Amazon looked to the past to build the future
Over the last 20 years, smart home gadgets have evolved from fantasy to commodity. Walk into Best Buy and there are dozens of products that take just a few minutes to set up. It’s wonderful. Even better, it’s easy. There are lights and locks and screens from big and small companies alike. And therein lies the problem. There isn’t a unified solution for everything and Amazon’s vertically integrated offering could be the solution for the consumer and retail giant alike.
Sure, most smart home gadgets work, but nothing works well together. The smart home has to be as easy as flipping a switch to control a lightbulb. Amazon’s purchase of the mesh WiFi startup, Eero, speaks to the problem. Assembling a smart home containing more than a couple of smart gadgets is hard. There are countless spots where something can go wrong, exposing a smart home as nothing more than a house of cards.
What’s best for the average consumer is also the best for Amazon. In order for the smart home to be easy and functional as possible, one company should control the experience from every entry point. This is Apple’s approach to smartphones and Apple has long offered the easiest, most secure smartphone experience.
In theory, Amazon will likely look to either bundle Eero routers with the purchase of Amazon Echos or build mesh networking into Echo products. Either way, Amazon is ensuring its Fire TV and Echo products can reliably access Amazon’s content services, which is where Amazon makes its money in the smart home.
As Devin explains in this wonderful article, mesh networking is the solution to the problem created by Amazon’s push into every room. Wifi is critical to a truly smart home, but there’s more to it. The smart home is complicated and it goes back over 20 years.
Before wireless networking was ubiquitous, hobbyists and luxury home builders turned to other solutions to add electronic features to homes. Some gadgets still use modern versions of these protocols. Services like Z-Wave and ZigBee allowed home security systems to wireless monitor entry points and control power to otherwise disconnected gadgets like coffee makers and lamps.
Later competing wireless protocols competed with Z-Wave and ZigBee. Insteon came out in the early 2000s and offered redundant networking through RF signals and power line networking. In 2014 Nest with the help of Samsung, Qualcomm, ARM, and others introduced Thread networking that offers modern network redundancy and improved security. And there’s more! There are gadgets powered by Bluetooth 5, Wi-Fi HaLow and line of sight IR signals.
This cluster of competing protocols makes it difficult to piece together a smart home that’s controlled by a unified device. So far, at this nascent stage of smart home gadgets, Amazon and Google have built a compelling case to use their products to control this bevy of devices.
Apple tried, and in some ways, succeeded. Its HomeKit framework put iOS devices as the central control point for the home. Want to turn on the lights? Click a button in iOS or more recently, tell a HomePod. It works as advertised, but Apple requires compatible devices to be certified, and therefore the market of compatible devices is smaller than what works with an Amazon Echo.
Meanwhile, Goole and Amazon stepped into the smart home with their arms wide, seemingly willing to work with any gadget.
It worked. Over the last two years, gadget makers took huge steps to ensure its products are compatible with Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. Last month, at CES, this became a punchline when a toilet was announced that was compatible with Alexa.
Smart commodes be damned. All of these connected gadgets require their own setup process. Every connected light, thermostat and toilet demand the initial user be comfortable navigating several smartphone apps, knowing their network configuration and what to Google when something goes wrong — because things go wrong.
Amazon’s own Alexa app doesn’t help. The single app is loaded with several tentpole functions including voice calling, skill setup, remote operation and access to Alexa — it’s overwhelming and unwieldy once several Echos are configured under the same account.
Something has to change.
If the smart home is to reach new demographics, barriers have to be dropped and centralized control has to become paramount. A layman should be able to purchase a couple of voice control hubs, connected lights, and a thermostat and set them up through a single app even though the devices might use different networking methods.
Amazon has already taken a big step towards working with different smart home wireless protocols. In 2017 the company introduced the Echo Plus. This version of the Echo speaker included support for Zigbee (Philips Hue lights use Zigbee). Later, in 2018 the company upgraded the Echo Plus and included a temperature sensor and offline smart home networking so when the Internet goes down, the user can still control their connected products.
Amazon has a growing portfolio of smart home companies. Along with its own Echo products, Amazon owns Ring, a video doorbell company, Blink, a wireless video camera system, and recently purchased, Mr. Beams, an outdoor lighting company. Now, with Eero, it can offer buyers a WiFi solution by Amazon. The only thing missing is a unified experience between these devices.
In order for any company to win at the smart home, consumers need to fully trust this company and Amazon has so far only had several, relatively, minor incidents concerning the privacy of its users. A couple reports have surfaced reporting Amazon handing over voice data to the authorities. Other reports have taken issue with Amazon’s video doorbell company’s neighborhood watch system that could lead to profiling and discrimination.
Amazon can weather disparaging reports. Amazon cannot weather dysfunctional products unable to reach Amazon’s revenue-generating services.
Amazon is not alone in its quest for smart home domination. Google, Samsung, and Apple take this growing market seriously and will not let Amazon eat the whole pie. Consumer electronic giants will likely continue to scoop up smart home gadget companies that have traction with consumers. Look for companies like Arlo, ecobee, Belkin, Wyze Labs, sevenhugs and Brilliant to be acquired. These companies offer some of the best products in their respective fields and would compliment the companies currently owned by the big players as they look to offer consumers a the most complete experience.