Amazon expands program that pays developers for top voice apps to France, Italy & Spain

Amazon is expanding its program that directly pays Alexa developers in cash for building valuable, quality voice apps to new markets in Europe: France, Italy, and Spain. Originally launched in the U.S. in 2017 for those developers building game skills, the Alexa Developer Rewards program has since expanded to include a broader selection of Alexa skill categories, and later became available in top European markets, Germany and the U.K. as well as in Japan and India.

With the launch in France, Italy, and Spain, the Alexa Developer Rewards program will now offer payments to top skills in categories such as Education & Reference; Food & Drink; Games, Trivia & Accessories; Kids; Health & Fitness; Lifestyle; Music & Audio; and Productivity.

The program itself is one part of Amazon’s larger strategy around building out its ecosystem of voice applications, ahead of developers’ ability to generate sustainable income from their voice apps.

Though Amazon now offers developers other monetization tools like in-skill purchases, one-time purchases, and sales of physical goods, it could still be hard for some to make consistent income from voice apps without the additional direct support from Amazon. And without revenues to fund development, some might abandon their Alexa skills for other efforts.

So far, Amazon’s decision to invest directly in the developer ecosystem has been working.

Amazon’s Alexa Skill store today has the largest number of third-party voice apps, compared with rivals, having hit 80,000 skills as of last month following a holiday shopping season that saw a significant number of Alexa-powered devices sold. Its growth has come quickly, too, with the number of Alexa skills in the U.S. more than doubling over the past year.

Many of the popular Alexa skills so far have turned out to be voice-enabled counterparts to popular mobile apps – especially those that are audio-based, like music apps, spoken word, meditation apps, quizzes and games, and workout apps, for example.

But key to Alexa’s continued growth is ensuring that these sorts of voice apps are available in localized versions in key non-U.S. markets where smart speakers are growing in popularity. That’s a place where Google could have an advantage, thanks to Google Assistant’s advanced language capabilities, which includes support for a dozen some languages besides English, plus its multilingual abilities, support for interpretations, and more.

Amazon says it has paid out “millions” to developers based in over 20 countries since the 2017 launch of the Alexa Developer Rewards program. Developers don’t have to sign up for rewards – if the app qualifies, Amazon will email them.

Alexa skills top 80,000 after a big Alexa-powered holiday season

Amazon had a record-breaking holiday quarter, with revenue of $72.4 billion and profits of $3 billion, but it’s not making much money off its top-selling item, the Alexa-powered Echo Dot. While the e-commerce giant said the device was its 2018 holidays best seller across all products, it also reminded investors on yesterday’s earnings call that Echo devices aren’t priced “to make money.”

Instead, Amazon sees Echos as another means of connecting with its customer base — its most avid, engaged customers, that is.

“There are a group of customers who use our devices and then we monetize that in different ways — commitment to Amazon and the video and everything else,” noted Amazon CFO Brian Olsavsky, speaking to investors on Thursday.

While some reports have dismissed Echo devices’ potential for online shopping, Amazon appears to be playing the long game with regard to voice computing. With an Echo in the home, consumers are more likely to remain a Prime subscriber, streaming Prime music or audiobooks or — on its devices with a screen — watching Prime Video. As Amazon advances its e-commerce strategy with Whole Foods and Prime Now, it also sees Echo as a means of getting items to your door within an hour or two, simply by way of voice commands.

That means, for now, Amazon’s goal is to get an Echo into the home — even if it has to sell the gadgets at cost (or even less).

And the devices are selling. Amazon said the Echo Dot was the best-selling item across all of Amazon globally during the holiday quarter, and customers purchased “millions more devices from the Echo family” in 2018 than they did in 2017.

Amazon had also said last month that more than 100 million Alexa devices had been sold to date, including the Echo Dot and other Echo-branded devices, along with those from third-parties.

As the company is usually cagey about sharing exact numbers when it comes to things like this, it was a notable milestone.

