Facebook’s current data scandal fallout and its negative connection to user data and privacy.

Apps & Smart Devices for Visual Impairment

Apps & Smart Devices for Visual Impairment

For many in the world of technology, improving lives has been a primary goal. As technology advances, there are more opportunities for people with disabilities to gain access to helpful devices, software, and services.

Recently, The Verge reported on the development of smart glasses that could help with visual impairment. With these smart glasses, someone could look at text and have that text read out loud to them. Smart glasses that could help with visual impairment have been discussed for some time, and these glasses could be another step in the right direction. Unfortunately, they’re not yet available. However, it goes to show that some tech companies are making a point to develop products for all.

Though these smart glasses aren’t really available yet, there are other ways to use current tech. One way people with visual impairment can make their lives a little easier is with the use of certain apps. More and more apps are being developed with the sole purpose of helping people who are blind or who have other difficulties with their vision.

Another area of tech that can be helpful for people with visual impairment is one that has been rapidly growing for years—smart devices, including smart speakers and devices that can be paired with them. With a smart speaker, a person who is blind can ask their smart assistant to read them the news, tell them the weather, get answers to questions, and more. They can also connect other devices, so they can ask the assistant to do things like adjust the thermostat or turn off a fan.

There are many different levels of visual impairment. Being visually impaired doesn’t necessarily mean someone is completely blind in the way you might think. There are varying degrees of visual impairment. Because of this, some people may want or need to use different tech than others. And there are so many different apps and products out there it might be difficult to even know what’s available.

What other technology is available?

This article is focusing specifically on apps and smart devices. However, there is plenty of tech that’s typically used by people with visual impairment. Here are just a few:

  • Screen readers (including touch screen readers)
  • Magnification software
  • Braille devices (like braille printers)
  • Text-to-speech software

Because there’s such a wide range of tech, this article will focus on some of the technology that is rapidly growing and offering many different options. New apps are being developed on a regular basis, and smart devices are getting better and better. So for this article, I’ll be skipping the other options listed above.

Apps

There are many different apps available to choose from. Some apps may be familiar, as they’re wildly popular and have become staples. However, some may be new or offer even better features than an app you already have. Here are some helpful apps!

  • Accessible Editor Talkback Pro (Android): This app works with Talkback, the service built into Android phones. It lets people read and edit documents, texts, Facebook content, and more.
  • Actiview Movie Access (iOS): This app helps people with visual impairment while they’re in the movie theater. While at the movies, you can choose which movie you’re watching and get audio description, louder audio, and much more.
  • Aipoly Vision (Android & iOS): This app is meant to help people identify what’s around them. Using your camera, it can be pointed at objects which it will identify out loud. It can work on objects, animals, colors, text, and more.
  • Arianna Navigation (iOS): Arianna is an app that works by interacting with your modified surroundings. After placing different-colored paths on your floors (with paint or tape), the app can use these paths to let people move around their home easily. It also works in other settings by using its navigation service.
  • Be My Eyes (Android & iOS): This app helps people with visual impairment identify objects and get help with their surroundings. People can use their camera to connect live with a volunteer. They can show the volunteer what they need help with (like identifying something) and the volunteer can give them the help they need.
  • Eyes-Free Fitness (iOS): With this app, people can maintain good health by keeping up with their exercise. Workouts are clearly described, making them easy to follow just by listening.
  • KNFB Reader (Android & iOS): This app lets people take photos of documents and have them read out loud. It can also connect with a braille display. There is a free trial, but after the trial ends, it will need to be purchased.
  • Nearby Explorer (iOS): This is a GPS app that more clearly describes surroundings. It has a map and can give directions, but it can also read out street signs and places that are nearby.
  • Seeing AI (iOS): Seeing AI is a Microsoft app that helps describe objects and surroundings. It can read text out loud, recognize peoples’ faces, describe scenes, recognize money, and describe photos, plus more.
  • TapTapSee (Android & iOS): This app is another intended to describe objects. After taking a photo, a description of what’s in the photo will be spoken out loud (using TalkBack or VoiceOver, depending on your device).
  • Voice Dream Reader (Android & iOS): This app is a customizable way to have documents, books, and other content read out loud. It can read from many different sources, including ebooks and PDFs, and people can choose from different voices, speeds, and more.

Smart devices

Smart devices are a great way for people with visual impairment to perform daily tasks more easily. Smart speakers have many helpful features built right in, and there are even more skills (or services) that can be added. And other smart devices, like smart bulbs and smart thermostats, can also be controlled easily. Here’s a rundown of some of the options in the world of smart devices!

