Of all the forecasts made here at CES, the smart home feels like one of the nearest to coming true. Nearly every big-name technology brand, from Google to Samsung to LG, is in the process of trying to own the way we interact with our appliances and our appliances interact with each other. But the most important name in the smart home is the one you’re least likely to find plastered inside the cavernous halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center: Alexa.
The name corresponds to Amazon’s cloud-based voice assistant, which began as the personal assistant inside the online shopping company’s Echo speaker that went on sale to the public in June. Over the course of a few months, however, Alexa has moved beyond Echo and into a host of third-party devices, in part thanks to Amazon’s $100 million Alexa Fund, which helps other companies incorporate the software into their products.
At CES 2016, Alexa is weaving its way into third-party products
Now those investments are bearing fruit. At CES 2016, Amazon is a stealth attendee. Without a booth or logo in sight, Alexa is weaving its way into third-party products here as varied as home security cameras, lighting systems, and Ford vehicles. By creating a voice interface for asking about the weather, playing music, and the mundane resupplying of paper towels and snacks, Amazon has emerged as the go-to partner for industries in need of powerful natural language processing and fast access to information from the internet. The benefit for Amazon is obvious: voice software tied directly to the Everything Store is a great way to keep people spending money on Amazon. But for an industry bedeviled by interface and compatibility issues, Alexa is an attractive way forward.
"We thought, ‘Okay, this is now a best-in-class product,’" says Jeremy Warren, the chief technology officer for home security company Vivint, which announced at CES that it has integrated the Echo and Alexa into its entire smart appliance lineup. Owners of an Echo speaker can now ask Alexa to lock their doors, turn off their lights, or adjust their Nest thermostat. Because Vivint has brokered a partnership with the Google-owned appliance maker, Amazon’s Alexa gets access to Nest products by proxy.
Gaining access to Amazon’s powerful cloud computing capabilities has its perks. But the true appeal of Alexa is a simple one: it’s voice control and nothing more. "The default way to interact with devices so far has been apps," says Sebastien de la Bastie, the managing director of French startup Invoxia. "But we believe the voice is the best interface."
Invoxia, one of the recipients of an Alexa Fund investment from Amazon last September, announced this week at CES that it’s the first third-party hardware maker to incorporate all the power of Alexa into a product other than the Echo. The company’s Triby, as it’s called, is a colorful, magnet-backed Bluetooth speaker resembling an old-school radio. It’s designed to let family members, including young children, make internet-based phone calls with one another, draw doodles and leave messages, and play music in the kitchen.
Prior to the Alexa integration, which goes out as a software update to Triby owners this spring, the company’s speaker could only be controlled with a smartphone app and its physical buttons. Soon you’ll talk to it — to Alexa, to be more precise. Invoxia is currently working on a software feature that, when combined with Alexa, will let the Triby identify every member of a household and prevent certain users, like an eight-year-old child, from ordering a truckload of candy on Amazon.
The Invoxia Triby is the first third-party device to integrate Amazon's Alexa.
Amazon’s success in the smart home can also be attributed to its disinterest in becoming a holistic ecosystem. Google is currently trying to pioneer a platform for the Internet of Things called Brillo, with a common language for low-power connected devices called Weave. Samsung now owns SmartThings, which makes a hub for routing gadgets from multiple different manufacturers, including Samsung of course, through a single app. Walk around here at CES, and you’ll find countless companies hawking the next great smart home ecosystem, with no solution providing any more clarity of vision than the next.
Amazon remains a silent but powerful force
Alexa is not designed to rule the smart home. But it’s becoming the easiest and most accessible way to talk to everything in your home with a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth chip — and for aspiring smart appliance makers to get a voice interface. All the while, Amazon remains a silent but powerful force, building a presence in the home with seemingly open arms. "For the next few years, your enemies are not the other folk [companies]," says Vivint’s Warren. "It’s ignorance and indifference."
That creates what Warren calls "coopetition" — or "frenemies" if you prefer — among startups like Vivint and tech giants like Google, Samsung, and Amazon. But at this point, partnering with Amazon is a logical choice, part of an inevitability. "Vivint not working with Amazon is not going to stop them from succeeding."