Google, of course, quickly responded with a note that its Assistant AI will be on a billion devices by the end of January. But it wasn’t a fair comparison, because Google was counting Android smartphones while Amazon’s number, we confirmed at the time, didn’t include smartphones — even though you can use Alexa from within the Alexa mobile app and even within the widely installed Amazon shopping app.

However, Echo devices aren’t Amazon’s only means of introducing Alexa to consumers.

The Echo Dot is the best seller in terms of Alexa-powered devices, due to its low price point and regular discounts during major shopping events like the 2018 holidays, Black Friday and Amazon’s own Prime Day, but it’s joined by a growing number of other Alexa products.

In 2018, the company saw more than 100 new products with Alexa built-in launched from third-party manufacturers, bringing the total up to more than 150. And Alexa works with more than 28,000 devices, like smart home devices and other hardware, from across 4,500 brands.

Amazon, itself, is trying to figure out how to put Alexa into more things. It even jokes about this in its latest TV commercial, set to be aired during the Super Bowl.

The ad references a more offbeat device — the AmazonBasics Alexa-powered microwave — but then makes cracks about the Alexa devices that didn’t work — like an Alexa dog collar and hot tub, for example.

Alexa skills top 80,000

The growing Alex ecosystem means the number of things you can do using the voice assistant, by way of its voice apps called “skills,” is also increasing.

A new number Amazon shared yesterday was that the number of voice applications built for Alexa had now topped 80,000 worldwide. That’s up from the 70,000 skills Amazon was touting back in December.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos mentioned this figure and other milestones related to Alexa’s improvements in a statement, on Thursday.

“The number of research scientists working on Alexa has more than doubled in the past year, and the results of the team’s hard work are clear. In 2018, we improved Alexa’s ability to understand requests and answer questions by more than 20 percent through advances in machine learning, we added billions of facts making Alexa more knowledgeable than ever, developers doubled the number of Alexa skills to over 80,000, and customers spoke to Alexa tens of billions more times in 2018 compared to 2017,” Bezos said.

The company said in November it now has more than 10,000 employees working on Alexa, as a point of reference. But it’s challenged in building up a knowledge base of questions and answers — something Google has worked on since the launch of its Knowledge Graph in 2012.

At the end of the day, consumers may not pick a device only because of what facts it can spout off, but rather because of how well it fits into the home in other ways. Alexa can play your music and share the news like any voice assistant, but it also works with other Amazon devices, like Ring doorbells and Amazon security cameras, keyless entry systems and more. And it can deliver your food and other items.

Google, meanwhile, doesn’t have a successful e-commerce business and just lost a key partner for its Google Express shopping service, with Walmart’s exit from the platform.

That leaves Google at something of a disadvantage as assistants cater more to our needs to not just answer questions or turn on the lights, but to make anything appear at our door. If Amazon has to give away a few million devices to stake out its place in the future of shopping, it believes that’s money worth losing.

Alexa skills top 80,000 after a big Alexa-powered holiday season

Amazon had a record-breaking holiday quarter, with revenue of $72.4 billion and profits of $3 billion, but it’s not making much money off its top-selling item, the Alexa-powered Echo Dot. While the e-commerce giant said the device was its 2018 holidays best seller across all products, it also reminded investors on yesterday’s earnings call that Echo devices aren’t priced “to make money.”

Instead, Amazon sees Echos as another means of connecting with its customer base — its most avid, engaged customers, that is.

“There are a group of customers who use our devices and then we monetize that in different ways — commitment to Amazon and the video and everything else,” noted Amazon CFO Brian Olsavsky, speaking to investors on Thursday.

While some reports have dismissed Echo devices’ potential for online shopping, Amazon appears to be playing the long game with regard to voice computing. With an Echo in the home, consumers are more likely to remain a Prime subscriber, streaming Prime music or audiobooks or — on its devices with a screen — watching Prime Video. As Amazon advances its e-commerce strategy with Whole Foods and Prime Now, it also sees Echo as a means of getting items to your door within an hour or two, simply by way of voice commands.