Smart speakers

There are many different smart speakers on the market today. The options just keep growing. Smart speakers are convenient for anyone with an internet connection, but they can be especially helpful for someone with visual impairment. Four of the most popular choices are as follows:

  • Amazon Echo (and Echo Dot)—Amazon’s smart speakers are wildly popular. They use the voice assistant Alexa. They can perform all of the basic functions you would expect, like get the weather, find answers to your questions, and read you the news.
    You can also enable many other skills, as the skills store is fairly expansive. You can customize your news (your daily briefing) by enabling skills from other news sources. You can also find skills for many smart device companies, like WeMo and Nest. And there are plenty of other useful skills, as well as skills for entertainment and fun.
    The original Echo is a larger (and more expensive) device. The Echo Dot is a smaller, more inexpensive option. The only real difference of note is that the Echo Dot’s speaker is not as nice as the original Echo. If you want better sound quality (for music purposes), the Echo performs better than the Dot. Otherwise, though, the Dot is a great choice for a smart speaker, and it can even be connected to a different speaker if you really want better sound quality.
  • Google Home (and Home Mini)—Google’s smart speakers are also strong contenders. These devices use Google Assistant, which can also be found on many phones. It can do everything you’d expect, like provide the news, weather, and answers to whatever questions you have.
    There are also many third-party services that come with the Home or Home Mini. There are services for smart device companies, like Nest and Philips Hue. You can also hail a ride with Uber and order a pizza from Domino’s. There are also plenty of games and other entertainment options.
    Like the Echo and Echo Dot, the Home and Home Mini differ in size and shape. The Home is larger than the Home Mini, and it’s closer to a tube-shape, while the Mini is a small, slightly flat circle. Also like the Echo devices, the larger and more expensive device has better sound quality than the smaller cheaper option. You can connect the Home Mini with Chromecast, so if you want better sound quality for music, that’s a possibility. One thing both speakers do have in common is the ability to recognize different voices and perform tasks based on who’s requesting them. This is a very helpful feature if multiple people will regularly use the device.

These four smart speakers are definitely not the only ones out there. For a much more comprehensive look at available smart speakers, take a look at my article from February!

Household smart devices

There are many smart devices out there that can make daily tasks easier. Here are just a few things you can buy that will allow you to control them with an app or with your voice:

  • Door locks
  • Fridges
  • Lights
  • Security systems
  • Thermostats
  • TVs
  • Wall plugs
  • Washers and dryers

Using any of these devices, someone with visual impairment can likely use their smart speaker to control the device with their voice. If they can’t pair the device with their smart speaker, they can at least control the device with just their phone. This can make things incredibly convenient. Instead of getting up and going to the thermostat, someone can change the temperature with just their voice. For some product suggestions, see my article on the Internet of Things!

As a whole, smart devices can make life much easier for people with visual impairment. There are more new products coming out on a regular basis, and they keep getting better. With a smart speaker, someone can have books read out loud or get the bus schedule. With other smart devices, someone can control their home with their voice or an app. This tech is great for people with visual impairment.

What’s New with Alexa (Including That Creepy Laugh)

What’s New with Alexa (Including That Creepy Laugh)

You’ve likely seen Alexa in the news quite a bit lately, with people reporting that Alexa is just plain creeping them out. Amazon’s smart assistant has been laughing at people randomly, which is of course very strange (and has caused some to wonder if Alexa is becoming sentient).

No worries, though―Amazon has a good explanation for Alexa’s random bursts of laughter. And on top of that strange news, Alexa has also been improved recently for other reasons (aside from trying to keep her from terrifying people in their homes). Here’s an update on what you need to know about Alexa this week.

Amazon explains Alexa’s creepy laughter

As you may have already heard, Alexa has been freaking people out by laughing at random. Amazon has now responded and described their fix. The Verge has reported that Amazon is aware of the problem and working on a way to fix it. Amazon plans to change the way that Alexa is commanded to laugh. Alexa will now be asked if she can laugh instead of being told to. The point of this change is to make it less likely for Alexa to accidentally think she’s been told to laugh, which is seemingly what has been causing her odd laughter.

Alexa’s random laughter has been a hot topic for days, with even Jimmy Kimmel getting in on it and poking fun on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Alexa can now understand your music requests better

Alexa will now be able to play your music by responding to more casual and natural prompts. According to The Verge, you’ll now be able to ask Alexa to play music based on things you’ve listened to in the past. For instance, you can ask to hear music you listened to at a certain point in the past, like if you played a certain playlist a month ago. These prompts only work with Amazon Music, not with other services like Spotify or Pandora.

