It’s been a banner year for Alexa, Amazon’s AI assistant.
Millions of Alexa-enabled devices were sold this holiday season, according to an announcement made by Amazon. And an estimate stated that more than 5 million Alexa-enabled devices were sold before the start of the holiday season.
With all of these people speaking to Alexa, which skills have emerged as the year’s favorites? We looked in the Alexa Skills Marketplace for the most-enabled skills and at Amazon’s 2016 Alexa Skills Customer Picks.
Alexa has so many abilities it’s easy to forget that the simplest function is often the most important.
Music is the No. 1 reason people use Alexa, and very basic sounds — like thunderstorms, rain, and ocean waves — are also among the top. Enable this skill and you’ll get thunderstorm sounds, and nothing else, but a lot of people seem to like that.
This is a daily collection of six trivia questions asked in a Jeopardy! style. Like the show, your response must be in the form of an answer, and you have only a few seconds to respond. Each question comes from a different category and was made by writers from the Jeopardy! show.
Fortunately, J6 trivia is easier than trivia from the show.
The Magic Door
This is a choose-your-own-adventure skill that lets you do things like explore the sea, hills, or a dark forest. It’s not always clear what you can do next, but the skill is keen to show you.
There are sleeping dragons, temples, the faint sound of music, and other mysterious sights and sounds to lure you in. This can feel a bit like a novelty, but do this with other people and it’s immediately more fun. Kids really like it.
I wish this skill gave you the option to start and stop. If you stop at any time, the adventure is over.
Stories aren’t meant to be told in Alexa’s monotone voice, but this skill has been rated higher than almost any other skill in the marketplace, and it gets four out of five stars and a big stamp of approval from the Alexa user community.
Short Bedtime Story
Each of these stories is about 30 seconds to one minute long and is personalized to your kid’s name.
There’s a Minions-related story and one that takes place “in a galaxy far, far away.” There’s one in which a kid president gets elected to a second term for giving everybody ice cream. You get the idea.
One story is about a zombie attack, which may not be exactly bedtime story material for most kids still young enough for a bedtime story.
In one, my daughter was named a Nobel Prize winner. I like that. She also received a $100 Amazon Prime gift certificate. I don’t like that. That’s the only streak of commercialization I found in the stories.
When I played this skill for my kid, she asked for more and more stories, so that’s a great sign.
This skill should allow more customization — so that you can select the age of the child, not just their name — because the kind of story a five- or seven-year-old wants to hear is completely different from the kind best suited to a two- or three-year-old.
I don’t think I’d ever make Alexa my prime source for bedtime stories, in part because of Alexa’s monotone speaking voice, but it is fun to play with for a bit.
Ask My Buddy
Ask My Buddy is a personal alert system. It won’t call 911, but if you need help, you can tell Ask My Buddy to alert one or all of your friends, family members, or caretakers via SMS, email, or even a phone call.
This skill taps into the hidden deep value of a hands-free device. It may be Alexa’s answer to why its assistant will spread to devices beyond an Echo or FireTV and into the homes of senior citizens who are not inclined to otherwise own an AI assistant.
The Alexa software development kit has already been used to put Alexa into a wheelchair, and years from now we may all look back and wonder why we ever made a cane without Alexa built in.
This skill comes from the 2016 Alexa Customers Picks list.
It is ideal for hands-free devices, but maybe not so much for owners of the Tap Echo.
This is like trivia turned on its head, because the skill asks you a bunch of questions, and it’s pretty smart.
One criticism: The questions can come too fast to allow you to think. Slowing this down would make the game more fun.
This skill gives you an audio clip — complete with inspiring music — like words from Steve Job’s famous 2006 commencement address at Stanford University.
I could definitely see this being incorporated into an IFTTT applet to start your day.
Applets are what IFTTT used to call “recipes,” and you create them to combine multiple commands into a single voice-enabled command for the likes of Alexa and Google Assistant.
So you can you create an applet that’s triggered when you say “Alexa, it’s time to start the day” that will turn on your lights, start making your coffee, give you a news briefing, and then activate the Inspire Me skill.
I can see why this skill is popular, but it seems to be missing many figures typically associated with the word “inspiring.” Instead you get athletes, celebrities, and what people sometimes call “thought leaders.”
I asked for Gandhi and got Tony Robbins. A request for Tupac Shakur gave me Oprah Winfrey, and I asked for Confucius and got Peyton Manning. Where’s Churchill? Kennedy? Frida Kahlo?
This is a cool concept, but the skill needs more quotes from truly inspirational people to be considered complete.
Perhaps the best part of this skill: Each inspirational quote delivers a biography of the speaker to your Alexa app, so you can learn more if you didn’t know them before.
My Pregnancy from BabyCenter
This skill can give you weekly updates about what’s happening with your pregnancy. Millions of modern parents rely on BabyCenter, so bringing this skill to Alexa makes a lot of sense.
This skill can tell you how to prepare more than 12,000 different cocktail recipes. It’s not unique to Alexa. It’s also one of the first conversation actions available in Google Home.
Together with Alexa, Fitbit was one of the most-downloaded free apps this Christmas. The skill can tell you more than a dozen things about your health and activity, like how much sleep you got last night or your resting heart rate.
As the Fitbit website explains, it cannot sync or help you log water and food intake. I hope this changes. I’ve never understood why so many wearable devices provide data without giving you insights into what exactly the data means. OK, you took 10,000 steps today and burned a specific number of calories, but so what? How does that compare to a week ago? Most importantly, have I accomplished the actions I need to in order to be a healthy human being? Should a man my age, height, and weight do more?
People need a coach, not a spreadsheet.
Any additional thoughts on these skills or others you think should be included? Ping @kharijohnson on Twitter.