That means, for now, Amazon’s goal is to get an Echo into the home — even if it has to sell the gadgets at cost (or even less).

And the devices are selling. Amazon said the Echo Dot was the best-selling item across all of Amazon globally during the holiday quarter, and customers purchased “millions more devices from the Echo family” in 2018 than they did in 2017.

Amazon had also said last month that more than 100 million Alexa devices had been sold to date, including the Echo Dot and other Echo-branded devices, along with those from third-parties.

As the company is usually cagey about sharing exact numbers when it comes to things like this, it was a notable milestone.

Google, of course, quickly responded with a note that its Assistant AI will be on a billion devices by the end of January. But it wasn’t a fair comparison, because Google was counting Android smartphones while Amazon’s number, we confirmed at the time, didn’t include smartphones — even though you can use Alexa from within the Alexa mobile app and even within the widely installed Amazon shopping app.

However, Echo devices aren’t Amazon’s only means of introducing Alexa to consumers.

The Echo Dot is the best seller in terms of Alexa-powered devices, due to its low price point and regular discounts during major shopping events like the 2018 holidays, Black Friday and Amazon’s own Prime Day, but it’s joined by a growing number of other Alexa products.

In 2018, the company saw more than 100 new products with Alexa built-in launched from third-party manufacturers, bringing the total up to more than 150. And Alexa works with more than 28,000 devices, like smart home devices and other hardware, from across 4,500 brands.

Amazon, itself, is trying to figure out how to put Alexa into more things. It even jokes about this in its latest TV commercial, set to be aired during the Super Bowl.

The ad references a more offbeat device — the AmazonBasics Alexa-powered microwave — but then makes cracks about the Alexa devices that didn’t work — like an Alexa dog collar and hot tub, for example.

Alexa skills top 80,000

The growing Alex ecosystem means the number of things you can do using the voice assistant, by way of its voice apps called “skills,” is also increasing.

A new number Amazon shared yesterday was that the number of voice applications built for Alexa had now topped 80,000 worldwide. That’s up from the 70,000 skills Amazon was touting back in December.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos mentioned this figure and other milestones related to Alexa’s improvements in a statement, on Thursday.

“The number of research scientists working on Alexa has more than doubled in the past year, and the results of the team’s hard work are clear. In 2018, we improved Alexa’s ability to understand requests and answer questions by more than 20 percent through advances in machine learning, we added billions of facts making Alexa more knowledgeable than ever, developers doubled the number of Alexa skills to over 80,000, and customers spoke to Alexa tens of billions more times in 2018 compared to 2017,” Bezos said.

The company said in November it now has more than 10,000 employees working on Alexa, as a point of reference. But it’s challenged in building up a knowledge base of questions and answers — something Google has worked on since the launch of its Knowledge Graph in 2012.

At the end of the day, consumers may not pick a device only because of what facts it can spout off, but rather because of how well it fits into the home in other ways. Alexa can play your music and share the news like any voice assistant, but it also works with other Amazon devices, like Ring doorbells and Amazon security cameras, keyless entry systems and more. And it can deliver your food and other items.

Google, meanwhile, doesn’t have a successful e-commerce business and just lost a key partner for its Google Express shopping service, with Walmart’s exit from the platform.

That leaves Google at something of a disadvantage as assistants cater more to our needs to not just answer questions or turn on the lights, but to make anything appear at our door. If Amazon has to give away a few million devices to stake out its place in the future of shopping, it believes that’s money worth losing.

Razer integrates Amazon’s Alexa voice controls and haptic feedback into its gaming platform

Razer, the company that makes high-end hardware and software specifically tailored to gaming enthusiasts, is adding new voice and touch features to its platform to bring it into the next generation of computing and take the Razer gaming experience to the next immersive level. Today at CES, the company announced that it will be integrating Amazon’s Alexa into its gaming platform to let users control certain aspects of the Razer gaming experience by voice; and it also announced a new range of devices it’s calling HyperSense, to provide haptic interfaces for its gamers.