Alexa Skills Kit sound library now available for developers

Skills developers now have an added tool for creating their skills: the Alexa Skills Kit sound library. Amazon announced in a blog post that the sound library was now available. They note that there are hundreds of sounds available to incorporate into a skill. The blog post also describes how to go about adding these sounds from their 14 different categories.

Alexa Now Works with More Apps on Fire TV

Alexa Now Works with More Apps on Fire TV

Who needs remotes anymore? Now it’s getting easier and easier to control your TV-watching experience with just your voice. Most notably, you can now use Alexa to control more of your video apps on Fire TV!

Fire TV is offered by Amazon and gives TV watchers a way to stream videos through a number of different apps. The Fire TV Amazon page shows apps like Hulu, Netflix, and Sling TV. And Alexa, of course, is Amazon’s smart assistant found on devices like the Echo and Echo Dot. Give Alexa a command and you can complete hands-free tasks.

Alexa was already able to handle some TV controls with Fire TV—specifically, playing videos from the Amazon Prime Video app. You could also control Netflix and HBO Now with your Echo, as well. Users could pair their Echo with their Fire TV and control their videos with their voice.

The newest update expands Alexa’s ability to control video apps. According to the news release, you can now control “Bravo, CBS, Hulu, NBC, SHOWTIME, and Sony PlayStation Vue” with voice commands. For instance, you can ask Alexa to open any of those apps, or you can ask Alexa to play a certain episode from one of those apps. Of course, you also need to make sure you have the most recent update of each of these apps in order for them to work properly with your Echo.

This means that Fire TV’s video apps now work with a pretty decent number of apps, particularly compared to a device like Google Home. Google Home can control some video playback on Chromecast, but it only works with seven “partners” according to their page on Google Home Help. Hulu is not mentioned on their list, and it does not include some other video apps that Alexa can now control, though Google Home’s voice control does work with some video apps that Alexa doesn’t (like Crackle).

If you lose remotes often, don’t like having to rely on a device, or just don’t like having to move more than necessary, this new update will be great. It’s also a good sign, because it could suggest even more voice control options in the future! For more information on Fire TV, check out the Fire TV page.

Tech Spotlight

Tech Spotlight

Each week, I’m naming at least 3 tech products you can find on Amazon and that are worth checking out for yourself. You surely already know you can find a lot of cool different products on Amazon, but sometimes there is just so much that it’s nice to have some specific items pointed out. If you have Amazon Prime, prepare to make good use of your free two-day shipping!

Amazon Echo Dot

You’ve likely heard about the Amazon Echo and its personal assistant, Alexa. The original Echo is a taller device with a really nice speaker. The Echo Dot has the same awesome capabilities as the Echo, but it’s just smaller and has a less impressive speaker. With the Echo Dot, it is assumed you will probably connected it to a nicer sound system, though I should note that the Echo Dot’s speaker is certainly a decent one—it just isn’t as amazing as its taller sibling device. It’s also much cheaper, which is a huge selling point. You can use the Echo Dot to do tons of cool things with just your voice. You can set calendar events, add to a shopping list, ask Alexa questions, check the weather, and much more. You can enable a wide variety of skills to do things like play games, check your credit card statement, or play meditation sounds. The Echo Dot can do a whole lot for such an affordable price. If you don’t mind having a slightly less wonderful speaker than the Echo has, the Echo Dot is a highly recommended smart device.

View the Amazon Echo Dot

Tile Mate & Slim Combo Pack

Do you lose your things? Do you find yourself rushing around to find your keys, or your phone, or your wallet, or—well—any of your possessions? Tile is a great way to take care of this pesky problem. This particular Amazon product has four Tile devices; two of them are the Tile Mate, and two are the Tile Slim. The Tile Mate is a small device that can attach to anything—your purse, your keychain, whatever you want to keep track of. The Tile Slim is a slightly larger but still very thin and small device that you can place in things, like in your wallet, backpack, or whatever else you’re worried about losing track of. If you lose something that has a Tile in or on it, you can use your phone to make the Tile ring, and you can also see where Tile last recorded the item being. Tile devices are only supposed to need charging about once a year, so you don’t have to worry about them dying. It also has a convenient feature that helps you find your phone—you can use your Tile device you make your phone ring if you’ve lost it. If you or someone you know habitually loses things, or if you have very important items that you want to keep careful track of, Tile is a good choice.

