Hey Alexa! What's new with you?
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Kesha Williams
Kesha Williams

Hello! I’m Kesha Williams, an Alexa Champion and AWS Machine Learning Hero. Welcome to What’s New With Alexa, a quarterly series where I highlight new features of the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK).

Let me start by saying that Alexa and I are really good friends! Our friendship began in 2015, and we hold conversations on a daily basis! I’ve developed many types of applications during my 25 years in software engineering, and I can most definitely say that developing apps (i.e. skills) for Alexa has been the most fun.

I’ve found that it’s easy to transition your knowledge of software engineering, web development, or coding in general to building with Alexa because you’re able to use some of the more popular programming languages to author the back-end code for your skill. Even if you’ve never coded before, you can get your start using Alexa Skill Blueprints. Alexa is a great entry point to artificial intelligence and machine learning. If you’ve considered developing for Alexa before, but never made that step, now is the time!

Ready to learn more from Kesha?

Check out her Certified Alexa Skill Builder Specialty Exam course

The Amazon Alexa team continues to add new features to the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) providing voice developers new and exciting capabilities. As a voice developer, I enjoy the challenge of learning a new feature and figuring out how it can best be incorporated into my existing skills. I’ve looked at the new features released over the last few months and have provided a curated list just for you! Let’s talk about my top 10 favorites.

#1 – Certain updates to live skills can be made instantly

There is a new automated certification process for certain updates made to live skills. For any voice developer that has gone through the certification process, you know how exciting this is! There is now an “Update Live Skill” button that will allow changes to slot values and utterances to be fast-tracked through the certification process. This means that you can update your live skills within minutes. Read more on the Alexa blog.

#2 – Custom slots can be shared between your skills

Thanks to this new feature, you can create custom slots independent of your skills. This means slots can be shared and reused across your skills. Imagine the time you will save in slot maintenance, especially for slots that change frequently. This feature also allows you to easily maintain consistency across your skills.  You should definitely check this new feature out! Read more on the Alexa blog.

#3 – A release date can be picked for changes to your live skill

Gone are the days when a skill is immediately published once it passes through the certification process. You can now control when changes are made available to your users. When submitting your skill for certification, you now have two options: “certify and publish” or “just certify”. Read more on the Alexa blog.

#4 – Support for additional AWS Lambda regions as endpoints

Thanks to this new feature, you can host your Alexa skill’s Lambda in additional regions. This will greatly improve latency since the Lambda can be hosted in the same region as other skill resources like DynamoDB, S3, etc.

Allowed AWS Lambda Regions
US East (Ohio)EU (Frankfurt)Asia Pacific (Hong Kong)
US East (N. Virginia)EU (Ireland)Asia Pacific (Mumbai)
US West (N. California)EU (London)Asia Pacific (Seoul)
US West (Oregon)EU (Paris)Asia Pacific (Singapore)
Canada (Central)EU (Stockholm)Asia Pacific (Sydney)
South America (Sao Paulo)Middle East (Bahrain)Asia Pacific (Tokyo)

Read more documentation.

#5 – New metrics provided to improve your skill’s performance

There are now two new metrics on the Analytics tab under the Performance section dedicated to the AWS Lambda endpoint: endpoint latency and endpoint response. In the past, the only way to monitor the AWS Lambda was through CloudWatch. These new metrics will help you reduce endpoint latency and improve responsiveness of your skills.  Read more on the Alexa blog.

#6 – Skill permissions for Reminders now voice enabled

In order for your skill to set reminders, users must give your skill permission. In the past, the skill would have to send a card to the Alexa app when requesting permissions and the user would have to open the Alexa app to grant permissions to the skill. Now, users can give the needed permissions via voice. This change makes it easier for users to grant permissions so you should see an increase rate at which you get permissions granted. I’m hoping they expand this to other permission requests like those needed for customer profile information, address data, etc. Read more on the Alexa blog.

#7 – Alexa now has real emotions

Alexa emotions give you the ability to have Alexa reply with either a happy/excited or a disappointed/empathetic tone. This neat feature provides a more delightful user experience and makes Alexa seem more real. I have the perfect use for the disappointed/empathetic tone in one of my gaming skills when users lose a round. For now, this feature is limited to the US. Read more on the Alexa blog.

#8 – In-Skill Purchasing (ISP) expanded to France, Italy, and Spain

Developers across France, Italy, and Spain can now monetize their skills using In-Skill Purchasing (ISP). ISP is a huge incentive for voice developers as it allows us to earn money by offering premium content within our skill. I know a voice developer that was able to buy a Tesla using the money he earned through ISP and developer rewards. This expansion should make developers in France, Italy, and Spain super happy! Read more on the Alexa blog.

#9 – Ability to save and clone Alexa Presentation Language (APL) documents from within the authoring tool

The Alexa Presentation Language (APL) allows you to create visual experiences to accompany your skill; the experiences are stored in JSON documents. This new feature allows you to save and clone your APL documents right in the authoring tool. In the past, the only way to save an APL document was to copy and paste the JSON into your favorite text editor and save it from there. This really simplifies the process.  Read more on the Alexa blog.

#10 – Alexa Presentation Language (APL) can control the clock on the Echo Dot with clock

The Echo Dot with clock is one of the newer Echo devices that contains a character-based display. The device typically displays a clock face most of the time; however, the display is alphanumeric so it can be used to display other things like temperature. The new feature adds limited APL support to control the display. Read more on the Alexa blog.

Well, that’s it for this quarter. Hopefully you’ve been inspired by some of the new features added to the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK). I hope you’ll join me in voice development and incorporate some of these new features into your existing skills. See you next quarter!

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