A Jack of all trades, but master of none
When in it launched in 2007, the iPhone was clearly something special. But it wasn't until Apple flung open the doors of its new App Store a year later did the smartphone truly come to life.
The hardware was one thing - attractive, impressive, desirable - but what really made the iPhone tick, and what is still turning the iPad into a bone fide laptop replacement, is the App Store. It's the same story with Android too, with apps letting you pay for things, check train times, book flights, communicate, exercise, navigate, and learn. Without these apps, the smartphone is merely a communication tool.
The same cannot be said for the voice assistant and smart speaker. Not even slightly.
Alexa has been with us for over four years now, and at it's last count in January 2019 Amazon proudly announced there are over 80,000 skills available for Alexa to interact with. These, essentially apps for the voice assistant, are supposed to enrich the experience and make Alexa even smarter and more useful.
But this is rarely the case. For a start, the majority of these are only available in the US, according to data published by Voicebot.ai, with precious few available elsewhere. Fewer than 1,000 Alexa skills are available in France, for example.
Deeper issues become apparent when you venture into the skills store on Amazon's website, or through the Alexa smartphone app. Look at the skill store and the editor's picks - a section Alexa users would expect to include the very best skills on offer - lacks much of interest.
Alexa's got 80,000 skills, but a killer app ain't oneGearBrain
One skill, called Daddy-gram, promises a way for children to send a text to their father by speaking to Alexa. Fine, but this skill has just six reviews, a couple of which complain about a subscription being required after a week of use.
This is a common complaint with Alexa skills which are seemingly free, but which later ask for payment. Another promoted on Amazon's Alexa skills home page is called Find My Phone. Once you give the skill your cell number, it will call you when you ask Alexa to find your phone. This is fine - if you're okay giving your number to an unknown developer, of course - but, again, reviews speak of fees being applied after just five uses.
Instead, as one reviewer points out, you can simply add your own number to Alexa's contacts list, then ask it to call you to help locate your phone, using its integrated (and free) calling feature.
Repeating functions already offered by Alexa then packaging them up in an attractive new skill, which carries a hidden subscription model, feels like an early land-grab from developers unsure of how to create something genuinely unique and exciting. It also makes us wonder if Amazon is putting the importance of a huge Alexa skills figure ahead of weeding out duplicate or misleading skills.
Apple is sometimes complained about for banning developers from creating apps which mirror functions already on the iPhone, but here is the problem that rule tries to prevent - skills, sometimes with costs attached, which duplicate what Alexa is already capable of.
A case of 'so what?'
Even when looking at skills from reputable sources - like one called The Sims and from EA - there is an overriding sense of, 'so what?'.
This particular skill can play music from all instalments of The Sims video game on demand, and read out trivia from the game franchise. The skill has a four-star score, but this is an average from just 37 customers, and 22 percent of them gave it one star.
We don't doubt that EA thought long and hard about how it would bring The Sims to Alexa and smart speakers in homes across the US, and a play towards nostalgic Millennials is surely a good place to start. But the developer will quickly have hit the same wall presented by all voice assistants; they just can't do much, and interacting with a computer without a screen is tough.
Even if there was a rich and high-quality selection of skills to install, remembering what you have enabled on your own Alexa - and remembering what they can do, along with what you have to say to activate them - is tricky. Again, without seeing an interface it's hard to know what Alexa can and cannot do - a situation amplified by Amazon's TV ads which show little more than Alexa users changing the color of their living room lights, or telling their kids upstairs that dinner is ready.
Smart displays offer a solution here, but Amazon, Google and Apple will want their respective assistants to work as well on speakers as they do on devices with displays. Splintering off Alexa's intelligence so that it can be smarter on a display doesn't feel like something Amazon will want to do, especially while Echo and Echo Dot sales remain strong.
Lacking in big-name brands
Another problem obvious after a glance at the skills store home page is the lack of big-name brands building skills. News publishers are involved, of course, with Reuters and the BBC offering recorded headline briefings each day. Headspace also offers a particularly good meditation skill, and a handful of car makers have skills to ask Alexa how much gas is in the tank. But the majority of skill developers are unheard of.
All of this would matter greatly if Alexa devices were priced like smartphones, and if buyers of a $50 Eco Dot expected it to change their lives like their first iPhone did a decade ago.
But that isn't the expectation here, and that partly helps Amazon get away with its sub-par skill store. So long as Alexa can play music and radio stations when asked, answer the odd general knowledge question, tell a joke and set cooking timers, most owners will be satisfied. Those who want to build a smart home can do so, with over 28,000 devices from 4,500 brands now working with Alexa. Only those who go digging through the skills store expecting to strike gold will be left disappointed.
Alexa's killer app should be simplicity. Asking it to perform the basics - read the news, set an alarm - is easy and often quicker than doing so with a smartphone or computer. Alexa doesn't need an app store full of mediocre skills, it just needs to nail the basics, and for Amazon to put more effort into educating consumers about what the assistant can do. Very low numbers of reviews suggest hardly anyone is actually enabling any skills, which makes the entire concept of the store front feel like a waste of energy, by both Amazon and its developers.
All you need is...'woof'?
Without much in the way of premium, worthwhile content, the skill store feels like a messy distraction full of apps which overpromise and often seriously under-deliver. It's uninspiring and makes Amazon look like it has tried to replicate the success of the iOS AppStore, but without luring in enough first-class developers to make it a success.
All that said, perhaps simplicity is what Alexa users want more than anything else. One skill that jumped out at us this week, highlighted in both the editor's picks and 'top skills' sections, is Jurassic Bark. Little more than a pun, this skill plays a recording of a dog barking when you ask Alexa to run it. The skill, which for many might seem somewhat pointless, has a four-star rating from 2,500 users, half of which gave it five stars. Dozens of reviewers say how much fun they've had teasing their dogs with it.
Perhaps Alexa doesn't really need a killer app. Being fun - and changing the color of our lights, of course - might be all we really need.