Tech by VICE

Why Developers Are Flocking to Amazon’s Alexa

The Amazon Echo was initially viewed with skepticism, but developers are now embracing its underlying software to do a lot more than merely retrieving the weather forecast.

by David Bixenspan
Aug 18 2016, 3:30pm

Image: Amazon

One of the best things about the internet is the sense of community that exists around your niche interests. Hobbies and fandoms are uniting forces, bringing together people from across the world who wouldn't have otherwise known each other. One community that's thriving is the one that's building up around the Amazon Echo and other products that use the technology and shopping giant's Alexa digital assistant. Similar to Hound (which calls its various functions "domains,"), development of skills for the Echo's digital assistant, Alexa, is fully open with a public API.

"As you can imagine, a lot of the skills introduced by our Champions came from something that they personally thought would be a fun or valuable addition to their life," explained David Isbitski, Chief Evangelist, Alexa and Echo at Amazon. "From there, the creative juices began flowing, with some people introducing skills to serve purposes beyond the home."

To spotlight the most creative and outstanding contributors to their ecosystem, Amazon has launched the Alexa Champions program to recognize them. "Each of our Champions stood out in their commitment to helping and educating other community members," Isbitski told Motherboard. "While we were definitely looking for people who were regularly publishing thoughtful, innovative skills, our selection process went beyond that. We looked at developers who have consistently shared their knowledge of Alexa or created tools to help other developers use Alexa Skills Kit or Alexa Voice Service."

For example, there's April Hamilton, an early adopter turned early developer who launched the blog LoveMyEcho. She provides news and tips to both the average user base as well as Alexa Skills developers, and is also one of the top contributors to the Alexa developers forum. Isbitski feels that "she's been a great resource and mentor for so many in the community." Most of the other Champions have given the community an assist with the technological infrastructure of Alexa, with Isbitski explaining that "we looked at developers who have consistently shared their knowledge of Alexa or created tools to help other developers use Alexa Skills Kit or Alexa Voice Service."

On that note, Sam Machin from the UK developed an Alexa emulator to attract more developers who don't have Echos, and has made a habit of trying to adapt Alexa to other devices, like the Raspberry Pi. Amazon adapted his emulator for their own, called Echosim. "It Iives in your browser," explained Isbitski, "so anyone, anywhere can access it and test their Alexa skills. Developers worldwide can use to experience Alexa. Its simplicity makes it easy for anyone to understand what an Alexa-enabled device is and what it does."

The Champions haven't just made it simple to develop skills: They've made it fast, too. "The Alexa Skills Responder was created by Alexa Champion Eric Olson," Isbitski recalled, "and makes developing easy to use skills seamless for developers. ASK Responder allows developers to tweak Alexa voice responses first, without having to write any of the server code pieces." The Alexa community saw this all come together during one of their gatherings. "The co-founder of the Roger [voice messaging] app, Andreas Blixt, came out to an Alexa Workshop at the AWS Pop Up Loft earlier this year and had full Alexa integration working by the end of the workshop."

With the platform being so simple to develop for, working on Alexa skills could be a great first programming project for kids, and the Champions program could serve as motivation for them. "Alexa was designed for anyone to use and we see people with a variety of skill sets getting involved through our open service," Isbitski explained. "Given how easy the Alexa Skill Kit is to navigate, the service really inspires self-education and creativity. You have a fun idea for a new skill, you can probably make it happen!"