View the Tile Mate & Slim Combo Pack

Sphero 2.0

Sphero 2.0 is called an “App-Controlled Robot Ball,” and it is exactly that. Sphero is a ball that you can use a device to control it and make it do all sorts of interesting things. It can move very quickly, and it can keep working for more than an hour before it needs to be charged again. You can make obstacle courses (Sphero comes with two ramps), program a course into your phone and watch the Sphero follow the course, and even install games on it. These games are twists on well-known table-top games—their product description mentions “Pass the Sphero,” which is like Hot Potato, and it mentions there are more than 30 apps you can get for it. It has a number of augmented reality games, as well. It’s also meant to be educational, as it’s able to teach about a number of subjects. You might not think you need a robot ball, but Sphero 2.0 is able to do quite a bit and is an interesting spin on the bots people usually think of.

View the Sphero 2.0

9 Alexa Skills You Should Enable

9 Alexa Skills You Should Enable

If you have an Echo, Echo Dot, Kindle, Echo Show, or any other Alexa-capable device, you probably already know that there are a lot of different ways you can take advantage of Alexa’s capabilities. With products like the Echo Dot making Alexa more and more easily available, and with the recent rumors about the upcoming Fire TV devices, it’s a good time to look into some of the fun, interesting, and downright useful skills that can be enabled on your Alexa devices. Alexa can answer some basic questions and say (or sing) a lot of funny things, but these skills will make you even more happy to have Alexa as your friend.

Bird Song

Bird Song lets you ask to hear certain birds, ask for a random bird, and ask to play a game to identify bird songs. Bird Song currently has 4.7 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.

Curiosity

Curiosity offers interesting pieces of information on many different subjects. Asking Alexa to “open Curiosity” prompts the skill to offer two random categories you can choose from. After you answer, Curiosity will tell you something interesting about that subject. Curiosity currently has 4 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.

Ingredient Sub

Ingredient Sub helps people in the kitchen by providing helpful tips for ingredient replacements. If you get halfway through a recipe and suddenly realize you’re out of eggs, you can ask Ingredient Sub, “What can I substitute for eggs?” Ingredient Sub will list options you can choose from. Ingredient Sub currently has 3.7 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.

Jeopardy!

Jeopardy! is just what one might expect, and it’s a lot of fun. Every weekday, the Jeopardy! skill provides an extra clue from each of the day’s different categories. The skill is complete with the sounds you know from watching the show. The skill lets you know how you did that day, and it also tells you how you’ve fared over the week. Jeopardy! currently has 3.4 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.

Meditation Timer

Meditation Timer offers three different soothing sounds that are helpful for meditation. After you open the skill, you can tell Meditation Timer how long you would like to meditate. A gong will sound, and one of the three sounds will begin to play. If you want to switch to a different sound, you can say, “Play next.” The three available sounds are forest, rain, and surf. Meditation Timer currently has 4.1 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.

NASA Mars

NASA Mars gives you a chance to find out what’s going on with Mars and listen to rover updates. You can ask general questions about Mars, and you can ask what the rover is currently up to. NASA Mars currently has 4.4 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.

Radio Mystery Theater

Radio Mystery Theater is one of many skills created by Appbly.com. This particular skill lets you listen to CBS Radio Mystery Theater dramas from back in the day. There are many episodes to choose from, so you’ll have plenty of entertainment. (You might also check out other similar skills like Radio Dimension X and Radio Suspense.) Radio Mystery Theater currently has 4.2 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.

Weather Sky

Weather Sky is a great way to get more out of your weather reports. Weather Sky can give you a very detailed report for your current location or any other location in the US. You can also ask for past and future weather information, and a fun little addition is the ability to “change the weather” by asking for weather like rain or wind (unfortunately, it does not yet have the capability to actually change the weather, just play some sounds, but I can only assume the technology will get there someday). Weather Sky currently has 3.8 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.

Yes Sire

Yes Sire is an intriguing and fun adventure game you can play just by enabling the skill. You play as a medieval lord who is given a series of questions that determine your success throughout the game. You have to think carefully about your choices when presented with different scenarios. If you are careful in your strategy, you will do well, but if you aren’t paying close enough attention, you won’t last long in the game. Yes Sire currently has 4.9 out of 5 stars in the Alexa App.

…and much more

There are also plenty of specific skills run by different companies that let you do things like check your credit card balance (skills like Amex and Capital One, among others), call a ride (Lyft and Uber), and order food (like Domino’s or Starbucks Reorder). You can also often find your own local news station available to add to your news briefing. Whatever your interests, there’s a growing number of skills available.

Internet 101: The Internet of Things

Internet 101: The Internet of Things

By now you may have heard someone talking about the Internet of Things (or IoT). This term has been popping up more and more in recent years, becoming part of many peoples’ everyday vocabulary. But for many people, the name has appeared so suddenly that it’s caused some puzzled looks. What is the IoT, and how can you start taking part in the phenomena…or are you already?

