Smart Home

Amazon opens up the software for Alexa-controlled smart homes

New developer tools for the makers of third-party smart home gadgets will make it easier for lights, thermostats, switches and more to connect with Amazon's Alexa voice assistant.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Amazon's virtual assistant Alexa has already grown into a viable platform for voice-activated smart home control. Now, Amazon is introducing new, open software that will make it easier for smart home gadgets to hop aboard that platform.

The software is a new addition to the Alexa Skills Kit called the Smart Home Skill API. Short for "application programming interface," an API is a piece of software that provides building blocks developers can use to create a specific type of program for a specific purpose. Amazon's API standardizes the process by which the makers of smart lights, smart thermostats and smart switches develop their Alexa Skills -- essentially the downloadable apps that allow Alexa to control those gadgets when asked.

The API makes it faster and easier for device makers to build the Skills that sync their products up with Alexa, and it standardizes the vocabulary that they'll use, too. If I make a smart thermostat and sync it up with Alexa using the Smart Home Skill API, I'll be using common terminology that Alexa already knows. That means that Alexa will be able to control my thermostat with basic commands like, "Turn the heat up" or, "Set the thermostat to 70" without me needing to program any of it.

You can already control natively supported gadgets like the Ecobee3 thermostat using direct commands. The new API will allow other gadgets to follow suit.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

What that also means is that users won't need to include extra "invocation words" that tell Alexa what specific Skill to access. You won't need to say, "Ask Ry's Thermostat to set the heat to 70," for instance -- you can just say, "Set the heat to 70."

That's the same advantage currently enjoyed by natively supported devices like the Ecobee3 thermostat and the Belkin WeMo Switch that don't require a Skill in order to work with Alexa. Moving forward, the Smart Home Skill API will level the playing field. In fact, Amazon tells us that natively supported third-party devices like those were something of a beta test group to help garner developer feedback before opening things up through the larger API.

For now, Amazon's API is limited specifically to thermostats, lights, switches and plugs. Makers of things like locks, garage doors, home entertainment setups and security systems will still need to craft custom Alexa Skills outside of the smart home-specific guidelines in the API -- meaning you'll still need to use those pesky invocation words to control them.

There's a little bit of wiggle room there, though. For instance, the developers at Big Ass Solutions -- makers of the Haiku smart ceiling fan -- are using the new API to sync up with Alexa, with vocabulary borrowed from switches and lights. For instance, you'll be able to ask Alexa to turn the fan on or off (the same way you'd control a smart switch) or ask her to set the fan to 60 percent (the same way you'd dim a smart light).

The new API doesn't add any new features to the kinds of devices Alexa already supports. Though she can turn them on and off or dim them up and down, Alexa still can't change the color of your Philips Hue or Lifx LED light bulbs, for instance. For the time being, control like those will still require extra Skill-based controls from the manufacturers, along with the invocation words needed to activate them.

The Smart Home Skills API is available for developers starting today, April 5. If you own an Alexa device like the Amazon Echo or the Amazon Tap, you can expect to see your smart home control options grow in the near future.