Amazon confirmed a few rumors on Tuesday, May 9 when they unveiled the new Echo Show, a tabletop device with speakers, mics, a 7" touchscreen, camera, and Alexa built-in, and announced that all existing Echo devices now had the ability to make phone calls and send messages to each other. The Internet, as usual, went bonkers over it.
Updated 5/15/2017 1:00pm MST with information from Amazon, see below.
My friend (and awesome tech podcaster) Allison Sheridan joined me to have some fun testing out the new calling features on our Echo Dots and Alexa apps, and we found some rather unique things that you could do with the new "telephony" side of Alexa. I even made a video out of it, which is embedded above. But, of course, how do you set it up? Below, find a gallery of screenshots from iOS and some basic information. (Hint: It's super-easy!)
With the app update that rolled out this week to both iOS and Android, Alexa appeared to gain a new app icon, furthering to cement Amazon's footing in the increasingly popular world of voice-interactive-devices. These instructions are for existing users of the Alexa app and owners of Echo devices. But anyone with an Amazon account can get the Alexa app and make and receive calls to other Alexa app users and/or Echo devices, too. (But sadly, the Amazon Tap device doesn't yet work with Alexa Calling and Messaging.)
(These steps are virtually the same on both Android and iOS, but calling & messaging is currently not supported on the Alexa app installed on an iPad.) Download the app update and open the Alexa app. If you have not already confirmed a phone number for use with Amazon / Alexa, it will prompt you to verify one. Once that's done, you'll confirm who you are (name) and have the ability to adjust how your name would appear to your Alexa Contacts. This specific edit of your name appears to drive Alexa's pronunciation of your name, so edit as necessary. 😉
And speaking of contacts, you'll be prompted to let Alexa access the Contacts from your device. This will--dun dun dun!--upload them to Amazon's servers. I wasn't really happy about doing this, but it appears that you can't build your own list of contacts or call or message someone without it. Amazon matches up who you can contact via Alexa Calling by phone number. Amazon: Please make a work-around for this. I reached out to them on this topic, what they store and maintain, how is the privacy of the contacts protected and so on. I'll update this if I hear back from them. If you don't allow access to your contacts list, you'll be able to communicate with other people who use these new features, but they'll have to initiate contact from their end. After they make "Alexa First Contact", you'll be able to contact them back.
If you do not get a prompt to allow Alexa to access your Contacts: Go into Settings on your device, then into the Amazon Alexa app settings, and turn on access for your Contacts. This procedure will vary slightly between iOS, pure Android and Android plus "overlay" software.
UPDATE: Amazon says that when users upload their Contacts list from their to their servers, the data is stored with the same (high) level of security as Amazon uses in its other Cloud-based systems and services. Also, there is no plan to create an audio-only version of the "Drop-In" feature for non-video Alexa Calling.
Making Calls and Sending Messages
Once you're done with this incredibly-challenging setup process (not very difficult, actually), that's it! Assuming that Alexa found some contacts for you to talk to, you can start calling and messaging. For the Alexa app itself, there is a new set of icons at the bottom of the screen for the "Main/Home" screen of the app, the "Conversations" screen where you manage calls and messaging, and a third icon that appears to support a future remote playback control feature on Amazon Video devices, like the Fire TV Stick (but right now, it's not supported.)
You can manually initiate calls in the Alexa app by tapping on a Contact and then tapping the phone icon at the top-right of the screen. Also on a Contact's main screen, you can dictate a message to them by holding down the big blue microphone icon at the bottom of the screen. Dictating a message will record it and send it to them, and attempt to transcribe it to text. In my testing thus far, Alexa has seemed to be a little drunk at least 1/3 of the time and the results aren't all that great, especially in a noisy environment. This was on the app itself, more testing needs to happen on my Echo Dot.
For "phone" calls and messaging on Echo devices themselves, well, just start talking to her and she'll ultimately do what you want. Say "Call" (insert your friend's name here) and she'll start a call, "send a message to", and so on. If leaves you a message, your Echo will flash green (wow, a new color!) to let you know a message is waiting. You can say "Alexa, play messages" and she'll get them for you. If someone calls you, just say "Alexa, answer" and the call will be answered. Hanging up? OK, do I have to spell it all out for you?
If you have multiple Echo devices, they will all "ring" when a call comes in and the one that hears you best when you say "Answer" will have the call routed to it. For privacy, there is a new "Do Not Disturb" feature in the Settings of each Echo device in the Alexa app. But, no such setting for the Alexa app itself. DND would be quite helpful, as the Echo is now essentially a speakerphone that's sitting on your countertop.
Also, for now, this isn't truly a phone replacement. If you can't be reached for some reason, the system doesn't prompt the "caller" to leave a message or anything like it. Maybe one day it will be a real "phone" service, but not today. Perhaps this will herald a re-introduction of the Fire Phone? OK, maybe not.