Amazon just pulled an Apple on the smart home - Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

By andrew

The Alexa Connect Kit module on an Arduino. Photo by S. Higginbotham.

Amazon just solved several challenges associated with the smart home. At its event Thursday in Seattle, the online retailer attacked several pain points associated with the smart home to create a vision for the user experience I associate with Apple. Yes, Amazon’s efforts here could create such a high-quality experience that it should be compared to the hardware and software that Apple assembled back in 2007 to create the world’s first true smartphone.

That’s a big statement, so I will break down all of the elements.

It’s important to note that in assembling its solutions for the smart home, Amazon is attacking this challenge from two ends: the consumer experience and the developer experience. Again, this is similar to Apple’s efforts with the smartphone, and there’s no doubt Amazon hopes its efforts have a similar effect. If it can raise consumer demand for Alexa-enabled products, and make the developer experience very easy, both sides will have to participate in the Amazon ecosystem or risk missing out.

Getting developers and device manufacturers on board

Amazon now has more than 50,000 skills and hundreds (if not thousands) of devices that work with its Alexa ecosystem. Most smart home device makers count Alexa as the first integration to complete. This week, Amazon launched several new elements to help make this process so easy, I think even I could do it.

The first piece of this is a module called Alexa Connect Kit that provides connectivity in the form of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. This module is pre-certified by the FCC and the other governmental radio watchdogs in all of the countries where Amazon sells the Echo devices, says Daniel Rausch, the VP of smart home at Amazon. The module connects to whatever microcontroller a device maker wants to use. This is awesome, and should significantly reduce the effort and time associated with putting connectivity in a device.

Amazon has also established a fixed fee for cloud connectivity between this module and the cloud. I don’t have all of the details associated with what exactly will be part of this fixed cost. (Does it handle all data sent to and stored on AWS? Are we just talking basic certification and authentication data?) Amazon’s Rausch indicated that this one-time cost covers the typical cloud costs associated with a connected device.

This is a big deal for device makers. Trying to figure out how to build and support the costs of a connected device over the period that the device might be in service is a huge challenge associated with smart products. I’ve heard costs ranging from $1 a year to $3 a year per connected device in terms of ongoing fees (some of this estimate includes the cost of developers and things like app and security updates). Multiply these fees out by a million devices or 10 million devices and companies get a material annual cost. Taking some of that cost out of the picture would be a service to device manufacturers.

Much has been made of Amazon using this module to lock device makers into the Amazon ecosystem. When I asked Rausch if this module would only work for Alexa he told me that companies could still run other services such as HomeKit or Google Assistant on the module. There are hooks back to Amazon’s cloud, though.

The module is the hardware half of how Amazon makes building connected devices easier. Developers who want to try the module can sign up for a developer preview and get an Arduino with the connectivity module already on it.

The other half of this device maker/developer experience is improved software. Amazon showed off a new version of its Smart Home Skill API. This is a way to build a voice interface for any number of objects in the home. It offers three different options.

The Toggle option turns things on or off and can be used in everything from lights to connected toys. The Range option lets a developer set a range for a device whether it’s on an amplifier or a thermostat. The Mode option lets a device maker program a specific function that a user can tell Alexa to set, such as asking a washer to set the load for whites or a person telling Alexa to set an oven to bake or broil.

I recognize that these were demos, but these two elements make creating an Alexa-enabled device and corresponding voice interface look remarkably easy, requiring little expertise in hardware design or coding. I expect this to lead to some ridiculously crazy products. And speaking of crazy products, the Alexa-enabled clock and Alexa-enabled microwave were both built on top of the new Alexa Connect Kit module.

So about that consumer user experience

In the six years I’ve spent covering connected home devices, I’ve seen a common set of pain points. These include a lack of standards, expensive gadgets, a lack of clear use cases to prompt a purchase, a painful setup process, and difficulty in programming devices to make a smart home. Amazon has stealthily become a smart home standard by allowing products to work together to solve the standards problem, and I see the work it has done on Alexa Connect Kit and the Smart Home Skills API to make devices easier to control in one place as another step in improving the consumer experience.

