…play my Google Music library?
…connect to Outlook?
…let me check my email?
…read text messages from my phone, and let me send replies?
…control my home theater set up?
…let me look up recipes, and read them to me?
et cetera, et cetera.
The Echo Is A Platform: Nothing More and Nothing Less
Amazon very wisely designed the Echo to act as a communications hub for other smart home and Internet of Things (IoT) products and services. I say this was a wise decision because this approach puts the onus for developing Echo connectivity/interactivity on the makers of those other products and services: in other words, the people who know their own products, services and customer needs best.
It’s not lost on me that this approach also saves Amazon the time, trouble and expense of staffing a massive development department of its own to do this, but since Amazon couldn’t possibly hope to deliver every piece of connectivity consumers might want in the way that works best for the consumers and outside product/service providers, Amazon’s choice to make the Echo a platform instead of a turnkey, one-stop, out-of-the-box, complete technology solution is what makes the most sense, too.
So you can think of your Echo much like a laptop computer that comes pre-loaded with an operating system, but no other software: the operating system provides certain basic functionality and an environment for running other programs and connecting other hardware, but that’s all.
“Nuh-Uh, I heard Amazon just wants to make sure the Echo will only work with Amazon products and services!”
The reason why the Echo doesn’t do all those things I’ve listed at the top of the post right out of the box isn’t, as some discussion board participants would have you believe, that Amazon wants the Echo to be a closed-off system that only interacts with Amazon tech.
Far from it: Amazon has made the Alexa Skills Kit publicly available to developers for free, and it comes bundled together with numerous help documents and a lot of sample code. Surprisingly, Amazon has even made the firmware contained in the Echo device itself publicly available for free download, too. Better still, Amazon’s Echo engineers have designed the device and software in such a way that developers can use virtually any programming language they wish to build their Echo software.
So if there’s some site, service or device Echo doesn’t talk to or interact with, don’t blame Amazon. Blame the makers of that site, service or device. Amazon has provided all the tools and information needed for anyone who’s interested to write applications (Amazon calls them “Skills”) for the Echo, and more than a few have stepped up.
There’s no reason why Google Music developers can’t create Skills to get their users’ music to play on Echo.
There’s no reason why Microsoft can’t create Skills to let their customers use the Echo to talk to Outlook or their Microsoft phones.
There’s no reason why AllRecipes can’t create a Skill to let their users access recipes via Echo interactions.
Et cetera, et cetera.
For all I know, these examples and more are already in the works. We can’t be sure until the Echo Skills Store launches on Amazon later this year. But in the meantime, please STOP blaming Amazon for everything that Echo doesn’t yet do, or thinking the Echo is barely functional, and START contacting the makers of your favorite products and services to ask THEM to get to work on some Alexa Skills. They really have no excuse not to.
**UPDATE 7/16/15 – In an email response, one Echo developer cautions:
The Alexa Skills interfaces, in their current beta release, do not allow independent Skill developers to receive audio from the Echo’s microphones or to send audio to the Echo’s speakers. Also, it is not possible for independent developers to access a user’s local network through the Echo for direct communication to devices like home control hubs. The large source code archive that Amazon publishes with each new Echo firmware release is related to compliance with open source software licenses like the GPL for Linux and Linux-related code that runs on Echo’s internal ARM processor. The highly important code that runs on Echo’s internal Texas Instruments signal processor is proprietary to Amazon.
Thus there are many, many commonly requested features for Echo that must await developments at Amazon. Support for music streaming services like those from Spotify, Google, Microsoft, or Apple would involve a host of issues, perhaps including the terms of contracts with music publishers, but certainly including the business interests of Amazon.
Amazon, of course, has many practical constraints in developing and exposing new features for Echo that end-users may not fully appreciate. These include the constraints of practical acoustics, of Echo’s current hardware, of available cloud infrastructure, of access to content, of legal liability, of incremental needs for customer support, and of Amazon’s duty to its stockholders to create a solvent business.
Likely competitors have been caught a bit flat-footed by Amazon’s Echo-related strong early lead in cloud services for the smart home, and the developers at Amazon must be drinking from a fire hose. One can imagine that a major current internal focus at Amazon involves the internationalization of Echo and Alexa services.
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