Publication Date: 5/9/17 – By now you’ve surely heard about the release of the new Amazon Echo Show, which is now available for pre-order and set for release at the end of June. I’ll be doing an FAQ post about that device later, but for today I’ve got some news that’s too big to keep. Alexa hands-free calling: it’s a thing, right now!
**5/14/17 UPDATE – Please see this follow up post, which addresses a serious privacy issue with the new features and explains how to turn off the new Alexa communication features for the time being—or permanently—, if that’s your preference.
Anyone with a cell phone can now call you or leave a voice message or Alexa-recited text message for you on your Echo, Dot, Echo Look or Echo Show**!
Anyone with an Echo, Dot, Echo Look or Echo Show** can now use those devices to call the phone of anyone in their cell phone’s contacts list!
Echo, Dot, Echo Look or Echo Show** owners can now call each other and leave each other voice and text messages on those devices!
And it’s all FREE!
**UPDATE 5/10/17 I’ve heard from a Tap owner who’s done some testing, and he says that when he attempts the new functions on his Tap Alexa says the new functions aren’t supported on that device.
UK Readers: Note that I’m based in the Los Angeles area so while I can attest all of this works in the US, I have no way of knowing about the UK situation. If it’s not there yet, it will get there eventually.
There’s a whole lot of awesome to unpack here, and those with elder care and accessibility concerns will be particularly interested. I know this post is long, but bear with me. There’s quite a lot to cover! I’m using the wake word Alexa throughout this post, but it’s just a placeholder; if you’ve chosen a different wake word for your Alexa device, you can substitute it in any of the voice commands described here.
The Big Picture: It’s All About VoIP
It’s the same kind of Voice over IP (VoIP) functionality that supports Skype and other internet calling services, which is why it’s free.
The calls and messages don’t go over a landline or a cell phone line, they go over your WiFi connection. From there the calls or messages are routed across the internet to the other person’s WiFi connection, and finally to their Alexa device or phone.
What Happens When A Call Or Message Comes In?
When a call comes in, all the Alexa devices on the recipient’s WiFi network will sound a gentle ringtone and all their light rings will spin green to notify the call recipient about the incoming call.**UPDATE 5/10/17 The same same ringtone sounds, and an announcement displays, on the call recipients’ cell phone also, making it possible for the recipient to answer the call on their phone if they prefer.
Alexa will say, “[contact name] would like to talk.” If the recipient doesn’t immediately answer, Alexa will continue spinning the green ring, sounding the tone and will say, “It’s [contact].” To answer, the call recipient can say, “Alexa, answer call,” to the Alexa device that’s closest to them at the moment. “Alexa, hang up,” will immediately disconnect the call. If the recipient doesn’t respond at all, it seems the call will disconnect automatically after three ringtone repeats without any interaction from the user. If the user is attempting to answer the call, but experiencing some kind of difficulty getting Alexa to pick up (e.g., she didn’t hear you properly and is asking you to repeat your request), it will continue to ring so the user can still answer the call.
When a voice or text message comes in, all the Alexa devices on the recipient’s WiFi network will sound a gentle ringtone only once, and all their light rings will spin green to notify the message recipient that there’s a message waiting. The light ring will continue to spin every few seconds as a visual alert until the message recipient says, “Alexa, get my messages.” Alexa will announce each message by sender/contact name. The Alexa device owner can also fetch past messages at any time with the same command; Alexa will warn there are no new messages, then ask if the user wants to hear past messages. A “yes” answer will start the replay.
Note that there may be a bug with contact names. When I call or message my own Alexa device from my own cell phone, “contact” is named by Alexa as “unknown”. This may just be because there’s no provision in place for people calling their own Alexa devices from their own cell phones, I won’t know for certain until I have other people with Alexa devices to call and message.
It All Starts With The Alexa App, And Anyone Can Use The App Now
All of the new functionality requires use of the latest version of the Alexa mobile app, for all parties involved. Originally, only Alexa device owners were able to use the Alexa app because you had to pretty much immediately connect to an Alexa device the first time you launched the app. This is no longer true, Amazon has opened up the app to the general public in both iOS and Android versions.
I can confirm the latest version of the Alexa mobile app is currently available in the Apple App Store and Google Play, but ironically the version on the Amazon site has not yet been updated. If you already have the mobile app installed on your cell and can’t force it to update, uninstall it so you can download a totally fresh copy of the latest version for this.
