The Perils of Alexa certification

I’ve got my first skill up on Amazon’s Alexa service. It’s called Travel Stories and it’s not very exciting. To be honest, it could have done with more work, but there’s an offer of free Alexa  Echo Dots in return for submitting a new skill. So this post will be about two things: my experience with the certification process; and Amazon’s desperate drive to get developers producing new skills.

One of the biggest boasts about Alexa compared with other voice interfaces is that it has many more skills available – 15,000 compared with hundreds on Apple. The problem is that a lot of these skills are not very good. Amazon has templates for basic voice apps with the idea that developers will customise these. It means there are a lot of skills which recite pieces of trivia. Travel Stories is pretty much one of these in its first incarnation.

In an BBC new article, Amazon’s race to make Alexa smarter, Leo Kelion pointed out that “For all the promise of compelling new ways to control home appliances or on-demand news updates from major media brands, there seem to be a mountain of apps dedicated to delivering “fun facts”, gags, wacky noises and a vast range of ambient sounds.

When Amazon’s representative was challenged on this, he said “I guess I would not agree with the thesis that some of the skills are not sticky – many of them are… You never know which one of those Cat Facts is going to turn into the next big thing. There are many examples of that out there.

The lack of an example here, the absence of a well-known case where a cat skill became famous, underlines the issue. There are a lot of not-very-interesting skills for Alexa.

Alongside prizes, Amazon’s push for new skills also includes huge discounts on the AWS services needed. Amazon have also began directly paying the makers of successful skills. There’s a lot of encouragement to work with the platform.

On a more positive note, Amazon have a fast efficient certification service that aims to get skills moved through as quickly as possible. I originally submitted my new skill at the start of July. At the Amazon Workshop we’d been warned that 70% of skills failed because example phrases do not occur in the sample utterances. According to Amazon I failed for two reasons

* “The example phrases that you choose to present to users in the companion app must be selected from your sample utterances. These sample utterances should not include the wake word or any relevant launch phrasing.
* “If the session closes after launching the skill, a core functionality must be completed without prompting users to speak.

The first of these was clumsiness on my part – somehow I fell for a trap I’d be warned about. I’m still not sure why my sample utterances failed and the ones Amazon suggested worked. I’m sure this check could be automated in some way before certification. The response was short and to the point so that a few minutes work, editing the code and my sample utterances, was all I needed to get through the second time.

You can now add my skill to your Alexa device, but I’m not sure why you would. Certification is more about quantity and quality. But I do have interesting plans for my skill, and I’ll be working on them soon.

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