What Is Alexa?

How to interact with Amazon Alexa

Amazon Alexa Logo
Amazon Alexa Logo. Image provided by Amazon

Alexa is the Amazon digital voice assistant. It can be used on smartphones and Amazon's line of Echo products.

Alexa was inspired by the interactive computer voice used in the original Star Trek TV series. The word "Alexa" was chosen because the "X" is more easily recognizable for voice recognition, and the word is also a homage to the famed ancient Library at Alexandria.

Interacting verbally with machines used to be the stuff of science fiction and, although we haven't quite entered the era where intelligent machines have taken control of our lives, digital voice assistance is quickly becoming a common feature on consumer electronics devices.

How Alexa Works

The technical details of Alexa are complex but can be summarized in the following manner.

Once enabled (see below on set up), simply saying "Alexa" triggers the start of the service. It will then begin (or attempt) to interpret what you are saying. At the conclusion of your question/command, Alexa sends that recording over the internet to Amazon's Alexa cloud-based servers, where the AVS (Alexa Voice Service) resides.

The Alexa Voice service then converts your voice signals into computer language commands that can execute a task (such as searching for a requested song), or convert the computer language back into sound signals so that Alexa's voice assistant can provide you with information verbally (such as time, traffic, and weather).

If your internet connection is working properly and Amazon's back-end service is also operating properly, the answers can come as fast as you finish speaking.

This is not a rare occurrence – Alexa works remarkably well. 

On products like the Amazon Echo or Echo Dot, information responses are in audio form only, but on the Echo Show, and to a limited extent on a smartphone, information is provided via audio and/or on-screen display. Using an Alexa-enabled Amazon device, Alexa can also pass commands to other compatible third-party devices.

Since the cloud-based Alexa Voice Service is needed in order for questions to be answered and tasks to be performed, connection to the internet is required – no internet, no Alexa interaction. This is where the Alexa App comes in.

Setting Up Alexa on an iOS or Android Phone

Alexa can be used in conjunction with your smartphone or tablet. To do this, first, you need to download and install the Alexa App.

In addition, you need to also download and install a companion app that the Alexa app can see as a device. Two apps to try out are the Amazon Mobile Shopping app and the Alexa Reverb app. Once either of these apps is installed on your smartphone, they will be identified by the Alexa app as devices that it can communicate through. You can use Alexa on either or both these apps wherever you go with your smartphone.

Setting Up Alexa on an Echo Device

If you own an Amazon Echo device, in order to use it, first you need to download and install the Alexa app on a compatible smartphone or tablet, just as discussed above, but, instead of (or in addition to) pairing it with the Amazon Mobile Shopping and/or Alexa Reverb apps(s), you go into the device menu settings of the Alexa app and identify your Amazon Echo device.

The app will then configure itself with your Echo device.

Although you need your smartphone to initially configure Alexa with your Echo device, once that has been done, you do not have to keep your smartphone on – you can communicate with the Echo device using Alexa directly. However, you may need to use your smartphone to activate or change some of the advanced settings or enable new Alexa skills. On the other hand, you typically only need to use your smartphone for Alexa functions if you are away from home, out of vocal range of your home-based Alexa-enabled device, provided you have set the Alexa app with the Amazon Mobile Shopping or Alexa Reverb apps.

The Wake Word

Once Alexa is configured on either your smartphone or Echo device, it is then able to respond to verbal commands or questions using that device.

However, before asking questions or ordering tasks, you need to use "Alexa" as the wake word. Alexa is not the only wake word option, though. For those who have family members with that name, or would prefer to use another wake word, the Alexa App provides other options, such as "Computer", "Echo", or "Amazon."

On the other hand, when using the Amazon Mobile Shopping App for Smartphones or the Alexa Remote for Fire TV devices, you do not have to say "Alexa" before asking your question or ordering a task. Just tap the microphone icon on smartphone touchscreen or press the microphone button on an Alexa Voice Remote and start speaking.

Compatible Alexa Devices

In addition to smartphones (both Android and iOS) Alexa can be configured with, and accessed on, the following devices:

How You Can Use Alexa

Amazon Alexa functions as your personal voice assistant for both accessing information and controlling compatible devices. Alexa can answer questions, tell you traffic or weather information, play news reports, initiate phone calls, play music, manage your grocery list, purchase items from Amazon, and, on the Echo Show, display images and play video. However, you can extend the reach of Alexa further by taking advantage of Alexa Skills.

Alexa Skills provides interaction with additional third-party content and services, as well as further enhancing your lifestyle by turning your Alexa-enabled device into a smart home hub.

Examples of interaction with third-party content and services might include ordering takeout food from a local restaurant, requesting an Uber ride, or playing a song from a specific streaming service, provided you have enabled the designated skill for each of those options.

In its role as a smart home hub, instead of having to access a control pad or use a handheld or app-based remote to control the functions of a specific device, you can just tell Alexa, through a compatible Echo product, in plain English, to turn something on or off, adjust a thermostat, start a washing machine, dryer, or robot vacuum, or even raise or lower a video projection screen, turn a TV on or off, view security camera feeds, and more, if control for those devices has been added to the Alexa Skills database and you have enabled them.

In addition to Alexa Skills, Amazon is in the process of providing the ability for several tasks to be grouped together via Alexa Routines. With Alexa Routines, instead of telling Alexa to perform a specific task via a single skill, you can customize Alexa to perform a series of related tasks with one voice command.

In other words, instead of telling Alexa to turn off the lights, the TV, and lock your door via separate commands, you can simply say something like "Alexa, Good Night" and Alexa will take that phrase as a cue to perform all three tasks as a routine.

By the same token, when you wake up in the morning you can say "Alexa, Good Morning" and, if you set up the routine beforehand, Alexa can turn on the lights, start the coffee maker, provide you with the weather, and activate your daily briefing as one continuous routine.

The Bottom Line

Since its introduction in November 2014, Alexa has been incorporated into a growing number of Amazon-branded devices, with the ability to perform hundreds of tasks that can meet daily needs and enhance your lifestyle.

Amazon has designed Alexa to evolve over time and is only limited by its learning capacity. In addition, Amazon makes Alexa available for third-party device makers to create and integrate Alexa Skills for their own products. This has resulted in an every-increasing Alexa Skills library that Alexa consumers can take advantage of to manage their lifestyle.