Amazon's fuller ambitions for the Echo and its Alexa cloud-based voice software have become a little clearer. The company announced Thursday that it is opening up the system to developers, so that anyone can design their own programs to work with the sleek cylindrical in-home assistant.
The company announced that its new developer's kit will make it easy for programmers to work with the device, even without previous knowledge of how to work with voice-recognition systems.
"No experience with speech recognition or natural language understanding is required—Amazon does all the work to hear, understand, and process the customer’s spoken request so a developer doesn’t have to," the company said in a press release. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.) That means amateur and professional developers alike can make programs for themselves. That means they could make custom commands for smart appliances such as thermostats and sprinklers, or custom programs that work with Web sites so you can get news updates fed to your Echo.
It also means Amazon's set up the Echo to potentially be the central point from which you run your whole life. The Echo itself can't vacuum your home, but it could theoretically tell your vacuum when to start going. It may not do your dishes, but it can prompt your dishwasher to fire up as well. So while it won't be your robot maid, it could theoretically be your robot butler.
Earlier this week, Amazon began selling the Echo widely -- it had previously been an invite-only device. Those moves set Amazon up a little more solidly as a competitor to Apple and Google, which have also laid out ambitions to create hubs for the smart homes of the future. Earlier this week, Apple released a new set of home-related prompts that will work with its Siri voice assistant for individual smart devices -- "turn on the coffee maker" -- as well as for groups of smart devices. So you can tell Siri to "turn off the upstairs lights," for example, if you want to save a little energy while your family is gathered in the living room.
In its release, Amazon suggested that Alexa could be programmed to do specific things not only in the home itself, but also through outside services. A list of possible commands included asking Alexa to change the lineup in a fantasy baseball team. Another example was being able to hook Alexa into your fitness app. So you could tell the Echo, "Ask my app how many calories I burned today" before you treated yourself to a rich dessert.
Several companies said they were already using the developers kit, including Intuit, StubHub, AOL and Ctirix. Another included Pebblebee, a company that makes Bluetooth trackers that could work with Alexa to find your keys.
The developers kit is free and open to anyone who wants to play around with it.