Welcome to episode 156 of “The Digital Life,” a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
Happy day, Dirk. For our podcast today, we’re going to discuss the war at home. Specifically, the war over the smart home, and the battle for consumer IOT dominance. There are a number of big players, as we all know. Apple, Samsung, Google, Amazon, as well as the connectivity providers like AT&T, and Verizon, and probably a dozen more. Not to mention all of the device manufacturers like Withings, or D-Link, or Phillips. The landscape of competition for home IOT, smart home IOT, is pretty broad, and there’s a surprising emergence of a market leader that at least for me, was kind of unexpected. I think Amazon, with its Echo product, which is essentially a voice UI that’s delivered in a couple of different ways.
There’s the Echo, which is the cylindrical stereo speaker, and then there’s also some portable versions of that, and these little hockey puck versions. There’s been increasing buzz and interest in this system, because it allows IOT devices to plug into a complete network and you can control things like lights, your news feed, you can control your music, you can control all these devices with just your voice, and when Echo first came out, there was at least some skepticism as to whether or not this was going to be another Amazon innovation flop, right? You remember the, I think it was called the “Fire Phone” or whatever, Amazon’s venture into mobile was going to be, with the multiple cameras, and the big roll out.
Turned out to be something they discounted by like 90% at the end of its week run there. I think there was a dark cloud hanging over Amazon’s innovation, especially in the hardware products. Question whether or not they were able to compete in that area, so I think there were low expectations for Echo when it came out, and the voice UI, called “Alexa,” is this … The personality to it is not unlike Siri, or Cortana or any of the other voice bots that are part of this competitive landscape, but what makes Amazon Echo special, I think, is its ability to just become part of the fabric of your home. I have an Echo unit that I’ve got in my kitchen, and it’s really helpful when you’re cooking, because you can do very simple things like set a timer, or check the weather, or listen to music, or any of these things that might have to take your fingers to do before, but now, is just something you can activate with your voice.
You can also do things like order things on Amazon, like I said before, you can turn lights on and off, or check the Bruins score, or whatever it is, but when you’re in the kitchen, and your hands are not free, because you’re cutting up vegetables, or frying up something, this all of a sudden becomes a very powerful extra helper. I think it’s scenarios like that, that Amazon is well suited for the Echo, and I think rivals are starting to take notice, so Google, of course, owns the Nest thermostat, and they recently open-sourced their networking protocol called “Open Thread,” which has Samsung and Qualcomm on board. You can tell that Google’s trying to create this standard for smart home networking, because they’re concerned that Amazon is now starting to rise in prominence, if not dominance of the space.
Our buddies at Apple seem to be stuck on the television, which I’m thinking is not the right interface for the smart home. I’ve waxed poetic for a while, Dirk. What’s your take on the war over the smart home?
I have so many notes that I’ve forgotten them, listening as you continue. What to say? Let me … You talked a lot about Echo, and Alexa. Let me start by saying I do think Amazon is poised to contend for control of this space. Whether they achieve it or not, I’m not sure. Amazon is diversifying in ways that people aren’t really aware of. One that I’ve noticed recently that I was really surprised by and I only realized because I buy office supplies for our company, is that Amazon now offers generics of pretty much every office supply you can buy. I ended up buying an Amazon shredder. I opted to buy the Expo brand whiteboard markers, but I could have bought Amazon branded whiteboard markers.
Amazon is very quietly taking this bottom product layer across all of these different product categories, which no fanfare whatsoever. That doesn’t go directly to home automation, but it does go to a certain product strategy that I think speaks to their ambitions in areas like home automation. To return to Echo and Alexa very specifically, you have stars in your eyes and you used the word “powerful.” Powerful, as you are cutting your vegetables and you can use your voice. I don’t find Alexa powerful at all. I find Alexa frustrating. The problem I have is that the learning curve is high, so more often than not, when I ask Alexa for something new, it’s a fail.
Alexa’s not able to do it. Can’t give me what I want, and so as a result, I just don’t bother. I’ll give you an example. Like, with music, certain artists, I have their albums on my iTunes. “Alexa, give me this artist, this album on iTunes.” Alexa says, “Streaming this artist random on Amazon Prime Music.” “No. Give me on” … Then, I have to just go in manually do it myself, like, “Fuck all.” I get frustrated having to try and get it to do what I want. It didn’t do what I wanted, when I asked for something very simple, and here I am mucking around with it again. That’s a reduction of trust. It’s an increase of frustration, and drives me to just manually do things all over again.
You know, the technology will get more sophisticated and better, but I want it to be really powerful. I don’t want it to have these 5 nice things it does that I’ve memorized, and the only 5 things that I can rely on it for, that amount to things as pedestrian as, “Turn the lights down, please, Alexa.” You mentioned the weather. I think Alexa talking about the weather is completely worthless. It’s because there are 2 axis’ of context that are missing. Number 1 is that Alexa is giving you a weather status that is fixed. It’s not a weather status that is adapted to lifestyle. Alexa is not saying, “Jon, it’s 45 degrees out this morning. However, it will reach a high of 79 this afternoon, before showers in the late afternoon, and getting down into the 40s again tonight.”