What is the Internet of Things?

The Internet of Things refers to the smart products that connect to the internet or to each other. You bring the Internet of Things into your home when you buy certain smart products. For instance, your version of the IoT might come from your smart fridge and your Amazon Echo. These smart products use the internet to complete their services. Because of the internet connectivity, smart products that are part of the Internet of Things are able to offer more highly technological solutions to older, less advanced household items.

What are the privacy concerns?

There is an ongoing and lively debate about the Internet of Things, and it mostly centers on privacy. Many people feel perfectly safe using smart products that connect to the internet, stating that the manufacturers can’t use these products to gather or use their data in unwanted ways. Others argue that, terms or service or not, the internet of things can be used to compile data on individuals and be used in negative ways. Some also worry about government reach and whether their data or recordings could be compiled by government agencies. There are some cases of the government attempting to seize data in instances of criminal cases, like when Amazon was pressured to turn over recordings captured by a murder suspect’s Echo device. (After Amazon held out, the suspect eventually allowed Amazon to turn over the data.) But opinions still differ on how big of a concern privacy is with internet-connected devices. How private and protected your data will be is difficult to fully know, though the Terms of Service (TOS) for each device you connect might give you a better idea of what to expect. Whatever you decide, just be sure to read the TOS carefully for each product, making sure your data won’t be passed on or stored by anyone who could misuse it.

What are the pros and cons?

Privacy isn’t the only discussion to be had about the Internet of Things. Here are some other things to consider when deciding whether to jump on board with the IoT:

Pros

  • You have access to new and exciting tech
    Smart devices are everywhere, and there are new and interesting items being added to the Internet of Things on a regular basis. So many different products are becoming part of the IoT that it’s often hard to even keep track of what’s available.
  • You’re given the ability to perform tasks more quickly
    After setting up a device, having internet-connected devices often makes it easier to complete tasks. You can shut off an appliance that’s in the other room while you’re running out the door, for instance, instead of taking the time to go back and flip a switch.
  • You can use hands-free abilities
    Many devices are voice-controlled, like certain remotes and Amazon products, meaning you can often get something done just by using your voice. If you’re a multi-tasker (who isn’t these days?), you could be checking an email with one hand, pouring your coffee with the other, and adding an event to your calendar just with your voice.
  • It’s possible to create a hub for numerous items
    With the Internet of Things, more and more of your home products can be connected with each other, and in some cases, they can even be accessed through the same app. One way you might do this is by having several different light bulbs all able to be controlled in the same app, which makes it possible to turn all your lights off or on at the same time.
  • There’s a growing base of apps and abilities
    Some devices, like the Amazon Echo, include different skills that can be enabled, and these skills are consistently being improved and added to. Other smart products are regularly updated to work more smoothly and add more convenient features. Knowing that people get tired of the same old same old, most companies are working to make their products better and more convenient.

Cons

  • You become dependent on an internet connection
    Devices that are part of the Internet of Things rely on, well, the internet, so capabilities are reduced (or even entirely shut down) during internet outages. It’s already frustrating enough when you’re not able to watch Netflix on your computer during internet down time, so losing the ability to talk to your Echo is like salt in the wound. (Speaking of internet reliability, don’t forget about Easy Internet Now’s reliable, no-contract service!)
  • The price can be a problem
    Some smart devices can be expensive during initial release, which means you may have to wait until prices drop. For instance, some smart appliances can cost over a thousand dollars, when its internet-less counterpart might be only a couple hundred dollars. There are exceptions to this, of course, but price is still a major consideration.
  • The lifespan may not be desirable
    Some smart products may become obsolete more quickly than older products, as the technology continues growing. Like smartphones, devices that are part of the Internet of Things are getting better and better, and some companies will obviously choose to release brand new products that make their former versions less usable over time. Typically (though not always), older devices are updated less often, making the newer (and often more expensive) products more enjoyable to use.
  • Smart products are still in development
    Some items may have fewer options and capabilities at first, since many devices are so new and somewhat experimental. If you opt to purchase smart devices when they’re still brand new, you run the risk of purchasing a product that might end up being less useful than you expected.

What can you get?

Many more products are becoming part of the IoT as the months pass. Here are some types of products you can find, along with one or two products available now (or soon!) in each category:

Of course, this isn’t a comprehensive list, but you can see that there’s a wide range of products that can connect to the internet and expand the Internet of Things. Now that you know what the IoT is, it might be easier to keep an eye on the next new smart device.