Mobile

Echo’s messaging service may add support for SMS texts from your own ‘Alexa number’



Amazon appears to be planning an expansion of Alexa’s existing messaging capabilities to support sending SMS text messages to friends using your Echo device or Alexa app. That means Echo users could then text anyone using voice commands, not only other Echo owners.

According to code found in the Amazon Alexa app, there are references to a new type of phone number – referred to as your “Alexa number” – which is listed alongside other contact information, like a home phone number, work phone, and mobile. Additionally, references in the code specifically state that users will be able to “send and receive SMS text messages” from their Echo device or the Alexa app.

News of SMS messaging was first spotted by the site Voicebot.ai, citing an unnamed source.

In a screenshot of code they’ve now added to their original report from last week, you can see lines that reference this so-called “Alexa number,” and further details about how this feature works.

Image credit: Voicebot.ai

For example, the code includes references like “My Alexa number is:” and “When you send messages, your contacts will receive them from this number.” 

It also says “Send and receive SMS text messages using Echo, Echo Dot, Amazon Tap, and the Alexa app,” and offers an example of how to use the feature.

It says you can use voice commands like “Alexa, message Jane” and another to check the messages you’ve received. (These commands work today, but don’t extend to SMS.)

Assuming this is something in active development, rather than placeholder code of some kind, this new feature would go beyond the existing Alexa calling and messaging options that launched in May.

Currently, Echo owners can place free voice calls and send text messages using a supported Echo device or the Alexa companion app on their smartphone. However, this feature is limited because the only people you can call or text are those who also have the Alexa app and an Echo, Echo Dot, or Echo Show.

Today, for instance, you can tell Alexa to “message Jane,” but Jane won’t get an SMS text from you, in that case. She has to read it in her Alexa app, or ask Echo to check her messages. If the code above actually does what it promises, then that would change when this feature goes live. Jane would then get a SMS text sent from your “Alexa number.”

At present, the existing messaging feature requires you upload your phone contacts to your Alexa app to get started. This led to some privacy issues at launch – users could message you, call or send voice messages to you as long as they had your phone number and the Alexa app installed.

Amazon, in a response to backlash about this problem, rolled out a contact blocking setting shortly after the feature debuted.

Above: Amazon’s website detailing the feature as it works today

An “Alexa number” could come into play here as another means of protecting user privacy.

You could give out your “Alexa number” to those you want to be able text or call you through Echo and the Alexa platform, when you don’t feel comfortable enough to give them your “real” phone number.

Then you could use Alexa voice commands to send actual SMS texts to those recipients, or you could type your texts in the Alexa app.

This is a similar value proposition offered by competing voice services, like Google Voice or Skype, for example, as well as apps that offer you temporary and virtual phone numbers, like Burner.

Beyond the screenshot from Voicebot’s report above, there are other references to this “Alexa number” that can be found in the Alexa Android app (the APK file)’s code.

Above and below: code showing an “Alexa” phone number type

Here, you’ll see this “Alexa number” is listed as one of the phone number types a user can have on file in addition to others, like a home phone, work phone, mobile, and “other” – all standard contact fields. The Alexa number field in this APK contains an actual phone number with an area code, which hints that Amazon may assign a virtual number to Echo owners.

Amazon already has a solution to do this, Voicebot had pointed out – AWS’ Simple Notification Service (SNS) is often used by businesses who want to send broadcast SMS messages to their customers, among other things.

Another interesting tidbit is that a reference in the code (see the first image) also says that “Messaging is available for free for a limited time.”  

That could mean that being able to send SMS texts is something Amazon is considering rolling out as a paid upgrade. That would be notable, if true, as Amazon isn’t really monetizing Echo right now beyond the cost of selling the hardware itself, and from those consumers who use its voice shopping features.

Of course, finding code references doesn’t always mean that a feature is in active development or on the near-term roadmap. But there’s quite a lot of code here to dismiss this as being placeholder text, written “just in case” Amazon’s decides to go that route.

In addition, it seems clear that Amazon is highly interested in the potential for Echo to become a communication device. It launched the Echo Show, which has a disruptive new way to stay in touch called “Drop In,” where you literally just pop up on a friend or family member’s video screen.

Plus, the Alexa app today defaults to the “Conversations” screen, instead of the app’s actual “Home” screen – something meant to encourage adoption of the messaging service.

Reached for comment about Alexa’s planned SMS texting feature, an Amazon spokesperson only said “per company policy, we don’t comment on rumors or speculation.”

Know more? Email me Sarah Perez at sarahp@techcrunch.com

Featured Image: Joby Sessions/T3 Magazine via Getty Images



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