Amazon Alexa’s iOS Expansion (And Beyond)

As of the last official count offered by Amazon in March, Alexa had 30,000 skills. That number is almost certainly quite a bit higher today, the reality is most of those skills are likely going unused.

According to recent The New York Times reporting, Echo users — the consumer group that interacts with Alexa most frequently — are, by and large, only tapping a thin selection of the AI assistant’s myriad skills. Users like their interactions with their voice AIs very much, but recent data from Adobe, eMarketer and Code tells the same story: Customers like using their voice AIs to help them listen to music, check the weather report and manage their calendar. Other uses are less common.

There are some regional variations — about 25 percent of Americans report working with Alexa to complete shopping transactions, whereas less than 10 percent of U.K. consumers report using Alexa for commerce. U.K. voice-assistant owners, on the other hand, ask an unusually large number of questions about how to properly boil an egg.

However skilled Alexa is becoming, users are still hesitant when it comes to leveraging that full skill set. Some experts think that situation is changing, though. Seven years after most consumers met their first voice-activated AI in Siri, the marketplace for voice became a competitive place, according to Paul Erickson, a senior analyst at the research firm IHS Markit, in The Times. That means the time is here for the market to grow in terms of its offering to consumer and grow beyond its traditional speaker-based bounds.

“The more interesting functionality is yet to come,” Erickson said. “Part of that will come as more integration happens this year and next year. This is the first year we’re going to see real advances with the assistants because of competition in the marketplace.”

Those advances have been coming apace all year as Apple, Amazon, Samsung, Microsoft and Google have all sought to enhance and expand their voice offerings in the hopes of being the go-to simulated voice that consumers turn to as they become increasingly acclimated to the emerging ecosystem. And, in the last seven days, Amazon has made great leaps forward as it seeks to become that loudest (and most ubiquitous) voice in a crowded marketplace.

Alexa Finally Makes Her Way To iOS

iPhone users looking for a chance to chat with Alexa from their phone received some long-awaited, good news yesterday (June 26). Following the Android version of the app, Amazon Alexa of iOS now has voice control.

Look out Siri.

Like the Echo version, Alexa for iOS can control smart home devices, pull up the user’s desired playlist, answer trivia questions and enable commerce. It even works in the visual nature of the device it finds itself on: For certain questions like weather forecasts or movie times, Alexa pulls up supplemental on-screen materials for its users.

It is almost the entire “hands-free” experience users have come to know and love on their speaker device, except it’s not quite hands-free, because the Apple device version of Alexa does not come preprogrammed with wake words. Saying “hey Alexa” won’t do much of anything. Instead, users will have to open the Alexa app and manually tap a button to wake Alexa up to get her into question and answer mode. Siri, of course, can still be woken with a simple command.

The move is considered a big leap forward, since — unlike Google, Samsung or Apple — Alexa is the only voice AI with a mobile phone ecosystem to call its own. And though there have been rumors on and off over the last year that Amazon is planning to take another stab at the smartphone business, the rather public flameout of the Fire Phone makes it seem less than likely. Until Amazon takes another pass at the mobile market (if it does at all), experts agree that getting its Alexa app onto as many iOS and Android handsets as possible is the best way to expand that mobile footprint.

If Alexa can prove to be more useful than the oft-complained of Siri, customers might even get over having to tap a button to talk to her.

Alexa As Concierge

Though Amazon’s expansion into the iOS-walled garden has captured a lot of attention, it was Alexa’s second big expansion into new territory last week. Amazon announced that it has partnered with Marriott International to bring Alexa to the company’s hotels to serve as the AI concierge travelers probably didn’t know they needed. The popular voice assistant will help guests with tasks, such as ordering room service or asking for housekeeping, without the need to pick up the phone, Reuters reported.

The partnership will kick off later this summer at select properties in the Marriott catalog. According to various anonymous sources, Marriott experimented with both Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri.

Siri apparently did not make the grade, though Marriott offered no officially comment on the subject when asked by Reuters. Instead, it answered opaquely that the hospitality chain has “great relationships with a number of technology companies and is always open to exploring opportunities to innovate and better the guest experience.”

As of right now, it seems Alexa is offering the best version of that better guest experience.

Voice speakers are growing up quickly — a survey by Voicebot, found that 19.7 percent of adults in the U.S. have access to a smart speaker, up from under 1 percent a mere two years ago. It only took three years for smart speakers to hit close to nearly 50 million users in the U.S. By comparison, televisions took 13 years, the internet took four and Facebook took two.

For all the explosive growth, users are still wading into all the things voice can do, with many feelings about their smart speaker and virtual AI, the way user Justin Hosseininejad reported feeling about his to The Times.

“There’s only certain things I use it for, but I’m happy with it,” he said. “I’m not doing my taxes with it.”

As Alexa and the other voice AIs start wandering away from the smart speakers, most still associate them with and into new contexts like hotel rooms, and new base stations like smartphones and cars. Consumers’ opinions might begin to evolve, much in the way as recent voice-AI convert and Ohio engineer Stephen Melik. He told The Times that, though he initially took a pass on smart speakers, he found interacting with a smart AI on his iPhone and Apple Watch has been genuinely useful.

“I’ve always viewed these smart speakers as a solution searching for a problem,” he said. “But the voice assistants … potentially there are a lot of benefits to it.”