Amazon proudly announced today it's adding its 10,000th skill to the Echo, the company's artificially intelligent speaker. About a year ago, I wrote a love letter to my Echo praising it as the ultimate gadget for a lazy stoner. The prospect of greatness seemed so obvious. The speaker was quickly getting smarter, and soon I'd be able to control most of my home from it, right?
After a year of waiting for more useful skills to hit the Echo, I've finally given up. The issue is that I — like many other Echo owners — only use two or three different skills. I ask it for the weather every morning, occasionally set an alarm, and sometimes play music. That's it. I could easily get by with a bluetooth speaker and a smartphone.
The Echo's fall from grace is heartbreaking considering how bright its future looked a year ago. It had just learned its 1,000th skill, completing a trifecta of killer features that made it great for lazy pot smokers. It could order pizza from Domino's, hail a ride from Uber, and play music from Spotify — all by shouting at a speaker. This was the future I'd always envisioned.
What I've learned in the past year is that you can't really complete any important tasks with the Echo. Anything that requires attention to detail is impossible to do. For example, if I ask my Echo for my calendar events, and I happen to space out in the middle, there's no easy way for me to go back or review an event. On my phone, I could easily scroll back to the date.
Little inconveniences like this are baked into most of the skills. When Amazon released the its Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) in June 2015, it opened the floodgates for developers who wanted to use the Echo's voice-recognition to control their products. Most of the developers, however, have built useless skills.
Let's take a look at some of the skills featured in the Echo's companion app and their official descriptions:
- Dogecoin Price: "This fetches the Dogecoin price in USD from www.cryptonator.com.Much blast-from-the-past. Such meme. Wow."
- Ask My Buddy: "If you have fallen, or need help, Ask My Buddy lets you immediately alert someone in your Personal Alert Network that you need them to check on you."
- Shakespeare Insults: "Ask Alexa for Shakespeare to give you an insult. This skill pulls from hundreds of options to get an insult written by the bard himself."
- Guess My Number: "Think of a number between 0 and 100 (both exclusive) and Alexa will try to guess what it is by a few turns of asking about whether it is high or low."
- Elf Name Generator: "It does what it ways in the title, it gives you your elf name based on what alexa asks you, simply follow the instructions and you will possibly become the next Twinkly McSprinkles!"
- Fresh Sneaker of the Day: "The perfect Alexa Skill for sneakerheads, Fresh Sneaker of the Day lets you know the history of some of the world's best-loved shoes. Open the Fresh Sneaker of the Day skill, and learn daily facts about the shoes you know and love. Be careful though, you may just get addicted to fly kicks."
- The Magic Door: "The Magic Door is an Alexa-powered interactive adventure with original stories. You can tell Alexa what choices to make as you navigate a forest, a garden, or an ancient temple. You can find hidden items, solve riddles, and help magical creatures. You can also find magical items to get a prize!"
- Bird Sounds: "Perfect to recreate a magic ambiance of nature at home."
- Cheers Me: "Cheers Me is an entertaining way to toast to things that matter, giving you choices for whichever social environment you are in. Cheers Me has toasts for a variety of occasions and languages. You can toast to family, friends, work, love, or health. You can also find funny toasts, or hear toasts in over 15 languages."
- Cat Facts: "If you've ever wanted to know more about your feline overlords, Cat Facts is for you! Get fun cat facts at any time. Almost one hundred facts available!"
- People Born Today: "The Skill lists randomly selected people, who were born on this day in history. The data is taken from Wikipedia."
- Snow Facts: "Learn how snow forms, what a blizzard is, different types of snow sports and more."
- Naughty Talk: "A useless Alexa Skill for listening to Alexa talk naughty."
I could literally do this all night, so I'll stop right there. It should give you at least some insight into how incredibly bad most of these skills are. Of course, there are more reputable companies developing skills for Echo like Starbucks and UPS, but I question whether the skills will actually be that helpful.
With all of this said, I'm not getting rid of my Echo. I still enjoy yelling at it for the news and weather. But I've also given up hope on the newer skills. I'm convinced there won't be any useful ones added anytime soon. Still, the novelty of yelling at a speaker and telling it (occasionally) to shut up hasn't worn off.