Shortly after the first iPhone was released back in 2007, Apple introduced the App store. Today many take the App Store for granted as we easily download our favorite apps. However, it took a while before the power apps of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Waze and others emerged to fight for space on our phone home screens. Before them, a slew of lesser apps dominated.
The Amazon Echo also has a new app store and it is known as Alexa Skills. Whatever the Skills are today, I assure you they will only improve tomorrow.
To download Skills on the Echo, open the Echo App and enable the Skill. Then, speak to Alexa and ask her to use your new Skill. For home automation, the most important Skill is your Hub platform. For me that is Wink (see article history at tribetechreview.wordpress.com) but it may be Samsung’s SmartThings or another platform for you. Once you have your Hub Skill enabled, you can control all the devices on your Hub via a voice command. I can open and close lights, close locks (not open, for security purposes), play music and adjust my thermostat, just to name a few.
For this week, I thought we would look at apps that are specifically targeted at Jewish audiences. These application development pioneers have launched Echo Skills that Convert Alexa to Judaism.
Alexa has a built-in feature called Flash Briefing. It will provide you with a customized update of weather, news, sports and more. You do get to choose your news sources so be sure to avoid fake news. I chose the Wall Street Journal over the New York Times but there are many others to choose from, including Israeli news sources. Arutz Sheva, Ynet, Haaretz and an unofficial Jerusalem Post Skill are all already available. Arutz Sheva, my choice, is a strong quality feed while the unofficial JPost Skill I am sure will improve or will be launched officially in time.
Hebcal, a critical add-in I use within my Microsoft Outlook Calendar for access to all yom tov dates and times, has now launched a Skill for the Amazon Echo. Enable the Skill and you can ask Alexa to ask Hebcal what time candle lighting is for Shabbat. You can also ask for a future Hebrew date or the Torah portion for the week. It can tell you when Pesach falls out this year or any other year. The challenge will be to understand Alexa’s accent in trying to pronounce Hebrew words. Perhaps one day Alexa will take Ulpan, roll her “R’s” and pronounce the “CH” in Hanukkah.
I searched a little deeper into the Skills library and found a way to have the Daf Yomi play through the Echo. While I imagine this is not what Jeff Bezos of Amazon had in mind, the famed Rabbi Shalom Rosner of OU Torah allows you to add his daily daf shiur to your flash briefing. I found another Daf Yomi shiur in Yiddish which gave me another perspective on the Super Bowl ad where Alexa lost her voice. I am not sure how far my readership extends but accessing all shiurim on YU Torah via the Echo seems like a worthy endeavor. A shorter daily Torah thought or a Mishnah Yomi may also be helpful for those with limited time.
There is a daily Tehillim Skill where Alexa will read you the perek of Tehillim of the day — in English. There is a Purim and Pesach Trivia game, a Yiddish dictionary, and even a Rabbinic Randomness Skill which will give a random rabbinic quote. I heard a great quote from Rav Kook. I even found an Omer counting Skill. Of course, you’ll need to ask Alexa the Omer count for last night so that she does not err in stating the current day without making a proper Bracha.
Not all the Skills, Jewish or otherwise, are keepers. You will find yourselves enabling and disabling Skills until you find the ones that speak to you, so to speak. It may be the Daf Yomi or a bit of wisdom from Rabbinic Randomness, or something else entirely. But a year from now there will be even better and more impressive Skills to choose from. The next Waze or Facebook Skill is likely already being programmed in someone’s garage in Palo Alto or Tel Aviv. I will certainly keep an ear to the ground for you, so stay tuned and keep reading.