30,000+ Alexa Skills (about 8,000 work in Australia) in the following categories

  • Business and finance related queries, e.g. if your bank (NAB and Westpac) has a skill, it can give you balances etc
  • Connected car – Order Uber etc
  • Education and reference
  • Food and Drink – order Uber Eats, Domino’s Pizza or make a booking on Dimmi (painful!!!)
  • Games, Trivia and accessories – Sports facts
  • Health and Fitness
  • Lifestyle – control smart home devices generally via a third-party smart hub

Skills range from useful to banal. For example, there is a guard dog skill that makes the speaker bark. The only problem is that I could not get it to stop barking!

I fear that it is so easy to write a skill using an Amazon API  (Amazon’s words – not mine) that there is a lot of rubbish in the skills store.

I also am concerned that clever skill writers could overstep reasonable privacy requirements. Almost everyone I tried wanted access to information outside what I consider reasonable to provide the service.

Many skills are more about promoting the brand/product than being useful. According to Deloitte the sole purpose of a skill is to gain mind space, so you remember it when you purchase. “Skills are more brand name heavy and focused around asking for [a specific] brand,” the company said.

Finally, skills are about taking price sensitivity and negotiation away from the sales process. It becomes an impulse purchase where the price is the price instead of doing objective research on what produce you really need and seeking the best price. I don’t know about you, but as an Aussie, I like to bag a bargain.

Unlike apps, you can’t get a virus or malware (yet) from a skill.

Using skills takes a little practice. Instead of saying ‘Alexa play Smooth FM’ you have to say, ‘Alexa ask MyTunerRadio to play Smooth FM, Sydney, 95.3’. It then comes back with a number menu selection of similar radio names, and you select which one – every damned time.

For most skills, you need to get the syntax just right. ‘Alexa, ask [skill] to perform [task].’ This may result in a nested series of options.

There are very few Alexa commands that you can just say what you want like ‘Alexa turn on the lights.”

Home Automation – beginnings

Alexa has two levels of integration. One is to recognise a smart hub and access it directly. Here you can say ‘Alexa turn on the air-conditioning’ provided you have a smart AC controller, and it hooks into a smart hub and is called an air-conditioner.

In Australia, it can access (among others)

  • Philips Hue light controller hub
  • Belkin WeMo switches
  • Nest smart thermostats
  • Logitech Harmony Hub
  • Samsung Smart Things hub
  • And several more

GadgetGuy’s take. Alexa 101 is a very complex animal

I have tried to make readers aware of Alexa – warts and all. As objectively as I can be as a journalist bound by a code of ethics, I have to say that it is a competent voice assistant doing pretty well as much as its bitter competitor Google Assistant does.

Do I trust either with my data?

Amazon focuses on driving you to its goods and services.

Google focuses on advertising revenue. It enables advertisers to offer tailored advertisements to you. It is a closed loop in so far as it serves the advertisements to you – it does not give advertisers your details. You want to get to all left-handed, Volvo driving, golfers – Google is ideal.

Would I buy it? No, but assuredly not because of any bias.

As a reviewer, I look closely at the technology and the ecosystem. Recently we reviewed 10, OK Google Speakers and my conclusion is that it is a lot more open and supported (at least in Australia).

Oh, if you want Alexa the only way to get good sound is to go with Sonos.