Skills have done to Alexa what third-party applications did to mobile devices a few years ago. They are part of what give Alexa-enabled speakers nearly endless possibilities and a very bright future.
Amazon realizes this and has been making strides to make skills a priority, not only by making it easier for developers to create their own skills, but by also making them more accessible to users. For instance, Amazon has made its own skill to help users discover new skills.
Amazon has now gone one step further by removing some of the friction of finding and using new skills. You no longer need to enable skills before you use them.
How to use any skill with Alexa
Much like applications on your phone, you have always had to enable skills manually. This is a stark contrast to third-party services on the Google Home, which all work out of the box, no setup or enabling required.
Originally, to enable a skill on an Alexa-enabled speaker, you had to head over to alexa.amazon.com from a web browser or open the Alexa app on an iOS or Android device, open the Skills menu and dig through the catalog until you fond a skill you wanted to try. Then you'd need to open the skill page and tap the yellow button that said Enable.
For a device almost totally controlled by voice, this process felt disjointed and jarring, until June 2016, when Amazon made it possible to enable skills using your voice. You could say, "Alexa, enable Domino's" or "Alexa, enable LIFX."
Last week, Amazon made it even easier to use skills by effectively removing the enable process altogether. All you need to do to use a skill now is say, "Alexa, open [skill name]."
That sounds like a subtle, maybe even insubstantial difference. However, it removes an entire step from the process -- or rather, it condenses two steps into one. Alexa will find the skill, enable and open it, all with a single command.
You can't ask a skill something complex the first time you want to use it. Chances are, Alexa won't find the skill or it will ignore your additional request. For instance, I manually disabled the The Bartender skill and tried saying, "Alexa, ask The Bartender what's in an old-fashioned." It found the skill and opened it, but completely ignored the part about the old-fashioned.
After you've used a skill once, however, it will be enabled on your account and you can use any of its invocations.
If a skill requires you to log in to connect your account, such as with the Fitbit or Starbucks skills, you still need to make your way to the page for that skill in the Alexa app and log in. Otherwise, you can use any available skills instantly.
Also, if there happen to be a few skills with similar names, Alexa will let you choose which one you want to open. For instance, if you say, "Alexa, open Ambient Noise," Alexa will ask if you want Rain Sounds, Thunderstorm Sounds or Ocean Sounds.
Unfortunately, this doesn't address one of the problems that came to light when Amazon added the ability to enable skills by voice: you still need to know the name of a skill or what you're looking for to be able to use it. So while this is a step in the right direction for getting more people to use skills, it still means you'll probably spend your time in the Alexa app looking for new skills rather than blurting out random skills to try.