For example, with the Smart Home Skills API companies can now let their Alexa Skills use what Amazon calls a ‘natural invocation’ and what the rest of us would call, ‘talking like a normal human being.’ So instead of asking GE’s Geneva skill to turn on the oven, you could just tell Alexa to turn on the oven. I had thought Amazon was doing this with native support for specific devices, but the truth is way cooler and more technically interesting.

Building native support for every device would be too time-consuming, so instead Amazon looks at the way a device behaves and how the user addresses it to understand what kind of device it is. Once it knows this, it can assign a label to the device. So when you call for a vacuum to clean the floor Alexa knows to wake up the Roomba and toggle it on. If we want to talk to everything in our homes, we certainly don’t want to have to think about its brand name before we can control it. Heck, I can barely call my child the right name when I want her to do something.

The other way Amazon is making consumers’ lives easier is how it brings these devices into the home in the first place. Creating a smart home is a whirlwind of hubs, apps and different ways to authenticate products. I’ve used sound, lights, QR codes and various forms of emails and texts. They all suck. So Amazon redesigned the setup process.

If you let it, Amazon stores your Wi-Fi credentials in a secure locker in its cloud. When you purchase a smart home device from Amazon it can arrive at your house already knowing where it’s going. When you plug it in, the device will authenticate immediately on your Wi-Fi network. Your Echo will then say, “I’ve discovered a new device called  ….” Even better, you can now rename that device and put it in room groups via voice. I think Amazon introduced its smart plug just so it could show off how easy this process is.

If you don’t purchase your device from Amazon, the experience is still better than it is normally. Before plugging in or installing the device, you’ll scan a barcode on the product and then you’ll have the same experience.  Of course, this experience depends on a device maker deciding to run an SDK on their product to make this possible. I am curious if the Wi-Fi setup becomes part of the Works with Alexa certification.

At the event, Amazon said routers from TP-Link and Eero will implement the SDK, so customers with those devices in their homes (if they have been updated) will be able to authenticate smart devices using Amazon’s system. After learning more about this, I think Amazon’s efforts here could be a blow to Cirrent, a startup that works with device makers to make Wi-Fi connections seamless. That’s also what Amazon has done here. Rausch says he wants to make setting up a device an “app-less experience.”

Apple did this with HomeKit and got a lot of pushback from developers who want to make sure customers download their apps so they can get user data. We’ll see how developers feel about Amazon’s efforts here as well. I love it.

Amazon also is working hard to make Alexa more context-aware and anticipatory. This will help make the act of programming a smart home feel less like programming and more like buying a few devices that magically work together. Being able to group devices together with your voice, voice-control sensors and talk to things like a normal human being will go a long way here.

Amazon also gave Alexa the ability to suggest an action. Amazon calls these hunches, and when Alexa hears a command and “notices” something that might fit into that command, it can make a suggestion. As an example, Rausch told Alexa “Goodnight” and the assistant said, “The kitchen light is still on. Do you want me to turn it off?” There’s a lot going on there on the back end, but as a user, it’s exactly the level of simplicity we need. We don’t risk plunging the kitchen into darkness if it’s not our intention, and we don’t miss out on turning off a light that we’d want off.

I do wonder if Alexa’s hunches become the Microsoft Clippy of the smart home.

Also tied to Alexa’s growing context-awareness is a new service called Guard. This will turn your Amazon Echo devices into sensors listening for a fire alarm or glass breaking. If those are detected Alexa will send an alert or even call an alarm service if you have that set up. This represents a more forward view of a security system that goes beyond requiring a sensor at every door and window.

Another fun user experience associated with Guard is that if you use locks such as Schlage’s smart locks or the Danalock smart locks, when you key in your code to enter, the Amazon Guard service will automatically disarm. That’s a wonderful user experience. And with all of the tools Amazon is trying to build for consumers, developers, and device makers, I expect more of this type of user experience going forward.

All in, the 70 announcements Amazon made this week are helping create a cohesive, user-friendly smart home. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. Most people expected Apple to give it to us, but I think Amazon just beat Cupertino to the punch.

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