The Alexa integration will start to be rolled out in Q2 2019, while the HyperSense ecosystem is only getting previewed with no launch date at this stage.

Razer is also making some strides in its efforts to expand the ubiquity of its ecosystem to more than just Razer products: the company said that its Chroma Connected Devices Program — which brings in a new range of peripherals that can work with Razer machines — now has 15 new partners and covers 300 different devices that can run Chroma-enabled games and apps.

The move is a signal of how, while Amazon has yet to build its own dedicated gaming hardware, it has been making some headway into that consumer sector regardless among the 100 million devices that now work with the voice assistant. Last September, Microsoft announced that Alexa would work with the Xbox One, the first big gaming console announcement for Alexa after making a little headway with Sony and the PlayStation Vue a year before.

As with those two, it looks like the Alexa integration with Razer is more around controlling what happens around the game — you will be able to control voice-control lighting effects, device settings and so on, but not in-game actions themselves — although you might consider that in-game controls could be the next step (perhaps one that Amazon would prefer to make itself).

“We’re thrilled to work with Razer and provide customers a first-of-its kind integration that showcases how Alexa can enhance the gaming experience,” said Pete Thompson, VP of the Alexa Voice Service, in a statement. “With Alexa, users can control compatible Razer peripherals while taking full advantage of other Alexa capabilities, including the ability to manage smart devices, access tens of thousands of skills and more.”

In the case of Razer, the company is bringing Alexa into its ecosystem by way of its Razer Synapse 3 Internet-of-Things platform, which it uses to connect up Razer and third-party peripherals that a user might have set up to play.

As Razer describers it, those wearing Razer headsets and mics can then be used to control compatible devices, such as in-game lighting, mice, keyboards and headsets. 

“This is an amazing look forward for Razer into a future for gamers where the full potential of gaming gear is seamless and intuitively controlled through voice activation, synchronization and connected cloud services,” said Razer Co-Founder and CEO Min-Liang Tan (pictured above) in a statement.

The haptic developments, meanwhile, will also come by way of a partnership with third parties — in this case, two companies called Lofelt and Subpac, and others that Razer is not disclosing.

As with other haptic systems, the idea with HyperSense is not that die-hard gamers will start installing wind machines, chillers and strange smells in their living rooms, but that Razer wants to build and work with others to create, for example, high-fidelity speakers and touch boards that will give users the sensation of different experiences in a way that will bring them even closer into the action of the game. (If you think this sounds closer and closer to Ready Player One, you’re not alone.)

So in the case of HyperSense, cues might include specific sound cues in games like rocket firing, or wind, which will might get “played out” in the form of sound waves that you can feel in your feet or — if you might imagine — a connected jacket that will suddenly make you colder, lean to one side, and shudder with the gust.

“We are finally able to feel what we see and hear all around using the gaming arena, sensing the hiss of enemy fire or feeling the full bass of a monster’s growl,” said Min. “Much like Razer Chroma where we have demonstrated the power of a connected lighting system across gaming devices, Razer HyperSense syncs gaming devices equipped with high-fidelity haptic motors to enhance immersion in gaming.”

 

The number of Alexa skills in the U.S. more than doubled in 2018

Amazon Alexa had a good year as a developer platform – at least in terms of the number of voice apps being built for Alexa, if not yet the monetization of those apps. According to new data published today by Voicebot, the number of Amazon Alexa skills in the U.S. more than doubled over 2018, while the number of skills grew by 233 percent and 152 percent in Alexa’s two other top markets, the U.K. and Germany, respectively.

Amazon began the year with 25,784 Alexa skills in the U.S., which grew to 56,750 skills by the end of 2018, said Voicebot. That represents 120 percent growth, which is down from the 266 percent growth seen the year prior – but still shows continued developer interest in the Alexa platform.

