After walking an average of 10 miles a day at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, I realized I couldn’t walk 25 feet without seeing the same thing over and over. No, not devices; there was wide range of those. I’m talking about products that had Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant integrations.
They. Were. Everywhere. Not just on the show floor either: Google spent a good sum to get its Assistant product mentioned on most hotel signage, the Las Vegas Monorail and billboards everywhere I turned.
That indicates two things to me. First, with such an array of IoT product choices that now have smart voice support, we’re essentially at a tipping point in the smart home market when it comes to mainstream adoption. Second, after years of waiting for de facto, standard smart home platforms that can simplify purchase decisions, we have one. It’s called voice, or what I dubbed the “invisible interface” a few years ago. At a high level voice is becoming both a UI and an IoT platform of sorts.
There are several reasons not everyone who wants a smart home has one yet. Costs have been high and it’s not clear to every homeowner why they even need a smart home, whether it’s one with just a single connected device or dozens. Costs are coming down though and with each new iteration of products, people are starting to see the benefits of having connected door locks, sensors, blinds, thermostats and more.
But the other reason — a main one, I’d argue — is that the smart home market has been confusing for many mainstream people. Ask a non-technical neighbor what Zigbee, Z-Wave, mesh networking or ARTIK is and they’ll probably give a you blank stare. For “normals” to buy into the smart home, all of the back-end technologies and radio protocols need to be abstracted away, never to be seen or talked about again. That’s where voice comes in.
Why? Because if you asked that same neighbor what an Amazon Alexa or Google Home is, they’d very likely know. We don’t know how many Alexa-enabled products Amazon sold in the past two years but consumers did purchase “tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices” this past holiday season. Likewise, Google sold an estimated six million Google Home Minis in the final three months of 2017. People are buying these because they provide instant benefits and are intuitively simple to use simply by asking questions. And they are buying them: NPR says that 16 percent of U.S. households now have a smart speaker, which is a 128 percent increase from NPR’s data a year ago.
Many of the newest products I saw don’t require hubs either because they’re working natively with voice assistants. Going forward, you’ll see Samsung’s Bixby voice agent in televisions and refrigerators. Televisions from LG, Sony and others can be voice controlled directly through Alexa or Google Assistant without a hub. In fact, Google announced this week that its Assistant / Home platform works with more than 1,500 devices.
So it’s becoming less important to know which smart home products work with Wink, SmartThings and other branded-hubs because voice controls are essentially becoming the newest and primary interface for smart home products. Sure, for many things you’ll still need a hub. If you want Bixby on to show who’s at your front door from the fridge or TV, your video doorbell will have to work with SmartThings. The same goes for a notification that you left the garage door open or that your home security system indicates a family member just arrived home. That isn’t going away.
But that’s OK. By integrating now-standard voice platforms into a larger array of smart home products, consumers will have an easier time understanding the value and in installing or using connected gear. No longer do we have to worry about news like Honeywell’s announced integration with Whirlpool that lets your Honeywell thermostat tell your appliances when you are out of the home so the dishwasher can run. We can just hook each to the Amazon Echo and tell it to turn on the dishwasher as we leave. Automations may require a hub or a third-party service such as IFTTT, Yonomi or Stringify but getting smart devices working by voice in the home is an important and simple first step.
I definitely don’t want the “Works with Wink / SmartThings / Nest” designations on smart home products to disappear. However, the “Works with Amazon Alexa / Google Assistant” markings have become far more important for mainstream consumers. Let the two (or three, if you include Bixby) voice assistants continue to battle it out, I say. In the end, we all win.