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Amazon revamps its Alexa app to focus on first-party features, more personalization

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After launching a number of new developer tools for Alexa last week, Amazon today is introducing an updated version of its Alexa mobile app for consumers. The new app aims to offer a more personalized experience, particularly on users’ home screens, and offers more instructions on how and when consumers can use the digital assistant, among other changes. Notably, the app has moved its third-party skill suggestions off the main screen, to increase focus on how consumers are actually using Alexa.

The redesign offers an updated home screen, with a big Alexa button now at the top informing users they can either tap or say “Alexa” to get started.

This is followed by a list of personalized suggestions based on what consumers’ usage of the app indicates is important to them — whether that’s reminders, a recently played item like their music or an Audible book, access to their shopping list and so on.

Users may also see controls for features that are frequently accessed or currently active, like the volume level for their Echo devices, so they can pick up where they left off, Amazon says. It’s worth noting that these Echo devices could include Echo Buds, Amazon’s Alexa-powered wireless earbuds, which could be key to its plans of enabling Alexa’s newly announced capabilities for controlling mobile apps.

For first-time users, the Alexa app will offer more tips on what to do on mobile. For instance, new users may see suggestions about playing songs with Amazon Music or prompts to manage their Alexa Shopping List.

Meanwhile, the app’s advanced features — like Reminders, Routines, Skills and Settings — have been relocated under the “More” button as part of the redesign.

The changes don’t necessarily mean Amazon has decluttered the Alexa home screen, however.

Because the update moved the Alexa button to the top of the screen, it has left room in the navigation bar for a new button: “Play,” which encourages media playback.

The revamp also suggests that Alexa’s dedicated app hasn’t exactly found its sweet spot to become part of users’ daily lives.

Before, the app had featured the date and weather at the top of the screen — an indication that Amazon had hoped the app would be something of a daily dashboard. (See below). Now, the company seems to understand that users will launch the app when they want to do something Alexa-specific. That’s why it’s making it easier to get to recent actions, so they can effectively pick up where they left off on whatever they were doing on their Echo smart speaker, for example.

In addition, the new app notably deprioritizes Alexa’s third-party voice apps (aka “skills”), which have not yet evolved into an app ecosystem to rival its mobile counterparts, like the Apple App Store for iOS apps or Google Play. Studies have indicated a large number of Alexa skills weren’t being used, and as a result, the pace of new skills releases has slowed.

Instead of showcasing popular skills on the home screen, as before, the app’s “Skills & Games” section has been shuffled off to the “More” tab. Amazon’s first-party experiences, like shopping, media playback and communications, now take up this crucial home screen real estate.

Amazon says the new app is rolling out worldwide over the month ahead on iOS, Android and Fire OS devices. By late August, all users should be migrated to the new experience.

The Future of American Industry Depends on Open Source Tech

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WHEN YOU STREAM the latest Netflix show, you fire up servers on Amazon Web Services, most of which run on Linux. When an F-16 fighter takes off, three Kubernetes clusters run to keep the jet’s software running. When you visit a website, any website, chances are it’s run on Node.js. These foundational technologies—Linux, Kubernetes, Node.js—and many others that silently permeate our lives have one thing in common: open source.

Open source is a technology development and distribution methodology, where the codebase and all development—from setting a roadmap to building new features, fixing bugs, and writing documentation—is done in public. A governing body (a group of hobbyists, a company, or a foundation) publicly manages this work, which is most often done in a public repository on either GitHub or GitLab. Open source has two important, and somewhat counterintuitive, advantages: speed and security.

These practices lead to faster technological developments, because a built-in global community of developers helps them mature, especially if the technology is solving a real problem. Top engineers also prefer to work with and on open source projects. Wrongly cast as secretive automatons, they are more often like artists, who prefer to learn, work, collaborate, and showcase what they’ve built in public, even when they are barely compensated for that work.

 
But doesn’t keeping a technology’s codebase open make it more vulnerable to attack? In fact, exposing the codebase publicly for security experts and hackers to easily access and test is the best way to keep the technology secure and build trust with end users for the long haul. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and open source is that sunlight in technology. Linux, the operating system, and Kubernetes, the cloud container orchestration system, are two of the most prominent examples.

Open source is not limited to software, but also impacts hardware development. RISC-V, first introduced in 2010 at UC Berkeley, is an open source chip design instruction set architecture—which tells a chip how to do basic computation, like addition, subtraction, multiplication, etc. RISC-V is gaining traction in the hardware manufacturing space throughout the world, because it lowers barriers to entry and increases chip development speed. OpenRAN, an open source 5G networking stack that started gaining momentum in 2016, is also gaining more attention and has already been embraced by the UK and Japanese governments.

 
Using open source technology is now the fastest way new products get built and legacy technologies get replaced. Yet as US policymakers develop their industrial policy to compete with China, open source is conspicuously absent.

 
 
By leaning on the advantages of open source, policymakers can pursue an industrial policy to help the US compete in the 21st century in line with our broader values. The alternative is to continue a top-down process that picks winners and losers based on not just technology but also political influence, which only helps individual firms secure market share, not sparking innovation more broadly. A few billion more dollars won’t save Intel from its technical woes, but a healthier ecosystem leveraging open source technology and community would put the US in a better position for the future.

Open source technology allows for vendor-neutrality. Whether you’re a country or a company, if you use open source, you’re not locked in to another company’s technical stack, road map, or licensing agreements. After Linux was first created in 1991, it was widely adopted by large companies like Dell and IBM as a vendor-neutral alternative to Microsoft’s Windows operating system. In the future, chip designers won’t be locked into Intel or ARM with RISC-V. With OpenRAN, 5G network builders won’t be forced to buy from Huawei, Nokia, or Ericsson.

However, open source is not the panacea to all problems. By definition, anyone can run, change, copy, and distribute an open source technology. Thus, the technology and knowledge transfer can go to friends or foes. Indeed, China’s technology sector is starting to embrace open source—a sensible thing to do for a country looking to maintain its rapid growth and establish technological self-reliance in the face of US sanctions.

This should not scare American policymakers, because the core values of open source—transparency, openness, and collaboration—play to America’s strengths. The Department of Defense is one of the largest consumers of open source technologies and is well versed in the intricacies and nuances. A few federal agencies have also open-sourced their code, as part of the Federal Source Code policy instituted during the waning days of the Obama administration in 2016. Among other things, this policy requires all federal agencies to open-source 20 percent of their custom-made codebase. Today, anyone can find and use the code open-sourced from these departments on code.gov. Both the policy and the code repositories are managed publicly and transparently—as all good open source projects should be.