At this rate of growth, that means developers were publishing an average of around 85 skills per day in 2018.

Voicebot has its own method for tracking skill counts, so these are not Amazon’s own numbers, we should note. However, Amazon itself did say at year-end 2018 that its broader Alexa ecosystem had grown to “over 70,000” total skills across markets.

In the U.K., the number of Alexa skills rose 233 percent this year to reach 29,910 by year end. In Germany, the skill count grew by 152 percent to reach 7,869 skills. Canada had 22,873 skills as of the beginning of January 2019; Australia has 22,398; Japan has 2,364; and France has 981. (Voicebot says it hasn’t yet set up a system for counting the skills in India, Spain, Mexico or Italy at this time.)

Also of interest is that much of the skill growth occurred near year-end, ahead of the busy holiday season when Alexa devices became top sellers. In the U.S., U.K. and Germany, developers published 181, 84, and 37 skills per day, respectively, during the last two months of the year.

The firm also pointed out there is some debate over whether or not the growth in third-party skills even matters, since so many of them are virtually invisible – never discovered by end users or installed in large numbers. That’s a fair criticism, in a way, but it’s also still early days for voice-based computing. Developers who are today publishing lower-rated skills may be learning from their mistakes and figuring out what works; and they’re doing so, in large numbers, on the Alexa platform.

As to what sort of skills are actually striking a chord with consumers, Amazon itself recently shared that information.

It released a year-end list of Alexa’s “top” skills, which were selected based on a number of factors including customer reviews, engagement, innovation and more, Amazon told us.

Many of the top skills were games. And many had benefited from their association with big-name brands, or had been promoted heavily by Amazon, or both.

Among the top games were music skill Beat the Intro; Heads Up!, already a top paid iOS app from Ellen DeGeneres; National Geographic’s Geo Quiz skill; Question of the Day; Skyrim Very Special Edition; The Magic Door; Trivia Hero; World Mathematics League; Would You Rather for Family; and Volley’s roleplaying game, Yes Sire.

The non-game skills were focused on daily habits, wellness, and – not surprisingly, given Alexa’s central place in consumers’ homes – family fun.

These included kid-friendly skills like Animal Workout, Chompers, Kids Court, Lemonade Stand, and Sesame Street; plus habit and wellness skills like Chop Chop, Fitbit, Headspace, Sleep and Relaxation Sounds, Find My Phone, AnyPod, Big Sky, Make Me Smart, and TuneIn Live.

It’s interesting to note that many of these also are known app names from the mobile app ecosystem, rather than breakout hits that are unique to Alexa or smart speakers. That begs the question as to how much the voice app ecosystem will end up being just a voice-enabled clone of the App Store, versus becoming a home to a new kind of app that truly leverages voice-first design and smart speakers’ capabilities.

It may be a few years before we have that answer, but in the meantime, it seems we have a lot of voice app developers trying to figure that out by building for Alexa.

 

 

Noa’s new Alexa skill has human narrators read news from NYT, FT, Economist & others

News junkies who want something more in-depth than Alexa’s Flash Briefing now have a new option for listening to the day’s news — as well as features and other reporting — right from their smart speaker. A company called Noa has just launched an Alexa skill that uses human narrators to read you the news from top publishers like The New York Times, Financial Times, The Economist and others. With the skill, you can catch up on the stories you missed while you’re doing other things — like cooking, cleaning, commuting or exercising, for example.

The skill is aimed at those who already enjoy listening to longer-form audio, like podcasts or talk radio, on their Amazon Echo or other Alexa-powered device.

The use case here is also similar to that of “read it later” apps like Pocket or Instapaper, both of which have added an audio playback option for listening to your saved articles.

However, those apps currently rely on text-to-speech functionality, not on human narration.

Noa, meanwhile, employs a team of half a dozen narrators based across the U.S., U.K. and Ireland who read the stories published by the company’s current partners. These include: The New York Times, Financial Times, Business Insider, The Economist, The Independent, Bloomberg, The Irish Times and the Evening Standard.

