First Click: Amazon, not Apple or Google, holds the key to the smart home

July 10th, 2015

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I have been waiting and waiting and waiting for the age of home automation to arrive for most of my life. I took the first step towards a smart home about 8 years ago when I installed a handful of Z-Wave light switches and sensors. I’ve been using Sonos speakers to stream audio into every room of my house for about six years. I’ve watched with unyielding interest over the last year as Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung all embraced home automation, but I’ve only recently discovered the product that will take it mainstream: Amazon’s Echo — a Trojan Horse that can also order Trojans.

Echo’s ability to control smart gear in the home has expanded quickly and broadly since launch. It now supports Hue and WeMo devices, with IFTTT scripting support that expands functionality to devices like Google's Nest. And as of this week, Echo now supports Wink-compatible products, too.

I love smart devices but my family hates them. And really, I can’t blame them. I’m happy to pull out my smartphone, launch an app, and navigate to the "ground floor" to shut off my entry lights. My family just wants a switch on the wall. Sure, they’re dullards, and dare I say, laggards — the kind of humans that might cause you to scream Luddites! at a LAN party. But they’re also right.

Fact is, most smart devices aren’t as easy and convenient to use as the dumb devices they try to replace. If you want to understand the folly of the Internet of Things then look no further than home automation. Take the Hue light bulb, for example. It’s far more costly and cumbersome to control than a traditional bulb and switch. For $200 you get three wireless bulbs that you can turn purple when it’s about to rain, amongst other tricks. But they don’t work when someone turns them off using the ol’ wall switch instead of the app. That’s where Echo comes in.

Chris Ziegler and I have been commiserating over our smart home woes for years. He recently fitted his entire home with Hue bulbs. Here’s what he had to say about living with Alexa on Wednesday:

"With the Echo, I quite literally don’t touch light switches anymore. 'Alexa, turn off the living room lights' gets the job done. It’s one of those exceedingly rare, legitimate Jetsons moments."

That’s a big deal. Voice control is faster than launching an app and more convenient than getting up to hit a switch. And best of all it works the same for all members of the house. Amazon has quietly figured out that automation of a family home requires a voice communications hub, not a tablet on the wall or a bunch of smartphones with apps that all have to be managed independently.

Google’s Nest and Apple HomeKit devices support voice commands via watches and smartphones — the most personal of all devices. Echo is shared. It's communal. Its far-field microphone and omni-directional speaker are designed for use by everyone in the same room — accepting commands from me just as readily as my six-year old. This small yet significant adjustment in thinking puts every smart home device within reach of the whole family. And with the biggest tech companies in the world now working on smart home solutions, there’s really nothing to stop home automation from finally going mainstream.

If only Echo was sold in Europe and worked natively with Sonos, Apple HomeKit, and Nest, then I’d be all set. Maybe next year.


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