Digital Dawn: Amazon is creating the smart house for the rest of us

by Kevin Hawkins on March 16, 2016

Echo 1Late Christmas morning, after the presents were opened, the wrapping discarded and breakfast consumed, my wife sent a text to her real best friend Paige that read, “I have a new best friend!” Paige promptly responded with “Huh?” “Her name is Alexa, as in the new Amazon Echo,” my wife texted back.

How lucky am I, as a guy, to have a wife who put at the top of her gift list, a technology item? But more important was her reaction. She genuinely fell in love with Alexa within minutes after turning it on. It was wickedly cool and ridiculously smart responding to our verbal commands without any voice training. Dragon dictation be damned!

That signature moment was engrained in my brain as I walked among 125,000 others at the National Association of Home Builder’s International Builders Show earlier this year, gawking at the half-million square feet occupied by 1,400 exhibitors.

What I came to realize in the short time I spent in Vegas was that the Smart Home we’ve all been reading about and talking about literally for decades, the one enjoyed by Gazillionaires and hobbyists, is about to be delivered, for real this time – and for the rest of us – by no less than Amazon.

Self-disclosure: I’m a closet Geek

I’ve always been a gadget guy. In elementary school, I was the kid in the class who fixed the projector when it jammed and the film melted. I started the first Video Club in my senior year in high school, prompted by the school’s purchase of a reel-to-reel Sony black and white video recorder the size of a small suitcase. Later, I would lug a 26-pound Kaypro “portable” PC on a plane to Vegas for my job at a PR Agency in LA so I could work during the Consumer Electronics Show.

My addiction began early. I remember how excited I was, maybe 6 or 7, when my dad brought home a transistor Sony radio that was so small, it could fit in your hand. We’d take it to a Cubs game, sit in the bleachers for a buck, and with a single earbud attached by a white flimsy wire, we could take turns listening to Jack Brickhouse call the play-by-play on WGN radio.

My mom will tell you that I liked take things apart – old radios, record players – anything electrical to try and figure out what was what. I wasn’t, like my youngest son, who is an engineer, because I couldn’t put any of them back together. But I was fascinated by what technology could do, so I quickly became a consumer of gadgets and an early adopter.

I had a 6-track tape player before 8-track players dominated the world. I bought Beta before VHS took over. I even recorded all my California Real Estate Magazine interviews for years on a Sony MiniDisc. Over the years, I have collected a treasure trove of the best technology that never made it. Pioneers, a boss will tell me, were the ones with arrows in their backs. He never told me about the hole a pioneer gets in his pocketbook.

I even outfitted the first home I bought in 1983 with “Smarthome X10” technology, allowing me to use a remote to turn on my lights and small appliances and protected my abode with a wireless alarm. But it had glitches and when I went on vacation, the alarm went off and on my door was a present from the local police department with a citation and a fine: all thanks to my stupid Smart Home technology.

I eventually learned to stop buying the “first release” of new gadgets. I buy the second version of most things. But the Amazon Echo is different. That beautifully designed black cone speaker with a color changing moving circle of light at the top that comes on when Alexa hears you give a command is a game changer. I am convinced that Amazon is going to own the smart house of the future through the Echo.

We are at a Digital Down

At the Builder’s Show, the National Association of REALTORS® hosted a press luncheon that featured a presentation by Andrea Medeiros, Editor in Chief of TecHome Builder. Andrea gave a review of how home tech was moving beyond automation to include monitoring and tracking features that would improve indoor air quality and more.

I sat there waiting for her to talk about the Amazon Echo and the power a brilliant voice- controlled operating system would bring to the average home in America. However, she didn’t mention the Big A. So I waited for questions from reporters. Finally, a fellow NAREE member from New Home Source asked about emerging standards for technology, but again, Amazon and its Echo was not mentioned.

Finally, I raised my hand and asked about Amazon on the Echo. Andrea’s eyes lit up and she said “Amazon and Apple are both huge players, and the thing with builders is those are recognizable names and they have been burned in the past, by selecting new technology from companies that later disappeared.” When that happens, when homebuyers get stuck with technology that is no longer supported because the company is gone, “your consumers get pissed,” she said, adding “With Amazon or Apple, people feel like they can trust them.”

That statement – that people will trust a device from a company like Amazon or Apple – is precisely why I think Amazon, in this case, is going to dominate our home even more than delivering products to our door or music and books to our devices or content to our screens.

The two big differentiators

Two things make the Echo standout from anything else: Alexa, and its ability to integrate with a multitude of different devices and different platforms.

First, Alexa is the best voice-controlled interface I have used. Better than Google and better than Apple’s Siri. Once you try it for yourself, you will find it simply works better and is more accurate. Most importantly, Alexa keeps getting smarter and smarter.

Second, is Echo’s ability to integrated with a plethora of home smart devices and the fact that Amazon is rapidly expanding this list at a breakneck pace. We have an Echo in our bedroom and with a number of modules, even though they are by different manufactures using different platforms, we can talk to Alexa and she will:

1. Turn off the kitchen lights we left on

2. Lock our front door

3. Close the garage door to keep the raccoons out

4. Turn our thermostat down to 68

Think about it. One device that interfaces with a variety of different products and different standards solves a huge problem. Already Amazon has the Echo working with WeMo,

Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Wink, Insteon, and Ecobee smart home devices.

Today, our family shopping list has disappeared off the fridge and is maintained by Alexa. We retrieve it by the app on our phone. Alexa wakes us up, plays the latest news headlines, can set a timer, pay for almost any song on demand, give us movie times, check our Google Calendar and even read us a book.

To me, it’s game over. Alexa is going to crush the Smart Home space and dominate it before anyone really realizes this has happened because consumers are going to embrace this product since it’s so damn easy to use.

Alexa just helped me preordered the Echo Dot, which comes out at the end of this month, to have another one downstairs that automatically syncs with the one in our bedroom. It will even play music from our oldest son’s Spotify account and send it to our Boise Bluetooth speakers. And our shopping list will be easier to keep up to date; so much for not being an early adopter anymore.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Lesswing March 16, 2016 at 9:28 am

We showed the Echo working against the RAMCO system at AEI in San Antonio last week. We also have it running against the API we published for FRED (Federal Reserve Data).

The Echo has also been part of out standard tour of the IoT lab (CRTLabs) since August 2015.

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Kevin Hawkins March 16, 2016 at 9:38 am

Terrific insight, Mark. I think a lot of folks are going to be surprised how fast and far this little cylinder will reach.

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