That list will grow in 2019 to include more news organizations and magazine partners, the company says.

To use the skill, you must first enable it on your Alexa device by saying, “Alexa, enable Noa.” (It’s pronounced like the “Noah” from the Bible — the one with the ark.)

You can then ask Noa to read the news by publisher, journalist or category.

For example, you can say “Alexa, open Noa and play ‘The New York Times;'” or “Alexa, ask Noa to play Tim Bradshaw;” or “Alexa, open Noa and play ‘Technology.'” 

Not all articles from the publisher partners will be available, explains Noa CEO Gareth Hickey.

“Only a limited subset of articles lend themselves well to audio — namely, the opinion and feature style stories. Essentially longer-form journalism,” he says.

The skill also employs a metered-access paywall that allows listeners to stream up to 10 articles per week for free. To listen to more, you have to subscribe at $7.99 per month (or €/£7.99 per month, depending on location) for unlimited access. The company doesn’t currently support Amazon Pay, so you’ll have to sign up at Noa’s website or through its mobile apps if you want to upgrade.

The Alexa skill is the latest from the Dublin-based startup Noa, founded in 2015 by Hickey and Shane Ennis, with the goal of providing access to audio journalism.

“While audio-journalism is a core part of our offering, personalized discovery and quality curation are equally as important,” Hickey says. “The goal isn’t to inundate users with audio articles, but instead to help them learn and understand the news,” he adds.

Given Noa’s focus on audio, smart speakers make sense as the next big platform to address — especially now that they’ve reached critical mass. The startup raised $600,000 last year, Hickey notes. 

It’s not the only company working to provide human narration of the news for the booming smart speaker market. SpokenLayer, for instance, currently powers “Spoken Edition” podcasts for many news publishers, including TechCrunch. And Amazon’s Audible Channels launched with spoken-word recordings from publishers like the The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Foreign Affairs, Charlie Rose, McSweeney’s, The Onion and other periodicals.

Noa’s Alexa skill is called “Noa – Journalism, narrated,” and is free to install and use for up to 10 articles per week.

Noa also has a limited presence on Google Home, allowing listeners to hear four Editors’ Picks each day. But its next version will allow for journalist, publisher and category navigation — the same as on Alexa. Noa will soon launch on Android Auto and CarPlay, as well.

Noa’s new Alexa skill has human narrators read news from NYT, FT, Economist & others

News junkies who want something more in-depth than Alexa’s Flash Briefing now have a new option for listening to the day’s news — as well as features and other reporting — right from their smart speaker. A company called Noa has just launched an Alexa skill that uses human narrators to read you the news from top publishers like The New York Times, Financial Times, The Economist and others. With the skill, you can catch up on the stories you missed while you’re doing other things — like cooking, cleaning, commuting or exercising, for example.

The skill is aimed at those who already enjoy listening to longer-form audio, like podcasts or talk radio, on their Amazon Echo or other Alexa-powered device.

The use case here is also similar to that of “read it later” apps like Pocket or Instapaper, both of which have added an audio playback option for listening to your saved articles.

However, those apps currently rely on text-to-speech functionality, not on human narration.

Noa, meanwhile, employs a team of half a dozen narrators based across the U.S., U.K. and Ireland who read the stories published by the company’s current partners. These include: The New York Times, Financial Times, Business Insider, The Economist, The Independent, Bloomberg, The Irish Times and the Evening Standard.

That list will grow in 2019 to include more news organizations and magazine partners, the company says.

To use the skill, you must first enable it on your Alexa device by saying, “Alexa, enable Noa.” (It’s pronounced like the “Noah” from the Bible — the one with the ark.)

You can then ask Noa to read the news by publisher, journalist or category.

For example, you can say “Alexa, open Noa and play ‘The New York Times;'” or “Alexa, ask Noa to play Tim Bradshaw;” or “Alexa, open Noa and play ‘Technology.'” 

