Amazon launches a certification program for Alexa skill developers

Developers building voice-enabled applications for Amazon Echo and other Alexa-powered devices will now have a new way to validate their abilities, with Amazon’s launch of a new AWS Certified Alexa Skill Builder – Specialty certification. This is the first time Amazon has offered a certification program for Alexa developers, the company says.

Certification programs are standard in the technology industry — and AWS already offers a training program and certifications of its own that allow organizations to identify professionals with cloud expertise and an understanding of AWS.

The new Alexa certification will be a specialty within the AWS program, and will validate those with an understanding of all aspects of Alexa voice app development.

This includes the more practical matters — like how to develop, test, validate and troubleshoot skills, the use of the Alexa Developer Console, how to manage skill operations and life cycles, and more. But it will also get into more high-level concepts, like the “value of voice” and how a voice user experience should flow — something that many Alexa developers today still seem to struggle with.

To get started, developers can review a new exam guide, which helps them learn about Alexa skill building through tutorials, technical documentation and more. Amazon is also making self-paced training courses available online.

When ready, developers aiming to get certified can create an AWS Training account and schedule their exam.

The goal, says Amazon, is to open up “more opportunities to build engaging voice experiences” that can reach customers across the more than 100 million Alexa-enabled devices on the market today.

In other words, Amazon wants those Alexa developers dabbling with skill building to learn not only the basics, but also the industry best practices — then use this knowledge to create more skills that will actually resonate with customers.

The certification program arrives at a time when smart speakers have hit critical mass in the U.S., but the ecosystem of third-party skills has not had its “app store moment” with a breakout hit, as Bloomberg recently noted.

Arguably, music, timers and smart home controls are the breakout hits for smart speakers, but these are native functions. It’s unclear how many of Alexa’s 80K+ third-party skills have a long-term future if consumer adoption continues to struggle.

In the meantime, however, businesses are still keen on the platform, given the sizable installed base for Alexa. Every day, some organization is announcing the launch of its skill. (Today, for example, it’s the Red Cross.)

“The demand from organizations for skilled professionals who can build skills for emerging voice-enabled workloads is increasing,” says Kevin Kelly, director, AWS Certification and Education Programs, in a statement. “This new certification validates those skills with the only credential in the industry focused on Alexa skill building,” he added.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

Juul launches a pilot program that tracks how Juul devices get in the hands of minors

Juul Labs is today launching a pilot for its new Track & Trace program, which is meant to use data to identify exactly how Juul devices wind up in the hands of minors.

Juul vaporizers all have a serial number down at the bottom, by the Juul logo. However, it wasn’t until recently that Juul had the capability to track those serial numbers through every step of the process, from manufacture to distribution to retail to sale.

With Track & Trace, Juul is calling upon parents, teachers and law enforcement officials to come to the Juul Report web portal when they confiscate a device from a minor and input the serial number. Each time a device is input in the Track & Trace system, Juul will open an investigation to understand how that minor wound up with that device.

In some cases, it may be an issue with a certain retail store knowingly selling to minors. In others, it may be a case of social sourcing, where someone over 21 years of age buys several devices and pods to then sell to minors.

Juul will then take next steps in investigating, such as talking to a store manager about the issue. It may also enhance its secret shopper program around a certain store or distributor where it sees there may be a spike in sale/distribution to youth to identify the source of the problem. To be clear, Track & Trace only tracks and traces the devices themselves, and does not use personal data about customers. It’s also worth noting that Juul Labs has increased

Juul isn’t yet widely publicizing Track & Trace (thus, the “Pilot” status), but it is focusing on Houston as a testing ground with banner ads targeted at older individuals (parents, teachers, etc.) pointing them to the portal. Of note: the ad campaign is geofenced to never be shown in or around a school, hopefully keeping the program a secret from young people illegally using Juul.

The company wants to learn more about how people use the portal and test the program in action before widening the campaign around Track & Trace. That said, the Report portal is not limited to Houston residents — anyone who confiscates a Juul can report it through the portal and trigger an investigation.

“It’s important to note that the pilot is an opportunity for us to learn how the technology is working and optimize the technology,” said Chief Administrative Officer Ashley Gould. “It’s not just at the retailer level. It’s a whole process through the supply chain to track that device and find out if everyone who is supposed to be scanning it is scanning it, and the software that we’ve created to track that serial number through the supply chain to the retail store is working. The only way we’re going to know that is when someone puts in the serial number and we see if we have all the data we need to track it.”

