Amazon embeds Alexa voice assistant into shopping app on iPhone

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Amazon.com Inc. is moving to target a much broader segment of potential users beyond its own popular Echo devices by embedding its Alexa voice assistant into its iPhone shopping app.

The update started rolling out today and will provide access to all the key features that can be found in the Echo smart speakers with which Alexa originally shipped three years ago. Since the Amazon app is geared mainly toward shopping, the new integration naturally places the emphasis on streamlining mobile purchases. 

Users can ask Alexa to search for a certain type of item with voice commands, narrow down the results based on factors such as price or rating and then have the assistant automatically place an order. From there, the Amazon app makes it possible to request audio updates about the status of a package while it’s in transit, which should be particularly convenient when purchasing multiple items that each have a separate delivery date.

Another area where Alexa can come handy is managing digital media purchases. Users with an extensive collection of audio books, for instance, could simply command the assistant to play a certain title instead of having to open their library and manually track it down. The new voice support also makes it easier to organize music playlists by providing the ability to schedule songs based on various categories ranging from genre to bands.

Lastly, Alexa doubles as a general-purpose assistant for handling everyday chores. Users can employ the Amazon App to look up information on the web, check the weather and perform basic calculations. They also have access to the so-called Skills that are offered by third parties to augment Alexa’s default feature set — which starts to approach competition with Apple Inc.’s own native Siri voice assistant, if only when the Amazon app is being used.

Earlier this week, Amazon lowered the entry barrier for developers looking to extend the assistant by launching a promotion that lets them host Skills on its cloud platform at no charge up to a certain point. The offer is part of a broader campaign to widen the reach of Alexa that extends far beyond Echo speakers and iOS. The software has so far been embedded in most of everything from refrigerators to robotic vacuums.

Amazon’s effort will most likely see Alexa come to the Android version of its shopping app as well, now that iOS is supported. The company uses Google’s operating system to power its Fire tablets, which means that broadening support to other devices should be the natural next step.

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