Amazon.com (AMZN -0.54%) wants an Alexa device in every home. The voice-controlled personal assistant sits at the heart of Amazon's Echo, Tap, and Fire TV devices, and the ecosystem of compatible gadgets is growing daily.
Alexa has more than 10,000 skills available today, and I'm sure you never saw some of these life hacks coming. Here are six of the most useful, creative, and unexpected things an Amazon Alexa device can do for you today.
"Alexa, ask Domino's to place my easy order."
Feeling peckish? Alexa offers many ways to place an order with your favorite takeout food service. Domino's Pizza was an early adopter, and Yum! Brands quickly followed suit with an ordering skill for its Pizza Hut brand. GrubHub regulars may find its Alexa skill handy, as it allows you to simply repeat any takeout order from your GrubHub history.
"Alexa, tell rain sounds to loop."
Sure, there are many ways to fire up a music playlist through Alexa. Beyond that, some of the most popular Alexa skills today simply play the ambient sounds of a light rainfall, a decent thunderstorm, or ocean waves. Just what you need to wind down after a stressful day, or to get a good night's sleep.
"Alexa, ask Fitbit how many steps I've taken today."
Alexa makes it easy to manage your workouts and keep track of that diet. The service communicates with your connected Fitbit account to keep up with your workout progress, and other fitness-tracker specialists are sure to follow suit. Specialized skills can help you run a quick workout at the drop of a hat, and you can use Alexa to keep track of your daily nutrition goals.
"Alexa, set the master bedroom to 72 degrees."
Controlling smart-home devices is an important part of Alexa's skill set. Your Amazon Echo can control cloud-connected thermostats, power outlets, door locks, and lighting fixtures. You can turn off the TV, dim the lights, and lock the door without getting out of bed.
"Alexa, ask The Fool how my stocks are doing."
Track your investments and bank accounts without lifting a finger. Capital One has already built an impressive suite of tracking and management tools for Alexa, letting you track credit card transactions and checking account balances. You can even make payments for your credit card bills and car loans. Several skills can grab today's business headlines or a quick stock quote, including an easy-to-use skill from The Motley Fool.
"Alexa, ask MyFord Mobile to lock my car."
A handful of major automobile makers already allow Alexa to start and stop, lock and unlock, and otherwise control your connected car. No, you can't tell the car to turn left or navigate to work, but you can ask it to flash the lights, turn on the seat warmers, report the current battery status, and more. Owners of Ford electric models and recent Hyundai cars have access to Alexa skills with official backing from the companies, while Tesla owners currently have to settle for third-party solutions.
Why Amazon wants everyone to use Alexa
This is Amazon building a worldwide partner network. Most of these skills were developed by businesses not named Amazon, or by hobbyists and enthusiasts. Anyone can build an Alexa skill, marrying the voice command decoding of Amazon's devices with data-processing back ends in web services -- hosted on the Amazon Web Serivces platform or anywhere else. It's a classic example of cloud computing in action.
Some of these Alexa skills will work right out of the box, while others require some hands-on configuration. In many cases, you need to enable the specific skill you want and then link it to your account with that service provider. That's how your Alexa knows which car to unlock, what credit card to use with a pizza order, or whose fitness-tracking profile to update with your dinner calories.
Sometimes, you'll need to set up some security safeguards, too. The car control skills, for example, require PINs to keep house guests and children out of managing your wheels.
Alexa is already a powerful personal-assistant tool but it still has a lot of growing up to do. The process of finding and enabling new skills could be smoother, and there's plenty of room to add more skills overall. Sure, 10,000 app-like skills is a good start, but it's nothing next to the 2 million apps found in the leading smartphone app stores.
Virtual digital assistants like Alexa accounted for a $2 billion market in 2016, according to market intelligence form Tractica. By 2021, the same firm expects an annual revenue stream of nearly $16 billion worldwide, including $4 billion for consumer-level devices and $12 billion in the market for enterprise assistants. That's just the hardware and software, tapping into an even larger flow of voice-activated orders and subscriptions.
Getting Alexa right is a big deal for Amazon. Don't forget that Alexa devices make it easy to order more stuff from the leading e-commerce company, so having these tools scattered everywhere could be a game-changer for Amazon's retail operations.