There’s not that. It’s this very flat, very limited amount of information, and additionally, it’s not giving context for how I live. I have no idea what the temperature is that leads me to layer, and then unlayer as the day goes on, or I don’t know where the temperature break is where I go from jeans to shorts. I don’t know that in terms of numbers. I know it when I see it, and it would be very easy to program the AI around this stuff, to learn from us, how we respond with simple questions. “Dirk, was it hot or warm or cold for you today?” “It was warm, Alexa.” Now, Alexa knows what I think of as warm. “Dirk, what sort of clothes would you be comfortable wearing today?” “Today felt like a jeans day to me, Alexa.”
All of this context could be gathered so that instead of, “Oh, what’s the weather today, Alexa?,” and it’s this flat, limited bullcrap data that I can’t deal with in a lifestyle perspective, Alexa can simply say, “Dirk, it’s going to be a beautiful day out today, however, I recommend you wear jeans, wear 2 to 3 layers, and maybe bring an umbrella, just in case.” That is where value is. If it did that, I would say powerful. If it just spits out “Sunny and 70,” I say bullshit. I’m much less bullish on the current status of “home automation.” Probably the best home automation that’s out there are from companies that nobody’s ever heard of. They don’t happen to have voice interface, the way Alexa does, which is very sizzling and sexy, but does very powerful things around home house control of room by room, not just room by room temperature, but music, coverings, window coverings, status, light status, what movies are being shown all around.
That technology’s been out for decades now, and has done very well by workman like companies we’ve never heard of. The big consumer companies we have heard of are going to, I believe, are going to completely outflank them, probably buy them, and take up their infrastructure, and all of that. In no way am I saying those companies are going to be the winners, but I don’t know. Just because it has a voice interface and voice interface isn’t very good, and wouldn’t it be nice if it sounded like a real person? It still sounds like a crummy computer, and I don’t know. I’m just not really bullish on the current state of “home automation.”
Yeah. I guess I appreciate the frustration that you articulated in that use case that you were talking about. I actually, I mean, the weather that comes from Alexa actually does give me the full days ranges, highs, lows, anticipated weather.
Not humidity and wind, but here’s the use case …
The devil’s in the details, Jon.
When I’m walking out the door and I need to know whether the boys need coats or not, I say … That’s when I use it, right? I’m walking to the door, I spout out to Alexa, “What’s the weather?” She tells me what it is in my hometown, and I either grab coats or I don’t for the boys, as I’m marching out the door. For me, that’s an easy use case that I enjoy being able to do. Now, it’s not elegant, certainly.
It certainly isn’t precise, either.
There’s obviously much that can be done to improve it, no doubt, from a design perspective, but I’m much more tolerant of early adopter [foilables 00:12:53] than you are. My personality is the one that’s willing to sit in front of a TRS80 and say, “Wow, this is really cool,” even though I’m programming with Basic, right? It’s this …
Back then it was all cool, right?
Yeah. At any rate, I do think that Google and competitors are taking notice of this … I would almost call it “sideways entry” into the market, because it was not, unlike the Nest, which has got a higher profile and I think more was expected out of it, energy savings, that sort of thing. I mean, Amazon has this darkhorse and I find that very interesting from an innovation perspective, that you’ve got your HVAC, your lighting, your television, and everybody is trying to stake out, “Where is the control point going to be?” I’m so fascinated by the fact that it is very possible that voice UI, not the thermostat, not the television with its giant screen. I’m actually really not all that interested in being able to control my home from my television.
Yeah, that’s insane. I mean, I have to assume Apple’s strategy has moved on from that.
If Apple’s strategy is rooted there, it’s more rotten in the core than we realize.
Yeah, I mean, who knows? They’ve got Siri, maybe Siri ends up running your house.
Siri is dumber than Alexa, so I sure as hell hope not. Anything I ask Siri to do, she takes me to a list of Google results. Give me a break. I’m in my car, I’m driving, I want some quick information, and it throws me to Google. I mean, I don’t know.
Yeah. You know, before I got the Echo, I really never thought of myself as somebody who would try automating aspects of my home, but now that I have that entry point piece, I’m actively looking for lights that are compatible with it, electric plugs that are compatible with it. I’m using that as the base to grow my automated home, which if that was Amazon’s product strategy when they started, and it’s all from 3rd parties. It’s not Amazon gear them looking at its 3rd party gear, so if that was their product strategy, it was pretty good. I’m a music fiend, so I use Alexa all the time, and I upload my own stuff to the Amazon cloud, so I don’t have it in iTunes, I have it in the cloud, so it’s slightly different, but I’m probably not the best evaluator because I’m an enthusiastic early adopter, not a skeptic, but it’s good to have the point, counterpoint.
Yeah, Jon, you’ve got Kool Aid all over your mouth there.
Grab a napkin, and rub some out of that off, buddy.
I’m going to drop over in a minute. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one “L” in the “The Digital Life,” and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterwards if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @JonFollett. That’s J-o-n-F-o-l-l-e-t-t, and of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-o-I-n-v-o.com. Dirk.
You can follow me on Twitter @DKnemeyer. That’s @D-K-n-e-m-e-y-e-r, or email me at Dirk@GoInvo.com.
That’s it for episode 156 of “The Digital Life.” For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.