Now that Alexa is everywhere, it's time for developers to cash in

Amazon is introducing more than 50 new features for Alexa developers, including a number to monetize their Alexa skills.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer

Alexa is well on its way to pervading all aspects of life -- the AI assistant will follow you through your smart home to your car, into the office, and during your afternoon jog. Even so, Amazon says that building a completely ambient voice assistant is a long-term project that requires contributions from a large ecosystem of developers. 

"We believe that through the work of our developers and device makers, we're building something that fundamentally changes the way people interact with technology," Nedim Fresko, Amazon's VP of Alexa Devices and Developer Technologies, said to ZDNet.

To that end, the technology giant on Wednesday is rolling out dozens of new features for developers to help them create more engaging and ambient Alexa skills. A number of those features encourage the developer ecosystem to grow by allowing builders to monetize their Alexa skills. 

"We're seeing early and encouraging signs of developers actually making money with skills," Fresko said. "We've seen some developers make more than $1 million a year."

There are currently more than 900,000 registered Alexa developers -- around 100,000 of them joined in the past year. Collectively, the Alexa developer and device maker community has generated billions of dollars with the AI assistant's help, Amazon said. Developer revenue from in-skill purchasing has more than doubled year-over-year.

Developers have built more than 130,000 skills for the voice assistant, as well as hundreds of "Alexa built-in" products (including PCs, wearables, smart home devices, and cars). There are more than 140,000 smart home products that can be controlled with Alexa. With hundreds of millions of Alexa-enabled devices now in use, customers interact with Alexa billions of times every week.

"Our vision for ambient computing is technology that's always available across modalities," Fresko said. "It's where you need it and doesn't get in the way... And it also adapts to you instead of customers needing to adapt to it. You don't have to learn it -- it's proactive, and it learns from you. And this is technology meeting you where you are."

To advance that vision, Amazon is introducing new features that fall into three categories, Fresko said: Driving business for developers, helping developers build a delightful and ambient experience for customers, and helping developers launch skills more quickly. Some of the new features are listed below:

Driving business growth and revenue

  • Paid Skills: With this new in-skill purchasing format, customers pay a one-time fee, upfront, to access the content in a skill.
  • Expansion of In-Skill Purchasing to India and Canada
  • Alexa Shopping Actions: Shopping Actions (like Add to Cart or Buy) enable skill developers to sell products from Amazon.com within their skill. For instance, the role-playing game Starfinder will enable customers to buy their table-top board game.
  • Amazon Associates on Alexa: Developers can now earn a commission for qualifying product referrals within their skills.
  • Featured Skill Cards: The Echo Show home screen already shows customers things like news, recipes, photos, and more. Now, developers will be able to use Featured Skill Cards to promote their skills in the home screen rotation. Developers can apply now to participate in the Developer Preview.
  • Updates to the Name Free Interaction (NFI) Toolkit making it easier for customers to find and open skills without having to remember and say the skill's name. Among other updates, Amazon is extending NFI to support contextual discovery of skills through multi-skill experiences. Customers can use natural phrases to accomplish tasks with multiple skills.
  • Food Skill API: The new Food Skill API will enable restaurants to quickly create high-quality, food delivery and pickup experiences.
  • Extending replenishment with Alexa, from items like batteries and laundry detergent to replacement parts. Developers will be able to earn recurring revenue every time these replacement parts are ordered via Alexa. Brands like Carrier and Resideo are enabling their thermostats to replenish Air Filters, while Bissell is doing the same for robot vacuum cleaners.

A better user experience

  • Interactive Media Skill Components: These components will shorten the time it takes for radio, podcast, and music providers to launch interactive experiences on Alexa. With the Song Request Skill Component, radio DJs can take song requests and dedications from listeners via Alexa. iHeartRadio will support this feature.
  • Multiplayer Games on Alexa: Developers will be able to use the Shared Activities API to build asynchronous multiplayer challenges to make sharing games with friends possible.
  • Send to Phone: Customers will be able to start an experience on their Alexa-enabled device and continue it on their mobile device.
  • More Proactive Experiences: Using Event-Based Triggers and Proactive Suggestions, developers can build proactive experiences for customers. For example, if a customer is leaving for work, customers could opt-in to have a skill proactively suggest that they lock their home. 
  • Alexa Guard: Customers in the US will be able to connect to smart safety devices such as smoke, carbon monoxide, and water leak detectors, and Alexa Guard can send a mobile notification if these smart safety devices detect an incident.

Developer productivity and interoperability

  • Alexa Entities: This feature lets developer's skills retrieve information from Alexa's knowledge graph. Developers no longer have to source, acquire or manage their own catalog of general knowledge.
  • Customized Pronunciations: Self-service tool that allows developers to add custom pronunciation for rare words to their skill models.
  • Alexa Conversations: Expanding the availability of Alexa Conversations in beta in German, in all English locales, and a developer preview in Japan.
  • International Expansion of AVS and ACK: AVS, the tools for developers to build Alexa built-in devices, will soon be available in over 25 countries, and Amazon is adding support for multiple new languages including Spanish, French, Italian, and Japanese. Amazon is also expanding international availability of the Alexa Connect Kit for smart home devices.
  • Echo Devices Support Matter: Matter is a new interoperability protocol aimed at making it easier for customers to know that their smart home devices will work with all major voice services. Amazon is announcing that they will upgrade Echo family devices to work with Matter. This includes most Echo and Echo Dot devices and all Echo Studio, Echo Flex, Echo Plus, and Echo Show devices.
  • Voice Interoperability Initiative (VII) The VII program is committed to providing customers with choice and flexibility on the assistants that they interact with on a given device. It includes nearly 90 members, including Facebook, Intel, Qualcomm, Sonos, Garmin, and other global brands. Amazon will soon be releasing the Multi-agent Experience (MAX) Toolkit, which provides middleware components for multi-agent integrations.
  • Alexa Custom Assistant Momentum: Alexa Custom Assistant helps brands create their own custom voice assistant built on Alexa technology, with a unique wake word, voice, personality, and capabilities. Amazon previously announced global automaker Stellantis as the launch customer for ACA. Other customers now include Qualcomm, Garmin, and Elektrobit, and Continental.
  • Verizon smart display: Verizon will soon launch a smart display that leverages the ACA technology. Verizon Customers will use Verizon Smart Display to set up their new service and manage their account, including any troubleshooting, giving them more flexibility to oversee their broadband options
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