Along with yesterday's announcements of a half-dozen new gadgets, including new Echo devices, Amazon also detailed some of Alexa's new abilities, due to arrive in the near future. One of the more interesting additions, arriving this fall, is something called "Routines." Designed primarily for those interested in automating their smart home with simpler commands, routines will allow Alexa users the ability to trigger multiple actions at the same time - like turning off the lights, locking the door, and turning off the television - with a command like, "Alexa, good night."
The larger idea here is to make controlling smart home devices through Alexa easier by automating several tasks at once. In this sense, Amazon is playing catch-up with Apple whose Home app already supports the idea of "Scenes" - a series of changes to smart home accessories that can be enabled by asking Siri.
But in Amazon's case, it's taking the idea of combining tasks a bit further. Instead of only working with smart home devices - like thermostats, lights, smart locks, and other connected devices - Routines can include other actions, like Alexa's Flash Briefing, or your weather and traffic updates.
That means you could create a Routine like "Alexa, good morning" that would switch on your lights, start your connected coffee pot brewing, then give you the latest news via your personalized briefing, and your daily forecast.
The combination of several tasks into a single command is also the first step towards making interacting with Alexa simpler. Instead of having to remember how to launch a skill, or ask for each item you need (news, weather, traffic) as separate voice commands, you'll be able to use fewer words to kick Alexa into action. That's something that would make sense to expand even further beyond the smart home in the future.
For example, you should be able to ask about your day and get answers referencing your calendar appointments and meetings, upcoming trips from a travel planner, general reminders, a readout of your messages (like those that came in via Alexa's messaging system) or social apps, updates on your Amazon shipments, reminders to shop for an upcoming birthday, or other items that you need to hear about on a daily basis, as imported from other skill.
Or you could ask Alexa for some "me time," and have the lights dimmed, the blinds shut, and then a third-party meditation skill launched.
With Routines, there's also a need now for multiple, custom flash briefings - a morning one for important news and stockers, perhaps, and an evening one that's more entertainment focused, or includes sports updates.
Unfortunately, third-party Alexa Skill developers outside the smart home space won't be able to tap into Routines at this time. But it sounds like that's something Amazon may consider in the future.
"We’ve received positive feedback from our developer community around Routines," a company spokesperson said, when we asked about its future plans in this space. "As we do with all of our features, we will continue to improve and evolve them over time." Vague, but promising?
The spokesperson also noted that automating the smart home was a "logical first use case" for Routines.
All smart home devices that are compatible with Amazon Alexa will support Routines automatically, without any additional work on the developers' part, we understand.
When the feature goes live, Alexa users will be able to create Routines using the Alexa companion app.
In addition to Routines, Amazon is also improving Groups which will also make it easier to control smart home devices as you'll no longer need to remember their specific names.
To use this option, you'll place your Echo devices into smart home groups. That way, you'll be able to use a simpler command like "Alexa, turn on the lights" when you enter the kitchen, instead of "Alexa, turn on the kitchen overhead lamp."
It's the sort of change that imagines a future where customers have their home blanketed in Alexa-powered devices (some already do, of course.) But with the launches of the new Echo, the smart home-focused Echo Plus, the Echo Spot alarm clock, to complement the existing Echo Dot, Echo Show, and Echo Look, Amazon is making a big bid to be computing platform for the home as well as the control center for all the home's devices.
An updated Alexa Smart Home Skill API is available now for developers looking to support Alexa's newer smart home experiences, and those to come in the future.
However, the new consumer-facing features will not become available until next month, says Amazon.