Throughout the 20th century, visions of the future imagined living rooms with huge screens used for video calls and smart homes that could listen and respond to all our requests using voice. Somewhere around 2005 it became clear that Skype had quietly made easy video calling a reality and now Amazon's Alexa, with little fanfare, is doing the same for home voice assistants.
It's been over a year since Amazon made Echo, a Bluetooth speaker with its Alexa voice-controlled assistant on board, available to all consumers and launched a kit for developers to give it new capabilities (which Amazon calls "skills), like calling an Uber or reading your Twitter timeline. This week, Amazon claimed there are currently tens of thousands of developers building new skills for Alexa's library of abilities, which boasts about 1,400 skills as of June 28 – according to Amazon, that's 50 percent more than just a month ago.
Among the most popular skills are some surprisingly random uses, like Jeopardy!, which lets you start and play a game – giving answers in the form of a question, of course –, Daily Affirmation, which gives you a positive thought for the day, and The Bartender, which provides instructions on how to mix your cocktail of choice. Amazon says users have made over three million requests using the top 10 most popular Alexa skills.
The skill library has grown large enough that Amazon has finally seen fit to improve its unwieldy interface. Until this week users were forced to browse through dozens of pages of unorganized skills or attempt to search for keywords.
Amazon announced it is finally beginning to organize those skills into categories like "Smart home." Perhaps most appropriately, it also introduced one more new skill – the ability to enable a new skill by simply asking Alexa to do so rather than having to manually use the companion app.
It's become clear that Alexa's diverse and growing library of skills is what sets it apart from the likes of Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana or Google Now.
Over the past year, Amazon also launched more affordable and portable Alexa devices in the Echo Dot and Amazon Tap, respectively, and the platform has seen critical acclaim and building momentum. As we noted in our review of the Tap, Alexa has quickly become one of the most useful voice assistants around and it still has plenty of room to grow.
Arguably the most significant sign of Alexa's success came earlier this year, when Google introduced its own competitor, Google Home.
To further extend Alexa's reach, Amazon even started an Alexa Fund last year, which has so far invested in 16 startups working on smart home and wearable devices. The Fund also gives some indication of where Alexa is headed next. This week Amazon revealed it plans to invest in startups working in robotics, healthcare and accessibility, among other areas.