I used to say that the smart home was made up of devices and a hub. Now, it’s probably fair to say that a smart home is made up of connected devices and a digital assistant. Most people want a full-blown digital assistant like Alexa, Siri, or Google, not just a cluster of automation software like SmartThings or Hubitat.
In the wake of the Alexa Live conference last week, we now know how Amazon plans to implement the upcoming Matter smart home interoperability protocol. We’re also beginning to understand how the smart home industry will evolve after this protocol — which represents a huge shift for the smart home — is adopted. Here’s what I’m seeing and how the big three players in the smart home are selling their digital assistants.
On the device side, we’ll see a bifurcation between the low-cost commodity Matter devices that will add a radio and not much else, and high-end products such as Hue lights or Nanoleaf panels. The low-cost commodity devices won’t need an app or even many features beyond what’s in the Matter spec, while the expensive products will offer a lot of additional functionality and an in-depth app experience.
It’s currently unclear what kind of extra functionality will get people to pay more for smart devices. For example, I pay for the lighting scenes in my Nanoleaf lights, but I also treat those as art that happens to provide some light. To be sure, I have a lot of Hue lights in my home, but based on the cheaper bulb alternatives available, I don’t know that I’d buy more. Plus, the existing Hues last forever, so I may not have to.
In other categories, people might pay extra for deeper integrations. But I think what they will mostly pay for are brands and a good design. They may also pay for security, although I strongly believe that cheap Matter devices which ignore security updates and vulnerabilities will be dealt with by the retailers selling those products.
I think that will be especially true in the case of Amazon, or big-box stores such as Target, Walmart, and Best Buy. I’m looking for those companies to start paying attention to poorly secured devices and to get them off their shelves. Amazon has historically been the worst about pulling vulnerable or even defunct devices from its listings due to its use of third-party sellers, but if it wants to remain a force in the smart home, it may have to start paying more attention there.
That’s the device side. Where things get interesting is on the assistant side of the smart home. After Alexa Live, I now see digital assistants in a new light. I used to think of them like the user interface for the connected services we consume, helping individuals link those services to their devices in order to get information and to support them throughout their day. I essentially viewed digital assistants as the UI for ambient computing.
That may still be the way things go. But it’s now clear that if Amazon views digital assistants as a UI, it has built the infrastructure for that UI so it can sell it as a service to anyone. And that infrastructure is what we think of as Alexa. For example, Amazon announced it would provide the underpinnings of Alexa for other brands and also said it would launch the Multi-agent Experience (MAX) toolkit to ensure that device makers could easily put multiple digital assistants on a single device.
Amazon will provide the natural language processing, the databases, the hardware reference designs, and the AI necessary to let others create their own digital assistant for their cars, their smart kitchens, their appliances, or whatever.
Amazon is selling the OS behind others’ digital assistants just like it sells computing power and bandwidth. Verizon will be one of the first companies to deploy its own voice assistant as a UI powered by what I now think of as the Alexa operating system.
Compare this to Apple and Google. Apple’s vision is clearly to provide a UI that hews close to that company’s vision for making money off well-designed devices that are part of a closed ecosystem. For Apple, Siri is a chance to act as the user interface between Apple-designed hardware and lesser smart devices in a home. It’s also a chance to build services that tie together elements of Apple devices or showcase them in a way that drives people to buy more of those services and devices.
A good example is the Apple Fitness+ service. For those who have both an Apple Watch and an Apple TV, the information from the watch gets displayed on the TV while the workout runs. It’s a whole world that offers well-designed experiences and easy-to-use devices.
Google’s view of the digital assistant is about building services, not offering a voice assistant OS as a service or locking people into a specific ecosystem. Google has always been about getting as much information about an individual as possible while trying to offer said individual what they want or what Google thinks they need from the morass of the internet. With its digital assistant, Google is sucking in data about a person’s real-world life as well.
With all of the real-world data and digital data, Google’s trying to provide users with the right service or information at the right time. Because it’s not tying people to specific hardware, as Apple does, or an OS layer, like Amazon does, Google is walking a middle ground. That’s a scary middle ground given that Google wants all of the data about the user and their surroundings.
So as computing shifts to more devices and provides more and more services, the game the big tech companies are playing seems to be around the digital assistant as an OS. Each has a slightly different strategy, however, and it’s unclear how together they will drive consumers — and developers — over time.