We need to talk about Alexa.
It needs work. Don’t pretend like it doesn’t. Don’t pretend like you smile through each time it responds with ‘sorry, I can’t do that’.
So what does it need to make a genuinely useful home automation device? These 10 features, of course.
It should be able to hear you over itself and the TV
It should though, shouldn’t it. I understand the issue, the microphones can’t pick up your garbled whispers over the booming TV. But it does have 7 microphones and Amazon likes to talk up Alexa’s ability to hear you from different rooms, so why not over the TV? It’s the same if Alexa’s alarm is sounding, or it’s blaring out music. It can’t hear you, which means repeatedly barking its name like Alan Partidge.
A better, like MUCH better, travel skill
London’s tube network is vast complicated, and utterly unyielding. Us Londoners need an Alexa skill that can navigate this Kraken of a mass transport system. Yes, there are some skills on the market that can calculate the distance between station A and station B. But there’s so much more to getting around. For a start, most skills don’t include the Overground, TFL rail lines and busses. No to mention walking distance between station and destination. We need Citymapper – or something equivalent – for Alexa.
Dictate top search results
When I need a recipe for dairy-free lasagna for the 6789th time, I want Alexa to tell me after the simple command “Alexa, sorry for asking again, how do I make the usual”? OK, not quite that command. But asking what ingredients go into a lasagna shouldn’t elicit the audio version of a blank stare. Ideally Alexa, like Google Home does, would read out the top search result from Bing.Order items without Amazon Prime subscription
Adding items to your Amazon basket with a quick command is pretty cool. What’s less cool is making you sign up to an Amazon Prime subscription – after you’ve already forked out for Alexa – to complete the transaction.
One thing that seems to elude all AI services is being being able to change local settings with a command. I can toggle the volume on Alexa, but that’s about it. How about downloading Skills, changing addresses or connecting to other devices with a few words?
Going through the rigmarole of opening a skill and then searching for content within that skill is laborious. It’d be good if I could set shortcuts to quickly jump to content I want to hear using pre-set shortened phrases to save time. For example, rather than opening the Guardian skill and having to listen to a number of options before Alexa reaches the Football Weekly podcast. It’d be good if I could just say ‘Alexa, play the latest football podcast’.
Monetise the skills
I wrote about this in some depth before Christmas. But, in short, if Amazon wants a better class of skills in the store, then it needs to start letting developers charge for skills. There’s little incentive to build a good quality skill at the moment because there’s practically no reward. Which means….
Clear the crap out of the skills store
….there’s a lot of crap in the skill store. I haven’t done a full audit of the calibre of every skill in the store, but having enthusiastically tried lots over the the last few months, 95% have been garbage. Amazon needs to start culling, and not let the store get into the state of the Windows Phone app store was in a few years ago.
Separate out items on a list
It would be nice if Alexa properly listed items I’ve dictated in actual list form. Not one long incomprehensible sentence that looks like a lyric sheet from a Twista track.
Connect with the fire stick and/or other streaming devices
More TV connectivity in general would be very welcome. But, in particular, asking Alexa to play an Amazon Prime TV show, which it then beams to your fire stick and automatically starts playing, would be a great feature. You can do this with your Fire Stick remote, of course. But not having to touch anything is Alexa’s USP.