Last year's fully remote Alexa Live developer conference was good practice for this year, Daniel Rausch, Amazon's vice president of smart home, joked with me on the phone -- even though no one knew they were practicing at the time. It's late July in a year racked by pandemic, and although Amazon has not released a single major piece of smart home hardware, Rausch is excited.
"It's by far the largest set of developer-facing announcements about new features and new tools that we've ever [released] at once," said Rausch -- some of which he believes "represent a revolution" for a voice assistant now over five years old. So what exactly are these new features, and how are they going to impact you? Let's dive in.
If 2019 was a big year for Alexa-driven hardware -- over 200 million Alexa-powered devices had been sold by the end of the year -- 2020 may be just as big for the voice assistant itself.
Over the last two years, Alexa usage has quadrupled, according to Rausch. COVID-19 has only accelerated that growth. A single week in April saw more cooking-related queries than the week of Thanksgiving 2019, and music, question/answer and smart home commands have all seen significant growth, too.
As people use Alexa more, the voice assistant becomes better equipped to meet the needs of its users -- most notably in the form of more give-and-take conversation. Alexa Conversations, a much-hyped new feature, is moving into beta, adding "incalculable contours" to any given interaction, according to Rausch.
With Conversations, a smart vacuum, for instance, might be able to follow up your command to clean by asking if you want it to focus on or avoid certain rooms. Making such tools available to the more than 750,000 developers Amazon is touting during this conference could dramatically improve the voice-control aspects of devices as early as the coming weeks and months.
Giving Alexa more than a voice
In our conversation, Rausch mentioned "multimodal" interactions with Alexa a number of times -- that's jargon for focusing on Alexa as an audio, visual and tactile tool. In other words, expect to see more focus on screened Amazon devices like the Echo Show smart displays and the Fire TV video streamers.
Amazon announced a partnership with Food Network late last year, creating a subscription-based app that offers cooking tips, recipes and instruction. But new features such as the Web API for games will allow developers to create more immersive and, yes, multimodal ways of engaging with the smart assistant and the devices it calls home.
Alexa will also continue to expand its reach. Rausch said to expect continued focus on Alexa's predictive abilities (hunches, Alexa users may have noticed, are already being implemented in modest ways) and the voice assistant's helpfulness. Not only is Alexa gaining more abilities on mobile devices with the Alexa app, but more devices are incorporating the voice assistant into their designs.
More focus on the smart home
While Amazon is still cagey about first-party product releases in 2020, the tech giant is definitely working to make it easier than ever for third-party developers to make their products Alexa-compatible. In fact, the one-time price for the chipset and back-end support by Amazon for developers is down to an all-time low $4, which likely means that "100,000 Alexa-compatible devices on the market" figure will likely be moving up soon.
With Prime Day delayed and no word yet on Amazon's usual fall hardware event, Alexa fans have been experiencing something of a dry spell so far in 2020. At least with this latest event, we're seeing the ways the voice assistant itself is growing -- and maybe gaining a little insight into what Amazon is prioritizing for Alexa right now.