Alexa Gets Smarter Every Day, Thanks to You: 2018 Alexa Developer Year in Review

Paul Cutsinger Dec 19, 2018
Connected Devices Alexa Built-in Spotlight

2018 has been a big year for Alexa, and as we look back we are humbled and inspired by what our Alexa developer community has done to make Alexa smarter, more useful, more fun, and more engaging for customers. Our mission is to have Alexa everywhere, and to help you, the developer community, build high-quality Alexa devices and engaging skills for customers.

There are hundreds of thousands of developers and device makers building Alexa experiences, contributing to our growing catalog of more than 70,000 skills in the Alexa Skills Store, and more than 28,000 Alexa-connected smart devices from more than 4,500 brands. Meanwhile, the number of available products with Alexa built-in more than doubled in 2018, and now includes everything from TVs and headphones, to PCs, cars, smart home devices, and more.

Before we look back at all the new tools, features, and programs we released this year to help you create magical voice experiences, let us first offer our “Thanks!” and “Happy Holidays!” to everyone in our worldwide Alexa developer community. Tell us about the great Alexa experiences you've built in 2018 by tweeting @alexadevs. Here are just a few highlights from 2018:

Alexa is Available in More Languages and Locations

Alexa added a few more stamps to the passport this year, and is now available to customers in Australia and New ZealandIrelandIndiaFranceItalySpain, and Mexico. Alexa also learned to speak to customers in French Canadian. Developers are already servicing these new locales by ensuring their skills are available in more languages and more locations, while Alexa built-in products from brands such as Sowee, Boulanger, Hama, Riva, Jabra, TIM, SWG Motorola and Grundig helped introduce Alexa to more customers around the world. If you haven't done so already, you can learn how to localize your Alexa skills.

Alexa is Available on More and More Devices

Alexa is available on an ever-growing number of devices, whether they’re built by Amazon or by device makers building with the using the Alexa Voice Service. A growing selection of Alexa devices for customers means more opportunities for your skills to shine. 

To enable your skills to shine across device types, and specifically on devices with screens, we introduced the Alexa Presentation Language (APL). APL is designed from the ground up for creating voice-first, visual Alexa skills that adapt to different device types. Included in the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), APL gives you flexible tools and resources to translate voice-first experiences to devices with screens. With APL, you can build skills that include text, graphics, slideshows, and video content, and control your user experience by defining where visual elements are placed on-screen. You can tailor experiences according to the unique characteristics of the Alexa device they are being rendered on, and can be targeted to devices with a broad range of memory and processing capabilities. To start building multimodal skills with APL, read our technical documentation and check out the Alexa Design Guide. Alongside the release of APL, we also introduced the Alexa Smart Screen SDK and dev kit, enabling device makers like Lenovo and Sony to create their own screen-based products with Alexa.

Alexa is Available On-the-Go, and Wherever You Go

We're working to make Alexa accessible everywhere you are: around the house, on-the-go, and everywhere in between. Alexa is now available through the Alexa app and products built using the Alexa Mobile Accessory Kit, such as headphones and wearables. And we brought Alexa to the car by releasing the Alexa Auto SDK for automakers and suppliers to embed Alexa directly into the car, and by introducing the all-new Echo Auto.

Alexa is also in the places where you work and travel, with Alexa for Business and Alexa for Hospitality. For device makers, this means more opportunities to build products for businesses and organizations. For skill builders, this means a growing set of engaging customer scenarios you can target, and new tools and APIs that help you build new experiences. With Alexa for Business, employees can use Alexa as their intelligent assistant to be more productive in meeting rooms, at their desks, and even with the Alexa devices they already have at home. Alexa for Hospitality brings the simplicity and convenience of Alexa voice control to hotels, allowing guests to request hotel information, contact the hotel to request services, play music, adjust the thermostat and more.