Not all articles from the publisher partners will be available, explains Noa CEO Gareth Hickey.

“Only a limited subset of articles lend themselves well to audio — namely, the opinion and feature style stories. Essentially longer-form journalism,” he says.

The skill also employs a metered-access paywall that allows listeners to stream up to 10 articles per week for free. To listen to more, you have to subscribe at $7.99 per month (or €/£7.99 per month, depending on location) for unlimited access. The company doesn’t currently support Amazon Pay, so you’ll have to sign up at Noa’s website or through its mobile apps if you want to upgrade.

The Alexa skill is the latest from the Dublin-based startup Noa, founded in 2015 by Hickey and Shane Ennis, with the goal of providing access to audio journalism.

“While audio-journalism is a core part of our offering, personalized discovery and quality curation are equally as important,” Hickey says. “The goal isn’t to inundate users with audio articles, but instead to help them learn and understand the news,” he adds.

Given Noa’s focus on audio, smart speakers make sense as the next big platform to address — especially now that they’ve reached critical mass. The startup raised $600,000 last year, Hickey notes. 

It’s not the only company working to provide human narration of the news for the booming smart speaker market. SpokenLayer, for instance, currently powers “Spoken Edition” podcasts for many news publishers, including TechCrunch. And Amazon’s Audible Channels launched with spoken-word recordings from publishers like the The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Foreign Affairs, Charlie Rose, McSweeney’s, The Onion and other periodicals.

Noa’s Alexa skill is called “Noa – Journalism, narrated,” and is free to install and use for up to 10 articles per week.

Noa also has a limited presence on Google Home, allowing listeners to hear four Editors’ Picks each day. But its next version will allow for journalist, publisher and category navigation — the same as on Alexa. Noa will soon launch on Android Auto and CarPlay, as well.

Smart speakers hit critical mass in 2018

We already know Alexa had a good Christmas – the app shot to the top of the App Store over the holidays, and the Alexa service even briefly crashed from all the new users. But Alexa, along with other smart speaker devices like Google Home, didn’t just have a good holiday — they had a great year, too. The smart speaker market reached critical mass in 2018, with around 41 percent of U.S. consumers now owning a voice-activated speaker, up from 21.5 percent in 2017.

According to a series of reports from RBC Capital Markets analysts released in December, the near doubling of the adoption rate for smart speakers in the U.S. was driven by growth in both Alexa and Google Home devices, while Apple’s HomePod played only a small role.

The firm found that U.S. penetration of Alexa-enabled devices reached 31 percent this year, compared with 41 percent overall for smart speakers.

It also forecast that Alexa would generate $18 billion to $19 billion in total revenue by 2021 – or ~5 percent of Amazon’s revenue –  through a combination of device sales, incremental voice shopping sales, and other platform revenues. In the U.S., there are now over 100 million Alexa-enabled devices installed – a key milestone for Alexa to become a “critical mass platform,” the report noted.

RBC additionally called out Amazon’s progress with Alexa’s development, with launches like Alexa Guard, which listens for break-ins and smoke detector alarms; plus new features like local voice control for when the internet is down; location-based reminders; advanced routines; email integrations; expanded calling options; and many others.

Alexa’s third-party app ecosystem also grew in 2018, with 150 percent year-over-year growth in skills to reach over 60,000 total Alexa skills by year-end. That’s up from 40,000 skills in May; 25,000 in Q3 2017; and just 5,000 two years ago.

Google Home also gained traction in 2018, with U.S. penetration for Google devices growing to 23 percent, up from 8 percent in 2017. Each household owns around 1.7 devices, which leads a Google Home install base of around 43 million in the U.S., and around 9 million in other Google Home markets, the forecast said.

However, the report doesn’t see as much revenue coming in from Google Home over the next few years, compared with Alexa. Instead, it estimates that Google Home generated $3.4 billion in revenue this year, and will grow that to $8.2 billion by 2021.

