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Amazon's Alexa Now Lets Users Turn On New Skills By Voice Command

Saying commands like "Alexa, enable Jeopardy" or "Alexa, enable Skyscanner" is enough. Before, users had to do it in the app.

[Images: courtesy of Amazon]

Amazon has taken the natural step of allowing users to load up new "skills" in its personal assistant Alexa, via a voice command.

Users can say, for example, "Alexa, enable NBC News" or "Alexa, enable 7-minute workout" and access those integrated services instantly, Amazon says.

Before, users had to set up new skills using the Alexa app. But since Alexa is used to respond to immediate needs, users are often unwilling to stop what they're doing, grab their phone, and locate and enable a new skill in the app.

Honeywell and Lyft both added new skills today, the companies said. To load up the Lyft skill for first use, users can say "Alexa, ask Lyft." They can then tell Alexa to request rides, find out a driver's ETA, or tip a driver.

Amazon says the addition of new third-party skills has ramped up considerably over the past couple of months. Alexa knew only 735 skills by the end of May; she now knows more than 1,400. So many skills of all kinds have been added, Amazon says, that it's had to start organizing them in categories in the Alexa app.

Alexa users have made more than 3 million task requests using the top 10 most popular skills, Amazon says. The company isn't revealing all the names in the top 10, but told Fast Company that Fitbit, Daily Affirmation, and Jeopardy are among them.

The first product to contain the Alexa brain was Amazon's own Echo, a purpose-built voice-controlled home assistant device. It was a surprise hit, and Google, at least, has now announced a similar product called Google Home. Alexa's success may mean that consumers prefer requesting some simple tasks by voice to requesting them by tapping on an app running on a smartphone.

Part of what makes Alexa such a promising personal assistant is its device independence and openness. Amazon started letting developers build skills for Alexa a year ago this month. It was also roughly a year ago that Amazon, in a stroke of genius, began allowing device makers to build the Alexa voice-based personal assistant into their own products. The company says "tens of thousands" of developers are now developing new skills and building Alexa into their hardware.

Because of its sensitive hearing and comprehension, Alexa is also a formidable platform for controlling smart-home devices like light switches, door locks, and simple security devices. Amazon says its connected home partners have been busily creating new skills, and that there are now five times as many home control skills than existed at the beginning of the year.

It's not clear how many people are now using Alexa-based devices. One report said Amazon has sold 3 million Echoes since the launch of the product in late 2014. That's not exactly a runaway hit, but the home assistant category is still moving from early adopters to mainstream users. One of the ways Amazon can accelerate that move is by making Alexa the go-to assistant for more types of everyday tasks. Adding the ability to load new skills by voice command will surely help.

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