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Smart Home

Amazon opens up the Echo smart speaker to third-party developers

With a new software development kit and a $100 million dollar investment fund, Amazon wants third parties to help make the Alexa-controlled smart speaker even smarter.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Days after making its smart speaker available to the masses, Amazon is opening Echo up to developers, too, with a new set of free tools called the "Alexa Skills Kit," named for the cloud-based voice service that controls the device.

The nation's largest online-based retailer, Amazon is hoping third parties craft new voice-powered capabilities for Echo, bringing new web services and gadgets under Alexa's control and making it a more valuable device in the home. The move comes as the current glut of connected home gadgets drive demand for a singular system capable of tying everything together with a simple interface.

With the Alexa Skills Kit, Amazon stands to make a serious push for the job, as Echo can use its built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios to communicate directly with devices ranging from smart deadbolts and connected lighting kits to app-enabled kitchen gadgets and wireless security systems. It's an attractive arrangement for the device-makers, many of whom stand to benefit from hitching their wagon to a high-profile name like Amazon.

In addition to the new development kit, Amazon announced the "Alexa Fund," which will see the company provide up to $100 million in investments to support third-party developers, manufacturers and startups. Amazon says that the fund is open to anyone with a good idea on how voice technology like Echo's can improve peoples' lives, and says that investment decisions will be made based on the potential for unique or novel applications of the tools included with the Alexa Skills Kit.

The fund is investing in several projects at launch, including the ingredient-sensing Orange Chef connected cooking countertop , the Garageio smart garage door system and the Scout DIY home security system . Clearly, Alexa has her sights set on the smart home -- she already offers voice controls for Philips Hue color-changing LED light bulbs and Belkin WeMo automated plugs, and boasts a channel on the free online automation service IFTTT.

Echo already works with IFTTT, Belkin WeMo, and Philips Hue. Expect more integrations by the end of the year. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Amazon says that it wants to be sure smaller developers can take advantage of the Alexa Fund and Skills Kit, too. Along with integration with popular apps, websites, and smart-home gadgets, Amazon envisions use cases as specific as a hobbyist teaching Alexa to read off her child's school lunch menu each morning.

"When we launched Amazon Echo we immediately heard from developers about the innovative voice experiences they would create if they had access to an SDK (software development kit)," said Greg Hart, vice president, Amazon Echo and Alexa Voice Services. "Today, we're making the Alexa Skills Kit available to any developer, maker or general hobbyist that wants to invent on behalf of customers, creating new skills and capabilities. We can't wait to see what developers are going to invent with this technology."

With the Alexa Skills Kit, developers will be able to translate voice input into device-specific commands, then translate that device's response back into Alexa actions and voice replies. Amazon

In addition, Amazon says that the Alexa Voice Service that powers Amazon Echo will now be available to third-party device manufacturers. That means that it might not be long before you start seeing Alexa showing up in more devices than just Echo. Amazon gives the example of a Wi-Fi alarm clock with Alexa built right in, and also mentions that the smart-home brand Wink is looking into borrowing Alexa's smart-home know-how.

Amazon expects the effort to pay off with new capabilities for Alexa by the end of the year. For now, the Alexa Skills Kit kicks off today with a developer preview.