But combined with Google’s other hardware products like Pixel, Nest, and Chromecast, the hardware suite will have generated approximately $8.8 billion in 2018, and will grow to $19.6 billion in 2021.

This is the first year the analysts asked about Apple’s HomePod in the consumer survey, and they found its share of the U.S. smart speaker market remains small. Amazon has a 66 percent share to Google’s 29 percent. HomePod had 5 percent, it said.

Siri Shortcuts app gets updated with weather, alarms, timers and more

Alongside today’s announcements of new iPads and Mac, Apple also rolled out an updated version of its Siri Shortcuts app. The app, first introduced at WWDC, arrived with iOS 12 as a way to unlock Siri’s potential by allowing users to create their own custom voice commands and workflows. Now, it can do a few new things, too – including setting alarms and timers, getting the latest weather, and more.

The weather actions should be especially useful for those who have created custom morning routines with Siri Shortcuts, as you’ll now be able to use the latest weather in your shortcuts with the new “Get Current Weather” and “Get Weather Forecast” actions. Being able to ask for this sort of information is already among the top use cases for voice assistants, like Alexa and Google Assistant, so it makes sense to offer these sorts of commands to Siri Shortcuts users, as well.

Also helpful are the new “Create Alarm,” “Toggle Alarm,” and “Start Timer” actions, which addressed another notable hole in the Shortcuts app at launch. Many people were confused about how to use alarms within the app because these actions weren’t available, and the request often came up on Apple’s own support site, too. The new release, Siri Shortcuts 2.1, addresses this problem.

Other new actions include the ability to convert between a variety of units from the “Measurement” and “Convert Measurement” actions, and the ability to get the most recent set of imported photos from the Photos app using the “Get Last Import” action.

The app also fixes a problem with using Siri Shortcuts with HomePod. It will now automatically play back media from the HomePod over AirPlay, when you run the shortcut from HomePod via Siri – which just makes more sense.

Siri Shortcuts version 2.1 is the first major update following the app’s release with iOS 12. However, the app today still largely appeals to iOS power users – those who were already comfortable using its predecessor, Workflow, and who understand how to build routines.

More mainstream users are likely being exposed to Siri’s expanded powers through their favorite apps. With iOS 12, a number of top developers updated their apps with “Add to Siri” buttons that point out special tasks their apps can perform by way of voice. Early adopters on this front included Pandora, The Weather Channel, Sky Guide, Citymapper, Google News, TripIt, Trello, Monster, and others.

The updated version of Siri Shortcuts is available for download from the App Store.

You can now use Alexa and Cortana to control your Xbox

You can now control the Xbox from Alexa and Cortana. Microsoft announced his morning it’s introducing a new way to interact with Xbox One using voice commands, by way of an Xbox Skill that works with both Alexa and Cortana, across platforms. The skill will allow users to launch games, adjust the volume, start and stop their broadcasts to Mixer, capture screenshots and more.

For example, players will be able to say to their Echo speaker, “Alexa, start Rocket League,” and the console would power on, sign them in, and launch the game.

To use the new feature with Alexa, players will first have to sign in with their Amazon account then link their Microsoft account to the skill. With Cortana, users will instead have to first sign into the Xbox they want to control, then sign in with their Microsoft account to link the skill on their Windows 10 PC.

They could then say something like “Hey Cortana, tell Xbox to open Netflix.”

 

Microsoft says the skill will work across a range of voice-powered devices, including Windows 10 PC, Amazon Echo devices, Harman Kardon Invoke, Sonos One, or the Cortana and Alexa apps for iOS and Android.

A full list of its commands will be posted to the Xbox Insiders Reddit. 

The Xbox Skill, at launch, will be rolling out gradually to U.S. Xbox Insider rings (Alpha Skip Ahead, Alpha, Beta) as the company takes in feedback from its early adopters. To see if you have the option available, you’ll need to look in Settings –> Devices on your console to see if the “Digital Assistant” setting is visible.