It’s Time for a Better Smart Home –

Apr 20, 2022

It was 2016, just after Amazon’s Prime Day, and I pulled a black cylinder out of a box: an Amazon Echo, my first smart speaker. Adding in a few Philips Hue bulbs, I got my first taste of the smart home and it felt amazing, like something out of Star Trek. I don’t know that I’d call it amazing any longer.

I’d experienced a “smart assistant” before courtesy of Apple’s Siri, but there was something notably different about the “ambient” nature of the Echo. Turning lights on and off seemed almost like magic. I was amazed with how I could say, “Alexa, turn on my bedroom light” and it just worked. I wanted the whole house to be that smart.

It worked so well and prices started dropping so quickly that I soon availed myself of a variety of cheap smart home accessories to give Alexa more control over the home. Frequent sales on Prime Day, Black Friday and the like on Echo Dots made it practical to have a voice enabled home for less than a day at an amusement park.

In short order, Amazon had Echoes with better audio quality, Echo Subwoofers, Echo alarm clocks and pretty much any other kind you could want. Even a very cheap wall plug version called the Echo Flex. These speakers were smart, easy to setup and many of them offered sound quality that is quite good.

It all felt like we were racing along with incredible progress towards a truly smart home that voice control (and quasi machine learning that tried to even guess certain preferences) could knit together. We were already so close.

Somewhere in this early period, I got a promotion while shopping at Walmart that provided several Google Home (now Google Nest Home) speakers for next to nothing, and I enjoyed tinkering with those, too. Suddenly decent smart home control was being given away in promotions. (They were more limited than the ever expanding “Echo-system” so I stuck with Amazon, but still.)

The competition was exciting and made even more so when Apple threw its hat in the ring with the HomePod, albeit at an eyewatering price. Everyone else was moving towards pricing that meant a “smart speaker in every room” was something normal folks could enjoy; Apple seemed obvious to that trend, but at least was finally in the ring. Surely, a three way race would guarantee even better home assistants and affordable speakers from all, right?

I’m not so sure, it feels more like we’ve stalled and started regressing. Whereas my first generation Amazon Echo amazed me a half decade ago at getting most anything I’d want to do right the first time, I can’t even get my present Echo to turn off that very first light I ever connected to the system without multiple attempts any more.

Me late at night, exhausted: “Alexa, turn off Tim’s bedroom lamp.”

Alexa: “Sorry, there are multiple devices with the name Tim’s, which one do you want?”

Me: “Tim’s… bedroom… laaaaamp.”

Alexa: “Sorry, there are multiple devices with the name Tim’s…”

Me: “Alexa! [Please]{.ul} turn off my bedroom.”

Alexa: “Ok.”

Whether it is playing music or controlling lights or trying to pull up my doorbell on an Echo Show (generally, whomever was ringing it is …….



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