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.

Google News Roundup

Google News Roundup

As is often the case, Google appeared in the news quite a few times over the past week. Google has a wide range of services and products they’re regularly improving and changing, so there’s always plenty to talk about.

This past week, Google made some helpful changes to Google Duo and Google Home, while they also added a really cool feature for those interested in historical photos. Take a look at just a few of the things that put Google in the news recently.

Now you can leave video messages on Google Duo

Users of Google Duo will now be able to leave video voicemail messages for the people they call. Google Duo is Google’s video calling app. Now, according to The Verge, a feature is being rolled out that allows for video messages. If someone decides not to answer or isn’t available, a video message (up to 30 seconds long) can be left. The video messages can be downloaded—otherwise they’ll automatically be removed once a day has passed.

The Verge is reporting that this feature is already rolling out and will be released for everyone very soon.

Free calling now available on Google Home in the UK

Google Home users in the UK will now be able to make free calls. CNET is reporting that the feature is now available in the United Kingdom. This feature was already available in the US, and is now available in the US, UK, and Canada.

Making calls through Google Home uses wi-fi, so you don’t have to worry about the service on your phone (or even having your phone by you).

Google makes Life photos searchable

Images from Life magazine are now searchable thanks to Google. Google Arts & Culture now has a database that has gathered Life magazine images and made it possible to search using keywords. According to CNET, this was made possible by object detection that properly cataloged the photos. The database, which can be found on the Google Arts & Culture website, has millions of photos available for viewing.

The Battle of the Smart Speakers

The Battle of the Smart Speakers

Over the past few years, you’ve likely heard more and more about smart assistants and smart speakers. Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot have been particularly heavily advertised. This is no surprise, since the Echo is what really launched this current boom of smart speakers.

You might be thinking the Echo is the only real contender in the smart speaker race. If that’s the case, you might be surprised to learn there are actually quite a few smart speakers on the market. If you’re interested in buying your own smart assistant-enabled speaker, keep reading for the info you need to narrow down your options.

What I mean by ‘smart speaker’

You might be wondering what a smart speaker actually is. Technically, there are many different kinds of speakers that could be considered smart speakers. There are plenty of speakers out there that do more than the typical old-school speaker.

However, when I talk about smart speakers in this article, I’m referring to a specific type of smart speaker. This is a speaker that has a built-in virtual assistant. These smart speakers can usually be controlled by voice and by app. You can ask them questions, have them perform virtual tasks, and of course, play music through them.

Who are the smart assistants?

Smart speakers come with smart assistants (or virtual assistants) ready to respond to your requests. Here are the smart assistants I’ll mention again later in this article:

  • Alexa—This assistant comes from Amazon. Alexa comes ready to do all sorts of things, including answer questions, make jokes, play music, give a weather forecast, make calls, and more. She can then be personalized by enabling additional skills that let her do a wide variety of other things.
  • Cortana—Microsoft developed this assistant. You might have heard Cortana on your Windows 10 computer or a Windows phone. Cortana can do all the basic things like answer questions (using Bing search results), create reminders, and give the current weather. She also now has third-party skills available to expand her capabilities.
  • Google Assistant—Naturally, Google offers this assistant. You can access Google Assistant through many different devices, including quite a few Google and Android phones. The Assistant can answer questions, create alarms, make purchases, change settings, and more. You can also enable third-party apps that expand your Assistant’s possibilities.
  • Siri—You likely already knew the name of Apple’s smart assistant. Siri has been available for quite some time through devices like the iPhone. Siri can do all the basics, like answer questions, set reminders, change settings, and more. She can also send messages and make calls. You can also enable some apps to work with Siri.

What options are there?

There are a few main smart speakers that are typically considered the frontrunners—the best of the best. However, some others are coming up against the competition to give consumers more options.

This is not a full, completely definitive list of smart speakers. But the 9 smart speakers listed below are some of the most popular, recent, and talked about options. Keep in mind there are many more features available on each speaker, not just the handful I mention!

Amazon Echo

Ratings: 8.1/10 CNET, 4.5/5 PC Mag
What it is: A smart speaker with Alexa—from the people who created Alexa.
Some key features:

  • Built in Alexa, a well-received and popular assistant
  • Good sound quality from the 2.5” woofer & 0.6” tweeter with Dolby
  • 7 microphones that help the Echo hear and understand from a distance and in noisy places
  • Multiple wake words to choose from (“Alexa,” “Computer,” or “Echo”)
  • Style options, with 6 colors to pick from
  • Connects to Bluetooth and has an audio output
  • 4 buttons on top: action, volume up, volume down, microphone off
  • Also works through the Alexa app (for Android & iOS)

Price: $99.99

Amazon Echo Dot

Ratings: 9.5/10 CNET, 4/5 PC Mag
What it is: The smaller version of Amazon’s Alexa-enabled smart speaker.
Some key features:

  • Built in Alexa, a well-received and popular assistant
  • Small and easy to place anywhere without taking up much space
  • 7 microphones that help the Echo hear and understand from a distance and in noisy places
  • Multiple wake words to choose from (“Alexa,” “Computer,” or “Echo”)
  • Connects to Bluetooth and has an audio output, so you can improve sound quality by connecting to another Bluetooth speaker
  • 4 buttons on top: action, volume up, volume down, microphone off
  • Also works through the Alexa app (for Android & iOS)

Price: $49.99

Apple HomePod

Ratings: 8/10 CNET, 3.5/5 PC Mag
What it is: Apple’s smart speaker with their popular voice assistant Siri integrated. This smart speaker is set up by using an iOS device like an iPhone or iPad.
Some key features:

