Amazon gives the Alexa ‘app store’ a makeover, now lets you add new Skills by voice

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It will now be easier to add “Skills” – new functionality by way of voice-activated apps to Amazon’s smart speaker Echo, and its other Alexa-powered devices, Amazon announced this morning. The company has finally given its Skills “app store” a makeover, and is introducing a means of adding new Skills by voice, too.

Amazon’s Echo and other Alexa devices have the potential to be the next big computing platform to follow apps – that is, they’re enabling voice-based computing for the home in a way that consumers seem drawn to.

Through an accompanying Echo app for mobile devices, Echo owners, as well as those who use the virtual assistant Alexa via Amazon’s smaller speakers like Tap and Dot or Fire TV, can add Skills to their device.

These Skills are voice-powered apps that can do things like deliver news briefings, play games with the kids, let you order an Uber or a pizza, start a workout routine, control other smart home devices, and more.

However, this so-called “app store” for Skills so far has been, frankly, rather terrible. It was a just a long list of page after page of Skills in no sensible order, and lacked a powerful search function, recommendations, lists, or other things that consumers now expect to find when browsing an app store.

Today, Amazon is taking a step to rectify that problem. The Skills section – basically, Alexa’s app store – has gotten a huge makeover.

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Now Skills are organized into categories like “Smart Home” and “Lifestyle,” for example, which you can browse with just a tap on the new “Categories” button at the top of the screen. Meanwhile, the Alexa Skills homepage features collections of Skills to enable better discovery of these add-ons, with groups like “Make your home smarter,” “Get entertained,” as well as sections that highlight customer favorites and those that are currently trending.

If you’re looking for a particular Skill, the search feature has also been improved. Now, similar to searches on Amazon.com’s retail site, you can sort results by relevance, average customer rating, or, as is apropos to apps, release date.

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In addition, Amazon has rolled out a new feature that lets you add Skills to your Alexa device just by speaking – something that makes sense for the voice-computing platform. To enable a Skill, you just say “Alexa, enable…” followed by the Skill’s name. (For instance, “Alexa, enable NBC News.”)

Amazon says it added two more notable Skills today, too, with the addition of those from Lyft and Honeywell. The former is similar to Uber’s previously launched Skill, as it lets you order a Lyft ride just by speaking.

Today, there are tens of thousands of developers working on Skills for Alexa, which has grown to offer over 1,400 of these “app-less” add-ons. According to a statement made by Steve Rabuchin, Vice President, Amazon Alexa, in announcing the changes, the Skills section grew by 50 percent in just over a month.

Smart home Skills are among the more popular, having grown 5 times since January 2016. At that time, Alexa’s app store only had just over 130 Skills available. Going from 130 to over 1,400 Skills in less than a year is significant growth for this new ecosystem, especially considering Alexa only opened to developers a year ago.

To date, customers made over 3 million requests from the top 10 most popular Skills, which include  Jeopardy!, Daily Affirmation, Magic 8 Ball, Fitbit, and The Bartender. It has also invested in 16 startups through its Alexa Fund, and will expand this over the next year to include investments in startups that focus on robotics, developer tools, healthcare, accessibility and other areas, the company says.