Amazon Echo is a voice-activated digital concierge for your home. And it can now control some of the smart devices in your house. Amazon
Despite what the recent Apple Watch hype would have you believe, the next great technological frontier isn’t your wrist. It’s your home.
Specifically, it’s getting all of your connected devices—the Wi-Fi equipped lights, outlets, crockpots, whatever—to communicate both with you and with each other. It’s an area that both Apple and Google have poked at from the edges for years without gaining much traction. And one that Amazon just quietly broke into through the back door.
Wednesday, owners of the Amazon Echo—a voice-activated Bluetooth speaker still only available for purchase by invitation—received an email detailing their little black cylinder’s newfound powers. In addition to streaming music from the cloud, telling you the weather, and tapping into Wikipedia to help settle bets, Echo now supports products from WEMO and Philips Hue. In other words, you can now bark at your speaker to dim the lights.
The products Echo now plays nice with include the WeMo Switch and Insight Switch, which you plug into an outlet to give you limited control over your appliances; Light Switch, which does the same for, well, lights; and a stack of smart bulbs from Philips Hue.
Set-up seems fairly simple. As long as your smart home products are on the same Wi-Fi network as your Echo and you’ve identified them appropriately in their respective apps, you simply need to say “Alexa, discover my appliances.” (Alexa is the name of Echo’s AI personality.) Once discovered, they’re at your literal beck and call.
While there are only eight compatible devices listed, keep in mind that two of those WeMo products can be used control anything from coffeemakers to irons to electric fans. Philips Hue, meanwhile, is so at the forefront of smart lighting that it’s close to synonymous. These are major players, and almost certainly just the foundation of Amazon’s sky-high smart home aspirations.
You could obviously already control your WeMo and Philips Hue devices through apps on your phone. You could even, after a bit of digital elbow grease, hack your way to using Siri for smart home voice control. But Echo represents a potentially seamless, one-stop smart home interface. Not bad for an unassuming Bluetooth speaker.
It’s not quite fair to call Echo a Trojan Horse. While Amazon keeps sneaking new features in, they’re all either welcome or easily ignorable. Just over the past few weeks, Echo has picked up Pandora, sports scores, and traffic reports to help get a jump on your commute. It’s more like a cornucopia of minor conveniences.
This particular addition, though, seems to have much grander designs than streaming music subscriptions or learning how runs the Padres gave up. While Apple waits for hardware into which it can funnel its HomeKit ambitions, and Google (despite acquiring smart home heroes Nest and Dropcam) continues to stall out on the Android @Home promises of 2011, Amazon has rightly identified the connected home as an afterthought for most people. Here, buy this stereo, it’s saying. And when you’re ready for a 60w bulb that changes colors on command, we’ll be waiting for you.
Echo's new abilities represent Amazon's continued, unobtrusive insinuation into your home.
That makes Echo a device that’s ready for the future while being useful enough in the present, a powerful combination that none of its rivals has so far matched.
We’ll likely see a similar approach from Apple, which has already planted HomeKit seeds for a future generation of Apple TV. However, that’s a few months away at best. The Echo, if you got in on one of the early invite waves, has been ready and waiting for this update since last December.
Combined with the oddball Dash Button, a device that lets you re-order supplies with a single click, Echo’s new abilities represent Amazon’s continued, unobtrusive insinuation into your home. Rather than introducing new confusions, the company so far is committing itself to reducing friction, be it getting lights to dim without digging out your phone, or conjuring up a delivery of Tide without using any higher-level brain functions.
There’s also ample opportunity for Echo to advance that end even further, according to Forrester Research connected home analyst Frank Gillett. “Amazon has the unique advantage that the Amazon Echo can suggest—or eventually be certified to work with—the products they sell on their Home Automation page,” Gillett suggests over email. That page features thousands of items and thousands of items, most of which are potential partners.
Echo won’t be the most capable smart home hub, or likely the most versatile; as Gillett notes, “it seems Amazon Echo only supports connection via Wi-Fi, which may limit options and speed of response for connecting some connected home products.” And while Amazon hasn’t released sales numbers yet, one would imagine that the audience for Echo’s update today is likely very, very small.
That shouldn’t diminish its importance, though. It’s a sign that Amazon has found its way into your living room before its most ambitious competitors have. And before anyone could have realized it.