  • Built in Siri, Apple’s well-known smart assistant
  • Good sound quality from its high-excursion woofer and 7 tweeters
  • Visually stylish, with a mesh exterior
  • Intelligent sound, with the ability to hear from across a room and through noises, as well as change its sound based on where you are at the time
  • 6 available controls on top of the device: play/pause, next track, previous track, volume up, volume down, Siri

Price: $349

Google Home

Ratings: 8.3/10 CNET, 3.5/5 PC Mag
What it is: Google’s smart speaker with their Google Assistant built in.
Some key features:

  • Built in Google Assistant
  • Connects with Chromecast
  • Uses Voice Match to recognize who’s speaking and perform tasks appropriately
  • Works like a Bluetooth speaker, so you can connect other devices
  • Multi-colored lights on top indicate what the Home is doing
  • Responds to touch: mute, wake the Assistant, play/pause, change volume

Price: $99

Google Home Mini

Ratings: 8.2/10 CNET, 3.5/5 PC Mag
What it is: The smaller version of Google’s smart speaker with Google Assistant.
Some key features:

  • Built in Google Assistant
  • Style options, with 3 different colors
  • Small and easy to place anywhere
  • Connects with Chromecast
  • Uses Voice Match to recognize who’s speaking and perform tasks appropriately
  • Works like a Bluetooth speaker, so you can connect other devices
  • Dots on top indicate what the Home Mini is doing
  • Responds to taps: change volume, start/stop, mute

Price: $39

Harman Kardon Invoke

Ratings: 7.3/10 CNET, 2/5 PC Mag
What it is: The first smart speaker with Microsoft’s Cortana built in.
Some key features:

  • Built in Cortana
  • 360° sound from its 3 woofers, 3 tweeters, and 2 passive radiators
  • Connected Skype for voice calling
  • 7 microphones and multiple technologies to hear commands from all directions and in noisy environments
  • Touchpad on top for touch controls
  • Lights indicate when Cortana is responding

Price: $99.95

JBL Link 20

Ratings: 8.2/10 CNET, 4/5 PC Mag
What it is: A Google Assistant-enabled smart speaker from speaker and electronics company JBL.
Some key features:

  • Built in Google Assistant
  • Recognizes commands from across the room with its far-field voice recognition
  • Connects with Bluetooth so you can play audio from other devices
  • Battery powered and portable—its battery can last up to 10 hours
  • Waterproof and durable
  • Built in Chromecast connection so you can cast to the Link 20

Price: $149.95

Sonos One

Ratings: 8.7/10 CNET, 4/5 PC Mag
What it is: A smart assistant from electronics company Sonos, with Alexa built in (and Google Assistant coming soon).
Some key features:

  • Built in Alexa
  • Wide variety of music services available to connect (including Amazon Music and Pandora)
  • 6 microphones that help the One hear commands from a distance and over noise
  • Built for good sound quality using Class-D amplifiers
  • Touch controls on top: volume up, volume down, skip, mute
  • Moisture resistant
  • LEDs on top to indicate the One’s status

Price: $199 or two for $349

Sony LF-S50G

Ratings: Not available on CNET or PC Mag
What it is: Sony’s smart speaker with built-in Google Assistant.
Some key features:

  • Built in Google Assistant
  • 360° sound and a speaker with a two-stage diffuser & bass reflex duct
  • Bluetooth connectivity so you can listen to music from other devices
  • Responds to touchless gestures—wave to change the volume
  • Volume adjustment that automatically changes volume based on sound in the room
  • Splash-proof
  • Digital clock on the side of the speaker
  • LEDs to display what the speaker is doing

Price: $199.99

Don’t forget…

This article gave some of the basics you need to know when choosing your smart speaker. Take a closer look at the speakers you’re most interested in to see even more about their features!

Google Home Can Do Two Tasks at Once

Google Home Can Do Two Tasks at Once

OK Google—can you multitask? The answer is now yes. Google Home is now able to perform actions based on two commands given right in a row.

Before this update, Google Home users had to make separate requests for each action they wanted completed. (For instance, “OK Google—play [song]” and “OK Google—set volume to [volume level].”) Doing this simply didn’t flow well and seemed like an unnecessary hassle. With the update that was quietly released by Google, asking Google to do multiple things can flow off the tongue a little more easily.

Now users can simply add “and” between their commands and save a little time and effort. For instance, in the example above, you might just say, “OK Google—play [song] and set volume to [volume level].” This can make communicating with your Google Home a little less stilted. As CNET notes, you can only combine two commands at this point, so if you have a complicated request, you’ll still need to make separate requests. However, this update is still an improvement.

This certainly may help Google Home continue gaining on Amazon’s offering, the Echo. To many reviewers, the Echo was often the best choice for a smart speaker (of the many articles on this subject, Wirecutter and Business Insider are both particularly detailed).

However, Google Home was already catching up to the Echo in some ways. For instance, a Forbes article from last Spring noted that Google’s smart speaker was better than the Echo at answering “complex questions.” And the new ability to respond to two requests at once also stands out against the Echo—if you have an Alexa device, you probably already know that Alexa can’t complete multiple tasks in one request.

Of course, the Echo does have the upper hand in many other ways, but it’s still important to note that Google is clearly working hard to advance Google Home and make it more intuitive. With other updates coming in the future, like the upcoming “Routines” feature (as reported by CNET), now might be a good time to think about whether you want to give Google Home a try.