The Future Looks Bleak For Alexa Skill Development

While the average Hackaday reader is arguably less likely than most to install a megacorp’s listening device in their home, we know there’s at least some of you out there that have an Amazon hockey puck or two sitting on a shelf. The fact is, they offer some compelling possibilities for DIY automation, even if you do have to jump through a few uncomfortable hoops to bend them to your will.

That being said, we’re willing to bet very few readers have bothered installing more than a few Alexa Skills. But that’s not a judgment based on any kind of nerd stereotype — it’s just that nobody seems to care about them. A fact that’s evidenced by the recent revelation that even Amazon looks to be losing interest in the program. In a post on LinkedIn, Skill developer [Mark Tucker] shared an email he received from the mothership explaining they were ending the AWS Promotional Credits for Alexa (APCA) program on June 30th.

For those that haven’t tried their hand at developing an Alexa Skill, there’s a frustrating amount of back-end stuff that needs to happen to enable even the most basic of functionality. Not surprisingly, a lot of it relies on Amazon Web Services (AWS), which in turn means somebody has to foot the bill for it. Up until now, Amazon was giving out AWS credits to Alexa Skill developers so this wasn’t as much of a concern. But now that the program is ending, developers will need to decide if its worth coming out of their own pocket to keep their Skills running.

That wouldn’t be such a problem, if it wasn’t for the fact that Alexa Skills are an absolute dumpster fire. The listing of the top Skills is a wasteland — if these are the best voice-enabled applications that have been developed after nearly a decade, we can see why Amazon is ending the gravy train. We’re talking BonziBuddy levels of utility here. Judging by their reviews, it seems even the people using the things hate them.

It’s still possible to self-host Alexa Skills for free, which is probably what most hackers would be doing anyway if they wanted to spin up one of their own. But this definitely isn’t good news for the long-term viability of Skills. One has to wonder how long Amazon will keep the lights on for this particular feature if the big name culturally relevant applications like Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader? decide to bail. If all the blood, sweat, and tears that the developers of Easy Yoga shed to bring a solid 2.5 star experience to nearly 100 people can’t financially sustain itself, what have we been working towards all this time?

We love you too, Tommy.

Of course, Amazon can’t completely abandon Skills. There needs to be some kind of plugin system in place so companies can get their smart crap devices working with Alexa. But we wouldn’t be surprised if, within the next few years, they switch it over to some kind of curated collection. If Belkin is willing to pay Amazon to keep their Wemo devices working with Alexa, so be it.

But as much as we applaud the effort, we think the two of you that developed Skills just to listen to the latest Hackaday posts through your smart speaker might be out of luck.

30 thoughts on “The Future Looks Bleak For Alexa Skill Development

    1. Yep. The vast majority of my users are visually impaired. They love the stuff I do, and some spend hours a day engaged with it. However, it’s not an easily monetizable market, so I do it out of charity. Unfortunately suspending the AWS credits is a real kick in the teeth. I’d already de-platformed from AWS for hosting, as their servers exceeded my limits. Now I’m rushing to migrate off of Dynamo to a local solution, so I can keep the lights on for these disadvantaged kids that I’ve been bringing joy to.
      And, I checked, Amazon don’t have exceptions or alternatives for worthy charitable causes.

  1. Skill development is really about writing software that runs in the cloud, right? I think most people here are more interested in interfacing with the world through IOT devices. To me, that was the weak link (even today opensource IOT projects get by imitating Belkin or Phillips devices) that turned most off.

  2. I was given a 1st Gen Dot for Xmas long ago. The only skill I ever used is the one that lets you write the prompt and response. My sister had asked about our cat one day, “Alexa, is Pebble a good boy? The response of course was “I don’t understand”. The skill let me make it respond with “Yes, Pebble is good boy.”
    Pebble is gone now :-(, so the only things Alexa ever hears are “start a timer for xxx” and at Xmas “Turn Christmas tree on”

    1. Yes, we also use a lot of timers, and ask for a weather (temperature) update before we walk each night.

      We also have two “radio station” skills.

