iPhone Users Can Now Access Alexa Through the App
Originally the Alexa app only enabled you to set up your device, change settings and browse skills. Amazon changed that in January allowing Android users to actually access Alexa through the app on mobile. Five months later and we now have Alexa access through the iOS app.
The navigation tray at the bottom of the app screen previously only included the home, messaging and music player icons. An updated navigation tray includes the gear icon for settings on the right and in the middle is the Alexa logo which is how you access the voice assistant. Using Alexa through the iOS mobile app is the same experience experience as the Android mobile app. You tap the Alexa icon and start speaking.
Third Party Streaming Alexa Skills Available, But Not iHeart, Pandora and TuneIn
You can access most Alexa skills, but there are some limitations. For example, you cannot access iHeart, Pandora or TuneIn. Their streaming music and radio services are natively available on the Echo smart speakers. However, when you ask for them through the mobile app, Alexa responds that they “are not supported on this device.” iHeart and TuneIn are the primary method that thousands of radio stations employ to be accessible through Alexa, but they are only accessible through smart speaker and not the app.
Interestingly, radio stations that have implemented custom Alexa skills are available through the mobile app. For example, I was able to access the Cumulus radio station WPLJ in New York by asking for its custom Alexa skill called Ninety-five-five PLJ. I was also able to also access the Voicebot Podcast through the mobile app (N.B. you should definitely try that out right now ;^).
This is similar to the limitations when using Alexa in the Amazon shopping app. You can access first and second party skills from Amazon along with third-party skills. However, there is a class of streaming services that were natively integrated at Echo launch that are not available unless they also have a custom Alexa skill using the AudioPlayer API.
Adding Alexa Access to Your iOS App
Alexa access should show up in your iOS Alexa app when you update to version 1.24.202360.0 or later. To activate, simply tap the Alexa icon in the navigation tray. The app will then walk you through an activation workflow which includes giving the app access to your smartphone microphone. After that is complete, you simply tap the icon to wake Alexa up and start asking for things.
An Important Mobile Beachhead for Alexa
Amazon has had great success getting Alexa embedded in place-centered devices such as smart speakers–both its own and those by other manufacturers–but has not made much progress in person-centered devices such as smartphones. A recent survey by Voicebot and Voysis found that three times more U.S. consumers have accessed a voice assistant on smartphones than on smart speakers. This is where the voice assistant distribution advantages for Siri on iOS and Google Assistant on Android is seen clearly. Amazon typically needs consumers to purchase a new device to get Alexa access. Siri and Google Assistant are already available to anyone with a smartphone and can typically be summoned just by saying their respective wake word.
Having Alexa available through the app is a good step. It is not equivalent to being the native assistant on the device because it lacks deep OS integration and requires touch interaction to activate. But, at least it provides Alexa access without having to acquire a new device. Amazon has done a great job setting up an Alexa beachhead in the homes of U.S. consumers and in several other countries. Its key challenge going forward will be finding a way for Alexa to be even more accessible and more capable on devices that consumers already have. In that category, smartphones are the most important.