Alexa is Helping Developers Make Money and Grow Their Voice Businesses

More than ever before, developers are building thriving voice-first businesses with Alexa. In addition to the Alexa Developer Rewards program, Alexa developer promotions, and AWS promotional credits, this year we released new skill monetization opportunities, including Amazon Pay for Alexa skills, and in-skill purchasing (ISP) for premium content within skills. With ISP, you can sell premium content to enrich your Alexa skill experience with one-time purchases for entitlements that unlock access to features or content in your skill, subscriptions that offer access to premium features or content for a period of time, and consumables which can be purchased, depleted and purchased again. After adding in-skill purchasing to two of his most popular game skills, Gal Shenar from Stoked Skills is seeing conversion rates as high as 34%. And Steve Arkonovich added a monthly subscription to unlock personalized, premium features to his popular weather skill, Big Sky, and is seeing 50% of customers opting to purchase the premium experience when offered. To get started, check out our resources on building Alexa skills with ISP.

New Ways to Build Alexa Skills and Devices

It's striking to look back just one year, and consider the expanded range of options you have to build engaging Alexa skills. We completely revamped the ASK Developer Console, with a refreshed user interface and new functionality, making it easier than ever to manage the entire lifecycle of your Alexa skill. We also released new and enhanced software development kits (SDKs) for Node.jsJava, and Python, and the ASK Toolkit for Visual Studio Code (Beta), enabling you to leverage the developer environments and languages you already use. We announced the developer preview of Alexa-hosted skills, a new offering that automatically provisions and manages a set of AWS cloud resources for your skill’s back-end service, enabling you to build, edit, and publish a skill without leaving the ASK Developer Console. We also introduced quick-start template for popular skill samples, and released the Alexa Skill Management API (SMAPI) and ASK Command Line Interface (CLI) to enable faster, more automated skill management.

For device makers, we introduced single-chip solutions from leading chip providers that simplifies the architecture and bill-of-materials (BOM) of products with Alexa Built-in, worked with original design manufacturers (ODMs) to provide an accelerated path for product development with white-box solutions, and qualified systems integrators that offer technology solutions and design services with expertise in building devices using the Alexa Voice Service (AVS).

Now Any Smart Device and Any Feature Can Connect to Alexa

Device makers have already connected more than 28,000 smart devices from more than 4,500 brands to Alexa – a 6x increase since January. This year we introduced new developer tools that make device setup easier for customers and let you extend voice control to any device - from the simplest wall plug to the most complex appliance - and to any feature of your device. New device capability interfaces and APIs are now available for kitchen appliancescontact and motion sensorssecurity systemsdevices in low power moderecorded camera feedsequalizer and sound modesrecording and other video controls, and more. And the new building block device APIs enable you to add voice control to nearly any device and any feature. And Alexa can now be directly built into home hub and gateway devices with newly qualified ODM solutions. We also released new smart device integration options, so you can connect your device control cloud to Alexa with the Smart Home Skill API, use Zigbee to connect locally, or connect directly using the Amazon-managed hardware module and cloud service provided with the Alexa Connect Kit (preview). You can also build your very own Alexa Gadgets – fun and delightful accessories that pair to compatible Echo devices via Bluetooth – using the Alexa Gadgets Toolkit (Beta). And finally, we introduced the new Works with Alexa (WWA) console (beta), which provides a streamlined experience to help you achieve WWA certification for your smart devices, allowing you to join the more than 8,000 WWA-certified smart home devices available to customers today.

New Ways to Engage the Next Generation of Customers

Whether you want to entertain or teach, you can build skills that engage young minds. And in 2018, we also released new devices, tools, and programs to help you reach the next generation of Alexa customers. The Echo Dot Kids Edition was designed with families in mind and kids skills are now available in the UK, GermanyIndiaAustralia, and New Zealand. And kid skills in the UK and Germany are now eligible to earn Alexa Developer Rewards. Learn more with our guide to building stellar kids skills.

New Tools and APIs Enable You to Build Richer Alexa Experiences

To enable richer, more engaging Alexa experiences, this year we released a number of new tools and APIs. For skill developers and device makers, we:

  • Improved skill discoverability tools make it easier for customers to find and engage with your skills. Using CanFulfillIntentRequest, your skill provides information about its ability to fulfill a given customer request, and Alexa combines this information with a machine-learning model to choose the right skill to use when a customer makes a request without an invocation name. As a result, customers find the right skill faster, using the search terms they say most naturally.

