34,322 reasons to skill-up your Alexa

A huge proportion of UK homes now have at least one Amazon Echo and for very good reason - they're super-useful. Many happy Echo owners, however, have never taken advantage of adding extra abilities to Alexa by enabling the many amazing skills she has available - 34,322 to be exact.

Power up your Echo with added skills

Echo skills are just like smartphone apps and just as useful. You've got a smartphone, right? Now imagine for a moment that you've never added apps to your smartphone. Actually, you've never even explored what apps are available in your phone's app store. What an insane idea - to have a phone and never even consider installing an app (or fifty) to help make it even more powerful and useful!

Photos of Two Amazon Echos and two Google Home devices

Smartspeakers, like the family of Amazon Echo and Google Home devices, are pretty smart 'out of the box'. You can ask for a wide range of information, play music and radio (as well as TV and Youtube if you have one with a screen), set timers, reminders and alarms, purchase everything that Amazon has to offer and even make free calls to mobiles and landlines - but that's just the start. That's just scratching the surface.

At the time of writing, there are 34,322 additional skills in the UK skill store that you can easily add to the Amazon Echo (well over 50,000 in the US skill store). The Google Home also has several thousand add-on abilities waiting to be explored, but let's focus on Alexa here  as she's by far the most widely-used, has the most skills, and is the one I'm most familiar with (which might be related to the fact that I host a daily 5 min Alexa skill demo podcast). 

How to skill up Alexa

Adding skills to your Echo couldn't be easier. Simply say, "Alexa, open Big Sky," for example. By the way, I just said that to the Echo in front of me and Big Sky played a nice little tune and then read out an extremely detailed weather forecast that included the fact that light drizzle is likely, starting in 1 minute and ending in 9 minutes. Completely true. I'm working from home today, so I just nipped out to take in the cushions from our garden furniture. Once a skill is enabled in this way, it will forever be available on your Echo. Easy.

The main reason why people haven't been enabling skills on their smartspeakers is that, until recently, it wasn't easy to discover their very existence - let alone which ones maybe particularly useful for them. When it comes to your smartphone, The icon for the app store is right there on your home screen when you get a new phone. Furthermore, apps are so ubiquitous and useful that it's common to get regular recommendations from family and friends. And of course we're also inundated by ads in the media for apps that will bring us the latest best thing ever. We probably all know people who have a smartphone and don't use apps - but they're very few and far between.

Closeup of the App store icon on an iphone screen

Source: computerworld.ch

Most smartspeakers don't have a screen - and those that do don't usually feature ads. Moreover, until recently, Alexa never mentioned the existence of third-party skills in any of her responses. So, unless you found out about them by word of mouth or by spotting the Skills tab in the Alexa companion app and taking the time to check them out, you'd never even know that they existed.

Luckily, Alexa is becoming much chattier about her hidden abilities. If you ask her to help you relax or work out, for example, she will offer suitable skills that can help. And if you have heard of the fact that Alexa has these things called ‘skills’, but have no idea of a suitable one by name, you can also now say things like, "Alexa, what are your best cooking skills?" or "Alexa, what new travel skills do you have?" and she'll list a few and invite you to pick one. If you don't like the sound of any of them then she'll offer you some more.

You can now also say much more vague things like, "Alexa, what can I say?" and "Alexa, what can I do?" and she'll give a range of different tips and suggestions about both built-in abilities and third-party skills to try. It's like a pick 'n' mix of snippets from her (non-existent) user manual, combined with some recent or recommended skills.

So easy - so useful

Yes, some of those skills are just bizarre fact, corny joke or burp generators it's true - but many add invaluable utility to your Echo. 

I can ask Alexa for important medical information (using the Virtual Nurse skill or the now built-in range of expert NHS information, for example) or for cooking and shopping suggestions (using the Recipedia or BBC Good Food skills). As a blind person, those instant answers I get from Alexa are infinitely preferable to long, involved internet searches and so often rely on these third-party abilities.

Photo of bunch of silver keys

I can also ask Alexa to ring my phone (using the IFTTT skill), find my keys (using a handy little Bluetooth gizmo on my keyring and the Tile skill) and to check that the lights are off (using some smartbulbs and the Hue skill). Again, all of which need you to know about the existence of these superb add-on abilities called Skills.

Alexa is so incredibly useful for everyone that I am pleading with you; don't limit her abilities by ignoring skills. Help us get the news out there. Tell your friends that they exist and, after you've tried a few out for yourself, let them know your favourites.

Oh and by the way - for people with disabilities, using their Echo to the max can literally be life-changing. For a range of examples of just how, check out some of my other recent smartspeaker-related articles below. 

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