A demonstration of the Nest smart home thermostat. (Credit: Wikimedia/Raysonho)

It’s Time for a Better Smart Home

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 10:00 PM

It was 2016, just after Amazon’s Prime Day, and I pulled a black cylinder out of a box: an Amazon Echo, my first smart speaker. Adding in a few Philips Hue bulbs, I got my first taste of the smart home and it felt amazing, like something out of Star Trek. I don’t know that I’d call it amazing any longer.

I’d experienced a “smart assistant” before courtesy of Apple’s Siri, but there was something notably different about the “ambient” nature of the Echo. Turning lights on and off seemed almost like magic. I was amazed with how I could say, “Alexa, turn on my bedroom light” and it just worked. I wanted the whole house to be that smart.

It worked so well and prices started dropping so quickly that I soon availed myself of a variety of cheap smart home accessories to give Alexa more control over the home. Frequent sales on Prime Day, Black Friday and the like on Echo Dots made it practical to have a voice enabled home for less than a day at an amusement park.

In short order, Amazon had Echoes with better audio quality, Echo Subwoofers, Echo alarm clocks and pretty much any other kind you could want. Even a very cheap wall plug version called the Echo Flex. These speakers were smart, easy to setup and many of them offered sound quality that is quite good.

It all felt like we were racing along with incredible progress towards a truly smart home that voice control (and quasi machine learning that tried to even guess certain preferences) could knit together. We were already so close.

Somewhere in this early period, I got a promotion while shopping at Walmart that provided several Google Home (now Google Nest Home) speakers for next to nothing, and I enjoyed tinkering with those, too. Suddenly decent smart home control was being given away in promotions. (They were more limited than the ever expanding “Echo-system” so I stuck with Amazon, but still.)

The competition was exciting and made even more so when Apple threw its hat in the ring with the HomePod, albeit at an eyewatering price. Everyone else was moving towards pricing that meant a “smart speaker in every room” was something normal folks could enjoy; Apple seemed obvious to that trend, but at least was finally in the ring. Surely, a three way race would guarantee even better home assistants and affordable speakers from all, right?

I’m not so sure, it feels more like we’ve stalled and started regressing. Whereas my first generation Amazon Echo amazed me a half decade ago at getting most anything I’d want to do right the first time, I can’t even get my present Echo to turn off that very first light I ever connected to the system without multiple attempts any more.

Me late at night, exhausted: “Alexa, turn off Tim’s bedroom lamp.”

Alexa: “Sorry, there are multiple devices with the name Tim’s, which one do you want?”

Me: “Tim’s… bedroom… laaaaamp.”

Alexa: “Sorry, there are multiple devices with the name Tim’s…”

Me: “Alexa! [Please]{.ul} turn off my bedroom.”

Alexa: “Ok.”

Whether it is playing music or controlling lights or trying to pull up my doorbell on an Echo Show (generally, whomever was ringing it is long gone before my repeated requests to Alexa manage to conjure it up on screen), often, using Alexa has become unpredictable, at best.

I often find Siri more accurate on my Apple devices, but the situation on the Apple side of things has its own issues. While Apple realized the error of only offering a hi-fi quality smart speaker when many of us primarily use them as home controllers rather than music systems, Apple dumped the high end (taking away the option of a high quality) system for the living room) while keeping its “HomePod mini” expensive enough that it still isn’t a good candidate for the “ambient assistant” that Alexa and Google Assistant are so appealing for. Apple continues to feel sidelined by its one-size-fits-all approach to a market that really demands the ability to have a lot of different pieces for different parts of the home.

Perhaps the difficulty of moving between assistants has helped to stagnate things. If you buy into one of the ecosystems, it is expensive and a hassle to move to another one. It doesn’t do much to push things forward.

The accessory market — the widgets that make these smart assistants able to do neat things like turn on lights or unlock doors — has its own issues. As Alexa seems to regress, the device situation around the smart home also feels like it takes step-after-step backward.

One of the bright spots in the smart home world was from a company I rarely praise: Samsung. Its SmartThings hub connected to a plethora of inexpensive Zigbee and Zwave devices that then ran off of that little box in one’s house rather than the cloud. Alas, Samsung seems to have spun its hub off to Aeotec (and the Aeotec version isn’t even available right now), ceding to the preference for a variety of wi-fi enabled devices that can be turned on without a hub.

Wi-Fi smart home accessories don’t require a hub to translate between protocols like Zigbee and your phone or smart speaker. You just plug them in and load an app on your phone to configure them. Easy? Yes. Better? Not so much: that also means you have a ton of plugs and lightbulbs and things all phoning home individually to their respective manufacturers rather than going through a central, trusted hub like SmartThings offered. (Apple offers a hub-ish function with its HomeKit system, but here too it missteps, locating the controller function only on the too-expensive Apple TV or an iPad that never leaves home, not just utilizing whatever mix of Apple devices you have. A Mac, ironically, cannot take up that task, even if it is a desktop that never leaves the home.)

As Samsung abandons its hub and Apple stumbles, headline events such as Insteon going belly up with no warning and degrading years of its smart home products as it goes down don’t do much to instill confidence that giving up the hub model is wise. Nor does Wyze’s recent, poorly handled, major security issue, which marred its otherwise pleasant reputation of a scrappy, customer friendly, affordable smart home product producer.

So, much as the assistants seem to be degrading, so too — I would argue — is this movement to everything being entirely cloud based.

Perhaps changes ahead will reverse the tide: the too oft delayed Matter standard promises to free us from dependence on a single cloud provider. Much of me hopes that Matter will make moving between different smart home assistants less jarring and, finally, make it practical to (for example) put HomePods (mini as the current ones are, sadly) in strategic places while using Alexa-enabled devices to fill gaps cost effectively. Perhaps that will even fire up more competition, with Amazon finally unable to rest of ecosystem lock-in laurels and Apple seeing more competitive reason to release a low-end assistant device with so many more accessories working with its own products.

All I know is that I hope six years forward is better than the last six for this industry or smart speakers won’t be able to do anything at all come 2028.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He also serves as a pastor at Little Hills Church and FaithTree Christian Fellowship.

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