Last week's announcement that Amazon's Alexa can now control a Wi-Fi door lock — provided that you're already in close proximity to both devices, which means it's arguably easier to lock the door yourself — had me SMH. Incrementalism is not always a bad thing, but here was another example of asking consumers to spend hundreds of dollars for an incrementally better "smart home" experience. For these kinds of costs, Alexa better make my coffee for me, too.
Which is what I decided to do this weekend — set up the Echo speaker so I could ask Alexa to turn on my coffee maker in the morning. I've fallen down this rabbit hole before, but there was one key difference then: I wasn't using voice control to start the coffee. I had to open an app, which again begs the "How much better is this?" question, or I could set up a motion sensor that would trigger the coffee maker.
It turns out that setting up Alexa to start your coffee is really easy. It's also anticlimactic.
Thanks to Amazon's same-day delivery service, I ordered a Belkin WeMo switch ($39.99) on Thursday morning and had it in hand that night. There are other Wi-Fi-enabled switches and outlets available — GE, iDevices, and Insteon all make them — but WeMo is one of the few that works directly with Alexa, and also doesn't require an extra hub.
I plugged the switch into the wall outlet where I normally plug in my coffee maker. I downloaded the WeMo app. I paired the WeMo switch and WeMo app. Then I said to Alexa, "Search for devices." Alexa found the WeMo. Done.
Oh, right, the coffee pot. So, a high-tech coffee experience actually requires a pretty low-tech coffee maker. You could spend more than $100 on one with Wi-Fi built in, but why spend that much when you can hack something together for less? You just need a coffee maker with a simple on / off function — you're not controlling the coffee maker, you're controlling the wall switch, which in turn, turns on the coffee maker. A $25 Mr. Coffee will do it.
"Alexa, turn on the WeMo switch," I said, all hoarse and bleary-eyed, at 5:30 the next morning. I was staring at Mr. Coffee. The Echo was about two feet away.
"Okay," Alexa said.
Click. Mr. Coffee woke up. Then it began to gurgle.
And that was it.
Now, I've thought long and hard about what might have made this whole experience more exciting. The answers range from obvious to ludicrous. For starters, I could have set my expectations lower. It's not you, Mr. Coffee, it's me.
This is how the smart home evolves: not with a bang, but with an early-morning whimper to please, please make me coffee
Second, I still had to line and fill the coffee maker myself, in preparation for this magical smart coffee event. Where are the coffee scooping robots? I do not know. Probably in some lab on the outskirts of Boston right now (I'm looking at you, iRobot and Boston Dynamics), but I can tell you that they are not in my kitchen.
Also, the element of proximity still gets me. The Echo is in my kitchen — the Mr. Coffee is in my kitchen — I was literally close enough to reach out and touch the darn power switch myself when this all occurred. I concluded that having an Echo Dot in the bedroom would make a difference, because then I could roll over and mumble something to Alexa and the coffee would brew in the nine minutes between between Snooze sessions.
It's a small thing, but it seems that's how the smart home is going to evolve. Not with a bang, but with an early-morning whimper to please, please make me coffee.