Thursday, 15 February 2018 09:46

Alexa routines now make it smartest smart assistant


The Alexa app has been updated, bringing with it routines and pushing it to the top of the smart home assistant list.

Standing in your home and saying, “Hey Siri, turn off the hallway light” or “Hey Google, turn on the air-conditioner” or “Alexa, turn off the heater” is all well and cool. Yet, the future we imagined back in 20th century TV shows where we verbally instruct computers and cars and spaceships to do things is not quite as it would seem.

The big problem is chaining multiple commands together. You typically don’t want to just turn off one set of lights. You might want to turn one off, dim another, turn another on, and change it to a specific colour while playing some music for 30 minutes, and perform a range of other actions whether they be device control, music, news, anything.

Until recently, the only option was to work with ITTT - “if this then that” - and Stringify, two online services that link various other services together so an event somewhere — in this case, an utterance — invokes an action or actions, subject to the latency inherent in using third-party services.

Google recently introduced the “and” clause to its home assistant, allowing you to say “Hey Google, turn off the lights and set an alarm for 7am.” Unfortunately, you can only use "and" only once. You cannot say “Hey Google, A and B and C …” or any other longer series of commands. Who wants to stand there uttering a lengthy list of instructions to your home assistant anyway?

Apple’s brand new HomePod offers no satisfaction here, but today, Amazon has given greater power to its Alexa-powered Echo device users.


Specifically, the Alexa app now includes routines. It also includes greater ability to detect and manage home devices from within the app (vs. saying "Alexa, discover devices") and that’s appreciated, but Alexa already could control devices — as can Google Home, as can Apple HomePod — even if now simpler. The big one for me is routines. This is powerful and will be a welcome addition to those who are using their home assistant to control multiple devices, to receive information, to manage their schedules, to listen to music, and many other things.

With the new routines feature you can construct a command with words of your own choosing, then sequence action after action after action, constructing a chain of things which Alexa will do when you issue this one voice command. You can also make these actions to be performed by a specific Echo device instead of the one you are speaking to. You might have an Echo Plus in the lounge room, an Echo in the kitchen and an Echo Dot by your bedside table and can tell any of your Echos to run the routines on your Echo Dot so it is the one telling you the news.


This is a welcome feature and Google and Apple will need to catch up. Now I just need Amazon (and Apple) to add the "broadcast" feature which Google offers, and I would struggle to find other things which the competition do and Alexa does not.


Further reading

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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