      We tried to use voice commands for our TiVO (it was spotty in it effectiveness) but it’s also too much of a foreshadowing of our societies collapse when we are now too lazy to pick up a remote control.

  3. I have an Alexa and I barely ever use it. The novelty wears off after a while, why expend the energy to turn on the smart bulb using your voice when your phone app can do the same thing, and do it faster.

    Speaking a well structured and articulated question or request directed towards a machine is more effort than taking another machine out of your pocket and tapping on it. I’m sorry its just the truth.

    I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding regarding home assistant devices.


    That said, do you know what would be absolutely amazing, and something that I would buy TODAY? A ready made device which has an 7B or 13B LLM (large language model) on it which can be interacted with speech.

    The individual components are all there (GPUs with 12GB or more VRAM to run the model, a TTS engine and an AI powered STT engine). All someone needs to do is write a wrapper to tie everything together, probably make hardware for it (or at least assemble), and sell the thing.

    LLMs are great, I love talking to them. They are very sweet. Or rude. Whatever their character cards tell them to be like.

    1. ” Speaking a well structured and articulated question or request directed towards a machine is more effort than taking another machine out of your pocket and tapping on it. I’m sorry its just the truth. ”

      No its not. IF you have several smart devices scattered around the home which include lights and fans. it’s much faster to simply say Alexa, goodnight and she will turn on/off all those devices for you.

      1. It proves its value for me when I walk into my lab with my hands full. A simple “Alexa, lights!” turns on all the lights in that room, and it is room specific. The same command in my kitchen only turns on the kitchen lights, etc. Great when I have bags of groceries on both arms.

    2. “Speaking a well structured and articulated question or request directed towards a machine is more effort than taking another machine out of your pocket and tapping on it. I’m sorry its just the truth.”

      Siri call [some name].
      Locate phone app, bring up contact, press name hoping it actually dials instead of some other action.

      1. Carlson m’Amy was a religious leader…

        This is CLI vs GUI all over again, but with added convenience of accent differences and LLM extrapolation scrambling things.

    3. Yeah, using voice is at most 80% of using the phone.

      But also kind of irrelevant, since using the button is easy enough… But also moot since all lights here are already automated.

      But you can ask for a vacuuming, a timer or a radio station/news. Or tell it to heat the car.

      I was going to teach it to print labels, ala e-tkt, because funny! But also google had just taken a similar turn hobbling any custom functions so it’s in the back burner for now. But one day, I shall have mispronounced physical labels, at almost no effort!

    1. He’s dead Jim. *said about the internet* Really how many things do we all own that requires infrastructure not under our direct control to function in a useful manner?

    2. As for me and my house, there will be no ‘cloud’ access to any of my devices on the property. Any automation gadgets I devise or use will be (and is) on a separate network that isn’t connected to the outside world. This even includes printers and data servers. I really don’t see the need for blasting my video, my voice, my data out in the cloud which then is a ripe plumb for some hacker/marketing/etc. to get access too. Not worth it.

  4. We use the “Sleep Sounds” skill, that’s about it. And we have fought and fought with it. “Alexa, ask Sleep Sounds to play Tibetan Bowls”. And it wouldn’t be right. Somehow, that came to be “Sleep Jar”, not “Sleep Sounds”. For a while, it was like once a month we’d have to solve the problem. So “dumpster fire” is right. And honestly, Alexa is dumb as a brick. I wish they tie some AI to it so it can actually answer a question. For a VERY long time, I’d ask something like “How old is Nathan Fillion?” and it would reply with his age, along with “Would you like to know his net worth?” “NO! I DIDN’T $%*(#$ ASK THAT YOU PIECE OF $%*(&$!!!”. (Hopefully Alexa isn’t our new overlord or I’m screwed.)

  5. Dear @Amazon, there’s an AI revolution. Did you not notice?

    In all fairness the root of this whole problem is Amazon’s inability to monetize them. The quickest path to the trash can is Alexa spitting up an ad un-requested.

