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Amazon outlines plans for Matter, custom Alexa commands at Alexa Live developers conference

Amazon is set to announce partnerships with other manufacturers that would put Alexa in even more products.

Alexa may be coming to more than just Amazon Echo devices, with the Alexa Custom Assistant program, which lets other vendors lease the AI for inclusion in their own products.
Chris Monroe/CNET

Alexa Live, the yearly conference for app developers on Amazon's voice assistant platform, kicks off Wednesday, with more than a few surprises. For one, the Alexa developer community is much more robust than one might expect, with 900,000 developers who've so far built 130,000 Alexa Skills (Amazon's brand name for Alexa apps), some of whom are raking in over $1 million a year through in-app purchases.

Those numbers come from an interview with Nedim Fresko, Amazon's vice president in charge of Alexa, who told me that 140,000 different smart home products interface with Alexa. That leads into two of the other big themes of this year's Alexa Live -- ambient computing and device interoperability.

Amazon's Fresko frames the recent boom in digital voice assistants as another epoch in the history of computing, like the revolutions marked by personal computers, the birth of the internet and the transition to mobile-first. Ambient computing leverages all of those technologies and adds voice commands, like with Amazon Echo smart speakers. 

For example, Alexa's new Send to Phone feature allows you to start an interaction on an Alexa device then continue it on your phone. To do this, Alexa connects directly with the relevant mobile app and sends a push notification, letting you pick up right where you left off with Alexa. 

To further the spread of ambient computing, Amazon announced the Alexa Custom Assistant program earlier this year, which allows other companies to lease the technology behind Alexa to create their own voice assistants, which can answer to either Alexa or a wake word of the vendor's choosing (or both). 

Verizon is among the partners taking advantage of this capability with a device called the Verizon Smart Display, which Amazon announced in a blog post Wednesday. Amazon says the new device is designed to help Verizon broadband customers set up new services and manage their account, and will respond to both "Alexa" and "Hi, Verizon."

But for computing to become truly ambient, smart devices have to communicate with each other. That's one reason why Matter, the smart home interoperability standard expected later this year (formerly Project CHIP), will play a key role at this year's Alexa Live.

Amazon says it plans to integrate Matter compatibility with basically all Amazon Echo devices (with the exception of first-gen speakers) by sending an over-the-air update, and says additional connectivity -- like using Matter-compatible bridges to connect to non-Matter-enabled devices -- is also in the works.

Two huge competitors in the voice assistant space -- Google and Apple -- have already announced plans for incorporating Matter into their respective voice assistants, Google Assistant and Siri. Google has all but confirmed that Matter compatibility means its devices, specifically its Nest smart thermostats, will integrate with competing ecosystems from the likes of Apple and Amazon.

Apple has remained a bit more tight-lipped on the subject, but did include a brief tutorial at this year's WWDC explaining how developers can integrate Matter into their HomeKit-compatible apps. For its part, Apple says it will expand the HomeKit framework to include Matter protocols.

Another feature Amazon announced during the Alexa Live keynote is Alexa Shopping Actions, which Amazon says will allow developers to earn money through the company's affiliate program. Basically, developers can promote physical products through their apps or allow users to browse Amazon product listings and buy via Alexa, with the developer earning a small percentage of the transaction.