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  • Writer's pictureRon Jaworski

What are Audio Skills and Actions?

Updated: Feb 10, 2022

The increasing speed of everyday life has led to a growing demand for voice interaction capabilities, highly appreciated because of the multitasking and hands-free experience they provide. We’re inevitably moving toward an audio-centric future where we no longer have to use our fingers to enable specific options, perform certain tasks and activities, seek information, shop, etc.

In fact, right now we can do plenty of things using nothing but our vocal cords thanks to Alexa Skills and Google Assistant Actions that largely offer these capabilities. I’d be remiss to not mention Apple’s Siri and Samsung’s Bixby and I will, but in a totally different post. For now, the focus in on arguably the two biggest names in voice assistant sphere.

So, what exactly are these skills and actions that are featured so prominently in these voice-oriented discussions? Let’s take a look.

Alexa Skills

I’ll start with the front (so to speak) that makes these skills possible: Alexa. Alexa is a cloud-based virtual assistant and platform developed by the multinational technology giant Amazon. It was initially released on November 2014, and the world hasn’t been the same ever since.

By that, I mean the use of Alexa’s capabilities expanded from Amazon Echo smart speakers to a wide array of other smart devices and third-party gadgets. On its own, Alexa can do many, many cool and useful things: create to-do lists, set alarms, provide news, traffic, and weather information, play music and audiobooks, stream podcasts, and more. Although these features are indeed impressive, they are still somewhat limited considering what Alexa is able to do with proper “encouragement”.

This is where skills step in and take over the show. To be more specific, Alexa’s capabilities can be built-upon by installing third-party “skills”. These are essentially voice apps that provide additional Alexa functionality, helping create a more personalized and convenient voice assistant experience.

Or not.

Like traditional apps, Alexa Skills are divided into categories. The majority are free, with a fair share of those that require a subscription to unlock all of their features (developers have to make money somehow, after all). They don’t come preinstalled so you need to ask Alexa to enable the specific skill before you can use it. You can also enable the skill on Amazon’s website by browsing through the categories or use the Alexa mobile app to find the skills you want.

Shameless plug alert: if you’re looking to get started with Alexa Skills, you might want to check out our series of posts titled ‘How to make Alexa smarter’, in which we covered (to date) best games, productivity skills, as well as health and fitness skills. There is also a post on routines – a sort of custom-made skills you make yourself. We keep updating those posts and more are in the works so stay tuned.

Google Actions

Similar to Alexa, its main competitor Google Assistant has Actions or applets that expand the basic capabilities of Google Assistant into something far more encompassing.

First unveiled in May 2016 as part of Google’s messaging app Allo and voice-activated Google Home speaker, Google Assistant was available only on the Pixel smartphone at first. Much like its Amazon counterpart, it followed a similar trajectory from deployment on other Android devices to support on numerous smart devices.

Just like skills, actions are divided into categories and allow you to ask your virtual assistant about the weather, news, traffic, order food, listen to meditation instructions, play a game, help you study, hear a podcast, give you a random dad joke (one of my favorite Actions), create routines, control your smart home gadgets, and lots of other stuff.

Now you and your kids can be messy as much as you want.

Unlike Alexa skills that you need to download and enable separately, you don’t need to download anything to begin using any Google Assistant Action. Simply request the action by typing or speaking to the Assistant, using a phrase like “Hey Google, talk to Google IO”. This tells the assistant which action to talk to and the communication continues as a two-way dialog until you achieve your intent with the action.

Interesting tidbit: although in January 2019 there were only around 4,250 Google Assistant Actions in comparison to 80,000 Alexa Skills, Actions are recording a faster growth rate – so much so that there are over a million of them. If you’re wondering how is that possible, even with the two-year headstart Alexa had, Kane Simms has a pretty good theory – I highly advise checking it out. At the end of the day – the numbers really don’t matter as long as you’re making use of available skills/actions.

Two different things making our lives easier

Basically, both Alexa Skills and Google Actions are two sides of the same coin. The endgame is generally the same: to be a more functional cross-device personal assistant. Without going into which voice assistant has an advantage (because that’s not the point of this post), let’s just say that regardless of their respective differences, both Alexa Skills and Google Actions offer virtually the same advantages: better functionality of their respective platforms and more convenience to us, their users.

Some of the examples that both Skills and Actions include are the ones from some of everyone’s favorite brands. You can hail a ride with Uber, order your drink/snack of choice at Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, get Domino’s Pizza delivered to your doorstep, listen to music via Spotify, order tickets for various events through Ticketmaster, and so on.

Need help with your kids? No worries, both Alexa and Google have got you covered with stories, disciplining options, chores management, study guides, and more. Interested in Bikram yoga? Yep, there are plenty of Skills and Actions to assist both you and your dog.

Pffft, amateur.

However, not only individuals (and their pets) can benefit from them. Thanks to their features that allow easy integration, both provide advantages to brand owners as well. They give them options to reach their customers in new, better, more interactive and more immersive ways than ever before.

That’s the beauty of this technology: it can give a voice to whatever it is you are doing, whether it’s to engage your audience, help users buy your products, book appointments – you name it. Ultimately, isn’t that what everybody wants out of voice technology – a way to customize and expand capabilities in order to entirely personalize user experience according to unique requirements and needs?

That’s it for now, be on the lookout for a sequel post (sort of) focusing on Siri Shortcuts and Bixby Capsules, their respective versions of skills/actions.

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