    It could be truly revolutionary hardware but I think you’d need a non-commercial infrastructure behind it.

  6. I went through the gyration to invoke the Google Voice-HAT on RaspberryPi what seems like an eternity ago (2017). Anything pre-COVID seems like the distant past.

    Anyway, the Voice-HAT had turned a RaspberryPi into a Google Assistant… it worked as well as the Google voice assistant on my Android smartphone … except it was tethered to a wall_wart. Cute.

    A few months later, I converted the G-HAT to be an amplifier only for a RPi Internet radio controlled by an Arduino which pumped serial commands into the RPi serial console to change channels. This project lasted a few years until the majority of Internet streaming radio channels implemented newer tech that pretty much requires that you “hit” the IP with a browser rather than just IP:port from MPC. (I never researched a workaround.)

    I pulled the RPi 3B project from the living room and bought the wife a dedicated Internet Radio as a gift. That was a hit until I purchased her a new Hybrid automobile with SiriusXM. I then enabled the Alexa SiriusXM skill and the dedicated Internet radio is now her travel device. I guess I never explained that she can do Internet radio on her Smartphone and I am not eager to open that door at this time. Baby steps.

    Point is, Alexa makes a good streaming speaker for SiriusXM.
    I do not care about all the backend financials between Sirius and Amazon; my only concern is a contented spouse.

    1. “for SiriusXM” … One of those options to ‘pay to play’. Sirius keeps sending me email spam to subscribe to listen. Nope not going to happen on my watch. So car feature disabled. Wish I could remove that screen in middle of dash and make something useful out of that space. :) Even cup holders would be nice….

      1. “for SiriusXM” … One of those options to ‘pay to play’.”

        I do not have stats on how many Sirius capable automobiles have paid subscriptions; but many dealers give away a free year with a new car purchase. I’m sure that the hope is that after a year, users will renew the subscription. But, it is a personal choice.

        Should one maintain a Sirius subscription AND if the user has Alexia it seems to me that enabling Alexa to stream SiriusXM is a ‘free’ value-add.

        I think your issue is with the automobile manufacturer pre-installing the SiriusXM receiver and then expecting you, the purchaser to subscribe to the music. Having owned several SiriusXM enabled automobiles, I have not known of any obnoxious pressure to obtain or renew a subscription; yes, a few polite emails and after expiration a phone call offering a small discount.

        Music subscriptions are a business, a profit is secured. But, the music subscriptions also benefit artists and musicians who always come up short with every CD copied or every song ripped and played from flash drives.

        To my knowledge, all modern screens allow you to rearrange on-screen icons; just remove SiriusXM icon if it offends you.

        1. There is nothing we use on those screens. Luckily you can turn it ‘off’ and leave it blank. It only comes alive for the backup camera. That’s it.

          Just a few emails a week on setting up a subscription to Sirius and yes it was available for 3 months ‘free’ — which of course we never used. Also Subaru want to setup subscription for enabling the ‘Starlink Safety Plus’ plan to bleed more from your wallet. No thanks and we already told the dealer that when we bought the car. Yet still get spam in our e-mail over these so called ‘services’ they want to up sale to you.

  7. I am one of those developers who wrote 10-15 skills near the start of alexa’s lifetime,and some even had significant traction. Amazon stopped my credits last year (strike 1), which was my only revenue stream from them – I got £££ of credit per month, of which £ paid for the skills, and the other ££ was for my personal sandbox.

    While I learned a lot about creating voice-only interfaces, no one had a business model for skills, so they didn’t hire skill developers. I even approached the alexa team, but not even they were willing to commit money – strike 2. (They once asked me to support one of their clients in return for a mention on their blog!)

    They also pulled out of support meetups and groups pre-covid. When their own dev rels folk aren’t talking to developers, it’s a definite strike 3.

    A shame, for sure, as I have/had a lot of ideas for skills that would provide impact, but I’d rather spend my time where its wanted.

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