  • Made dialog management improvements to enable you to use the built-in Yes/No intents side-by-side with dialog management, additional built-in slot types, and slot validation to create more natural conversations, simplify dialog management, and help save time in your skill development.

  • Introduced real-time location services for Alexa skills, enabling you to request permission to provide customers with real-time responses based on their location. You can also request customer contact information using the Customer Profile API. And the Alexa Settings API allows you to build skills that reference a customer’s preferred time zone and units of measure for distance and temperature.

  • Brought new ways to test and validate example phrases for your Alexa skills, providing in-line, real-time validation feedback.

  • Provided deeper insights into how customers are engaging with your Alexa skill with Intent History and new debugging tools to show you where additional samples might help train your model to resolve utterances to their intended intents and slots, and with interaction path analysis to show you aggregated skill usage patterns in a visual format, including which intents your customers use and in what order.

  • Extended access to 27 different Amazon Polly voices to make your Alexa skills more engaging for customers, enabling you to choose a different voice for any utterance, reduce the time and cost required to hire voice actors, and customize pronunciation. 

  • Introduced the ASK sound library, which provides built-in audio clips that you can add to your Alexa skills, making it easy for you to create an engaging customer experience by adding unique sounds to your skill, including hundreds of sounds from 14 categories including cartoon, home, human, nature, and transportation, and more. 

  • Launched the new Fallback Intent to help you handle unexpected utterances, or when a customer says something that doesn’t map to any intents in your skill.

  • Added skill activation metrics to help you quickly diagnose and correct skill activation errors that might cause customer friction with your skill, and the ability to make account linking optional enabling customers to simply enable your skill and start engaging with the parts of your skill that do not need authentication.

  • Announced the Skill Connections (preview) to enable you to do more for your customers – including printing, and scheduling taxis and restaurants – using functionality provided by other skills.

  • Launched the ProactiveEvents API that enables your Alexa skills to send notifications to customers who have granted permissions. By providing timely, relevant information, you can keep your customers engaged and retain them effectively.

  • Introduced cloud-based Echo Spatial Perception (ESP), providing a frustration-free experience for customers with multiple Alexa devices by automatically identifying which device is closest to the customer, and responding through that device.

  • Provided mechanisms for Alexa Built-in devices to report their device capabilities including support for new interfaces after over-the-air updates by using the Capabilities API.

  • Enhanced device support for voice-based timers, alarms, and reminders using the Alerts interface.

  • Enabled device makers to support Alexa Routines via the Interaction Model interface, so customers can automate a series of actions using a single voice command of their choice. For example, a customer could say, “Alexa, it's bedtime,” to turn off the lights, lock the door, and turn off the TV.

  • Published guidelines for setting up test rooms while performing acoustic product testing and best practices for device security for cloud-connected products with Alexa Built-in.

New Ways to Learn and Earn

The Alexa team participates in a variety of in-person events all over the world and next year we’d love to meet you at one. You can get hands-on instruction and learn to build an Alexa skill at a bootcamp or hackathon, attend a presentation at smart home events, join in the conversation at select conferences, or connect with fellow developers at a local meetup. You can check out the latest Alexa devices from Amazon and other companies at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2019), held from January 8 to 11 in Las Vegas, NV.

Another great opportunity to learn more about Alexa skill development, improve your skills, and enter to win prizes is through the Alexa Skills Challenge. This year we crowned grand prize and bonus category winners in challenges specific to KidsLife HacksTech for Good, and Games. And right now, you can create an Alexa skill using APL and enter the Alexa Skills Challenge: Multimodal. In addition to helping push the boundaries of what's possible with voice and visuals, you can compete for up to $150,000 in prize. And you can earn a new Amazon device just by publishing an APL skill. Eligible skills must be submitted by January 22, 2019.

The Alexa Developer Community Makes Alexa Smarter, Every Day

If you're just getting started with Alexa or want to drive deeper customer engagement with your skill, check out these inspiring stories from Alexa developers around the world. Thank you again, Alexa developer community, for all that you do to make Alexa smarter, every day. We can't wait to see what you build in 2019.