Amazon Echo – apps I like

Having played with the Amazon Echo a few days, there are a few things that I like and don’t like.

  1. The natural language interpretation is relatively good. I remember years ago trying to use Dragon Naturally Speaking and realizing that I could type better than it could take dictation. I think that the Alexa app can understand what I am saying 90% of the time and act appropriately.
  2. I like the open platform concept where people can submit their own apps and get them released. This is a new technology and innovation and new apps are being added on a regular basis. I like the fact that you can add your own and not have to go through Amazon to get it approved for your use. You also don’t have to buy a developers license to do development. This was my biggest frustration with the Apple iPhone development platform. Initially if I wanted to develop something for me, I had to pay $100 annually and have Apple review it.
  3. Some of the apps that I like
    1. a home grown app that states days till and event. I hacked together an app based on the color example in the Alexa Skills Kit and used Lambda to store the code and the developers console to store the utterances. The app is currently very simple where you start it and it lists days till three dates. You can ask for each individual date by saying keywords like graduation and college and it will list days till classes start and days till graduation.
    2. the LiveStream connection. I listen to NRP every morning to get the news. I like the “daily update” that you can request and get bits of news from different sources. The news read by a newscaster is much better than the computer voice reading the news so the blend of NRP, ESPN, and other news sources mixed in helps. It is a little frustrating that you can’t mix in your own sources and the app gives you a pre-defined list but it works for me right now.
    3. the Jeopardy Skill. This is an interesting app in that it will ask you six questions on a daily basis. I like the brain teasers and this is almost like doing a small crossword puzzle on a daily basis. I could see setting something like this up and helping kids with homework. It looks like the questions could come from DynamoDB or be hard coded into Lamdba. The question and answer appears somewhat natural and I have not stumbled across syntax or phrasing issues with my answers. The natural language seems somewhat flexible and is forgiving enough to interpret your answers.
    4. The Kindle Book Reader. I tried this today to see how well it works. I can see it being something that I would use randomly. If I am doing something with my hands and need a distraction other than music it might work. The computer voice is a little difficult to listen to when compared to an Audible Book but I am a bit cheap and don’t want to pay the big bucks for audio books.
    5. Music. I love the variety of music that can be played. It is nice being able to request Pandora or an artist specifically. I have gotten addicted to Pandora and it is nice that it is integrated into the Echo. Being able to provide feedback with like and dislike also helps train the stations of interest. I have my Echo in the kitchen so it is nice to work on dinner or something special while listening to music.
  4. Some of the things that are a little frustrating are
    1. Having the device tethered to a power cord and wifi network. It would be much nicer if it were portable or an app on my iPhone. I randomly use Siri but the app diversity on the Echo make it more than a query to get answers from the Internet
    2. Speaking of the internet, simple Siri queries work much better than Alexa queries. The integration with Google, Bing, Yahoo, random search engine is not as good as Siri. Yes you can ask things like how many pints in a gallon and it will answer. It typically does good at looking things up on wikipedia but the natural language interface with Siri is so much better. This is one area that I am looking forward to improvement in.
    3. The process to launch an app is cumbersome at best. Some terms get overloaded. For example when I was first trying to load the Jeopardy app I kept getting the song Jeopardy loaded and playing. It took a while to figure out what to say and realize that there was a delay in enabling the app and having it work on the Echo.
    4. The user interface to enable a skill is a little klunky. My first thought was a great add-on to the Echo would be a touch screen that can sit near it. The card interfaces that are displayed to your phone app can be displayed to a wifi-enabled touchscreen. For example, if I ask about the score of a sporting event it would be nice to get the box score and stats of the game displayed on a screen. This is currently done through a card interface to a phone/computer but having it displayed to a Raspberry Pi or BeagleBone touch screen device would be a great add on. I can see something like this being offered and integrated into a car (once the Echo/Alexa app can be made mobile)
    5. The name Alexa. It would be really nice if you could change the device wake word. I use the word Amazon way too much and don’t want to use that word. It would be nice if you could address it as “Hal” or “Computer” as is done in 2001 or Star Trek. I would even settle for “R2D2” or “C3PO” because, hey they were just a mobile Echo on steroids. That is where we are going right?
  5. Things I look forward to
    1. Using the Echo as the base station playing on other bluetooth speakers and not using my iPad/iPhone to play. I would rather use the Echo as a player and the speakers around the house to get sound where I want it
    2. Mobility. Mobility. Mobility
    3. Apps that can integrate with my work calendar or calendar on my phone. My gmail calendar is nice but it is not where I store what I do on a daily basis.
    4. Integration with other devices like my set-top box so that I can set recordings and list things that have been recorded.

Overall I am happy with my experience. My family has not hated it yet and my relatives have enjoyed trying to stump the device with commands.

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