Developers Are Struggling to Create Alexa-Centric Killer App

Four years after launching its program to allow outside developers to write apps for Alexa, Amazon’s voice system has some 80,000 “skills” — but no huge hit. In fact, most people with Alexa-enabled smart speakers still use them only to listen to music or make simple requests. That compares to Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store, each of which are home to over 550,000 apps, many of which have been huge successes for developers. But voice-centric apps are challenging to build and don’t appear to attract consumers.

Bloomberg reports that Alexa “poses problems for developers, who encounter a steep learning curve in building voice apps,” since they have to “unlearn old habits” to swap visual cues for verbal ones. Users may also find it more difficult to discover multiple apps on a voice-based service.

To counter that, Amazon started “emailing recommendations to Echo owners, programming a range of prompts users can say aloud to try new things, and referring users to the companion Alexa smartphone app.” Amazon currently has 10,000 employees working on “Alexa software and related devices,” and chief executive Jeff Bezos “remains personally involved with Alexa.” But Amazon still struggles to “build a more dynamic app marketplace.”

Voice-centric apps are also a challenge for Apple and Google. Voice software news site Voicebot and Voicify, which make developer tools, conducted a survey that concluded that half of smart speaker users don’t even seek out such applications. Juniper Research analyst James Moar reported that people look for “a daily news summary, weather, timers and a random fact” — but nothing much beyond that.

Amazon stated that, “four out of five Alexa users have tried a Skill developed by outsiders,” but Amazon senior vice president David Limp, who oversees Alexa, said that “music, for many, was the killer app.” Alexa voice commands are also used to control smart home appliances.

The most popular Alexa Skills tend to be “organized around a single, relatively simple theme, like Schwab’s Sleep Sounds, trivia (Question of the Day), or productivity (a skill called Chompers tells jokes and facts to keep kids from losing focus while brushing their teeth).” But those who haven’t built anything on Alexa are likely still held back by “a lack of expertise with voice recognition technology and the uncertain prospect of making money on the platform amid a prohibition on most advertising on Alexa.”