According to Juul, every device in production will be trackable in the next few weeks. In other words, Juul vapes that are years old are likely not fully traceable in the program, but those purchased more recently should work with the system.

Juul has been under scrutiny from the FDA and a collection of Republican Senators due to the device’s rise in popularity among young people. Outgoing FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has called it “an epidemic” and enforced further restrictions on sales of e-cig products.

Juul has also made its own effort, removing non-tobacco and non-menthol flavored pods from all physical retail stores, enhancing their own purchasing system online to ensure online buyers are 21+ and not buying in bulk, going after counterfeits and copycats posing as Juul products, and exiting its Facebook and Instagram accounts.

But Juul Labs also committed to build technology-based solutions to prevent youth use of the product. Cofounder and CPO James Monsees told TechCrunch at Disrupt SF that the company is working on Bluetooth products that would essentially make the Juul device as smart as an iPhone or Android device, which could certainly help lock out folks under 21.

However, the Track & Trace program is the first real technological step taken by the e-cig company. And it’s been an expensive one. The company has spent more than $ 30 million to update its packaging, adjust printing standards, changing manufacturing equipment, and integrate the data and logistics software systems.

For now, Track & Trace is only applicable to Juul vaporizers, but it wouldn’t be shocking to learn that the company was working on a similar program for its Juul Pods. 

Gadgets – TechCrunch

YouTube’s beta program will test stability, not new features

Google sometimes experiments with new features in beta versions of its various Android applications on Google Play. However, the recently spotted YouTube beta program will not, unfortunately, be a testbed for upcoming additions to the video-sharing service. Instead, Google says it only plans to test the stability of the YouTube app at this time, not features.

The company quietly rolled out a YouTube beta program last week on Google Play, where it was soon spotted by the folks at Android Police.

Originally, the belief was that Google would use this new beta to try out features it was planning to bring to the YouTube app – in fact, that’s what Google’s own help documentation about the beta said!

Not only that, but the documentation urged testers not to share information about the features they see in the app until they’re publicly launched.

That all sounds pretty exciting, right? (At least for us early adopters who love to get mess around with the latest new thing before anyone else.)

But after asking Google for more information on the program, the company updated its help documentation to remove the wording about “experimental features.” It now says testers will only help YouTube to stabilize its app.

We also understand, too, that YouTube has always run a beta program, the only change is that, as of last week, it become more broadly accessible.

Users can now join the program to help YouTube test stability of the app and can then opt out at any time they choose. At this point, however, Google doesn’t plan on trying out new features in the beta build. That could, of course, change at any time in the future. So if you really want to be the first to know, you may want to join the beta program just in case.

But YouTube for a long time now has been testing its new additions by way of server-side testing. It even decided this year to be more public about those tests – disclosing its experiments by way of its @TeamYouTube handle and the Creator Insider channel.

For example, this is where the company first announced its test of a new Explore tab on iPhone a few months ago, and more recently said it would try different ways of inserting ads into videos, to see if users prefer fewer interruptions even if it meant multiple ads per interruption.

YouTube beta program members may or may not be opted into those same experiments, as they roll out. It will depend on if they’re in the testing bucket that’s targeted at that time.


Android – TechCrunch

Google adds a bunch of rugged devices to its Android Enterprise Recommended program

Rugged smartphones, the kind of devices that business can give to their employees who work in harsh environments, are a bit of a specialty market. Few consumers, after all, choose their smartphones based on how well they survive six-foot drops. But there is definitely a market there, and IDC currently expects that the market for Android -based rugged devices will grow at 23 percent annually over the next five years.

It’s maybe no surprise that Google is now expanding its Android Enterprise Recommended program to include rugged devices, too. Chances are you’ve never heard of many of the manufacturers in this first batch (or thought of them as smartphone manufacturers): Zebra, Honeywell, Sonim, Point Mobile, Datalogic. Panasonic, which has a long history of building rugged devices, will also soon become part of this program.

The minimum requirements for these devices are pretty straightforward: they have to support Android 7+, offer security updates within 90 days of release from Google and, because they are rugged devices, after all, be certified for ingress protection and rated for drop testing. They’ll also have to support at least one more major OS release.

Today’s launch continues our commitment to improving the enterprise experience for customers,” Google writes in today’s announcement. “We hope these devices will serve existing use cases and also enable companies to pursue new mobility use cases to help them realize their goals.


Android – TechCrunch