If you get the latest version from Google Play, just be sure the developer name is listed as “Amazon Mobile LLC” and you see the little blue diamond that signifies ‘top developer’ next to the developer name. There’s an ongoing problem with fake, phishing apps in the Google Play store so you have to be careful you’re getting the genuine article.
Getting Set Up In The App: Required Permissions
When you fire up the app for the first time, you’ll be prompted to login to your Amazon account. Go ahead and do it, this is necessary to connect you to your Alexa devices and/or to the Alexa Voice Service (for those who don’t own Alexa devices).
Next, you’ll see a popup alerting you that Alexa can now help you communicate with family and friends. Tap the button to continue, and you’ll be prompted to confirm your identity:
I believe it was after I tapped my name in the screen shown above and confirmed my name that I was prompted to grant Alexa access to sync my Contacts list to the cloud, but I didn’t get the screenshot and now I can’t go back to make it display again. The important thing to note here is that you must grant this permission in order to allow all the hands-free goodness, because it’s what allows Alexa to look people up in your Contacts list and get in touch with them. Don’t be alarmed by the verbiage indicating your Contacts will periodically sync to the cloud: that’s how your Contacts list will be kept up to date in the Alexa Voice Service.
In the permissions screen, whether you access it from the pop-up I’m not showing here or later on (on your phone, go to App Settings > Alexa app > Permissions to access the screen shown below), you must grant Contacts permission to use the new calling and messaging features at all. You must also enable the Microphone permission if you want to be able to make voice calls or leave voice messages—remember, text messages recited by Alexa on Alexa/Echo devices are part of this package now too, so you can limit yourself to text messaging.
The Camera permission will come into play once Echo Show is “in the wild”, since it will enable you to make video calls from the Alexa mobile app to your contacts’ Echo Show devices.
After permissions are granted, you’ll see the confirmation screen shown below. Note the two highlighted icons: one for Contacts (the little humanoid figure at top) and one for Messaging (the little talk bubble at the bottom). In the new app, the Messaging icon is available at the bottom of the screen in the Alexa app at all times, and when you tap it you will be returned to this screen.
Note that the “Try Saying” section refers to voice commands you can use on your Alexa device.
Tap the Contacts link to access a listing of everyone you’ve contacted via the Alexa Voice Service so far. At first the list will only have your own name, but after you’ve started using the new features and get some other Alexa device owners you know set up to use these features (see next section), it’ll serve as a quick-access list for initiating messages and calls from within the Alexa app.
Select a contact from the list to load the screen below, where you can confirm the contact’s details (I’ve censored my own cell number here) and specify the type of communication you’d like to initiate with that contact.
Remember that messaging and voice call features described here will only work if the contact has set up voice features and necessary permissions in the latest version of the Alexa app (see next section, ‘How To Hook Up Your Friends and Family…’).
The phone icon is for making voice calls to the contact’s Alexa device.
When you tap the Messaging icon (talk bubble), you’ll be taken to the Messaging screen (below). From there, you can tap the microphone icon to send a voice voice message to the contact’s Alexa device, or the keyboard icon to send a text message to the contact’s Alexa device. Voice messages will be recorded and played for the recipient just like a regular voicemail. Text messages will be read by Alexa on the recipient’s device.
Just as with your voice commands, Alexa keeps a history of your recent messages here and allows you to play them back. I don’t know how many messages are saved here, and whether they are automatically archived or deleted at some point. It’s just too early to tell.
How To Hook Up Your Friends & Family, Whether They Own An Alexa Device Or Not
Anyone you want to interact with via these new Alexa features must install the latest version of the Alexa mobile app on their mobile device. If they’re technologically challenged, walk them through it or set it up for them.
Once that’s done, you can call your elderly parent on their Echo or Dot. Your sight-impaired friend can message you from their Alexa device or the Alexa app. Alexa device owners can bypass the cell and call or message one another directly on their Alexa devices. And remember: it’s all FREE.
Rumor has it that inter-Alexa intercom functionality for households with more than one Alexa device is coming next, when the Show is released.
I’ve tried to cover everything here, and if I’ve missed any details I’m sorry. This is all brand new, and Amazon hasn’t even posted its own complete help pages about it yet.
But like I said at the start of this post: it’s a whole lot of awesome!