Smarthome: Look who's talking
Voice recognition takes control of the smarthome
Amazon Echo Show feature screens as well
Amazon Echo Show feature screens as well
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Home automation used to be a matter of remote controls and, latterly, the smartphone. Now devices such as Amazon's Echo and Google Home are taking over control of the home controller.
HI News 4.6
One of the puzzles of retail in Australia is that, had Dick Smith Electronics (DSE) managed to survive up until the present day, it would likely be on the cusp of becoming a thriving business again.

As HNN has described in the past, the demise of DSE was largely down to most of its "natural" markets being eroded. After it had left its hobbyist origins behind, DSE's major product lines consisted of: telephones, music players, alarm clocks, laptops and accessories, still and video cameras, ebook readers, GPS navigation systems, calculators, and sundry electrical goods. Just about all of the main nine categories were upended from 2011 onwards by the advent of the popular smartphone.

Customers weren't spending $80 to $300 in each of those categories, they were spending $300 to $700 for a single smartphone that did all those things - often a lot better than the technologies it could replace.

However, dominant technologies such as the smartphone tend to go down an interesting path where, after a period of replacement, they give rise to new markets, or come to affect adjacent markets. Their inability to fully satisfy the demands of these additional markets can then lead to the creation of somewhat derivative but also new products.

For example, the modern zipper was invented in 1913 by Gideon Sundback, and it took until 1948 (and the advent of plastics) for George de Mestral to invent velcro. The two serve quite different purposes - with some overlap - but if the zipper had not established a market for one style of closure, it's unlikely that velcro would have developed in quite the same way.

In the case of the smartphone, one of the markets that it at first influenced, and now has changed dramatically, is home automation. Its influence is very clearly seen in the fact that today we've even moved away from the term "home automation", and have instead begun to refer to the "smarthome".

This new market is one that a retailer such as DSE could have served well. Where the smartphone initially narrowed much of the electronics market down to two categories - the smartphone itself and the accessories that went with it - it is now, via its influence on these overlapping markets, expanding other categories and creating new ones. Drones and smartwatches would be examples of these new categories.

Absent retailers such as DSE, the smarthome business does not really attach itself that easily to other retail categories. Companies such as Officeworks and JB HiFi are making efforts to enter the market, but these are half-hearted, and poorly directed. Bunnings has pointed out this market as one that is of high interest to it, but statements from the company indicate it has not really fully understood it as yet - and, in fact, views the smarthome with a degree of puzzlement.

The missing ingredient from all of these retailers - and something that DSE could have contributed - is providing knowledge and advice to consumers. For that reason alone, it seems likely that smarthome devices and accessories could end up being a good new market for independent hardware retailers, both inside groups such as Metcash's Independent Hardware Group (IHG), and non-corporate independents (NCIs).
Smarthome evolution

Prior to 2014 the vision most of the industry had for home automation involved using hubs. These hubs made use of new wireless communication protocols, mostly WiFi but Bluetooth as well, to hook into the internet, and enable forms of remote control and monitoring that had not been possible prior to 2000. The other half of the hub consisted of an array of legacy wireless communication protocols that pre-dated the internet, but were common to many home automation systems.

A major problem with these systems was how to control them. Early home automation typically gave users the option of either making settings work programatically, or using some kind of switching system, such as physical switches anchored to the wall, or sometimes a remote control. You flicked a switch or pressed a button, and the windows closed, the drapes were drawn, soft lighting came on, and music began to play.

As smartphones gained wider popularity around 2010, home automation began to make small steps to integrate these as a more sophisticated remote control. With hubs enabling internet connection you could, for example, lower or raise the garage door from your office at work, or possibly switch on the airconditioner before you turned into your driveway.
Enter the Echo

In 2014 the global online retailer Amazon launched its Echo device. This was a small cylindrical tower, about 180mm tall and 83mm in diameter, which was dominated by its speaker array. While the speaker system was good, the real magic to the Echo, however, was its array of seven microphones.

This microphone array, backed up by some powerful software, enabled it to "hear" human speech at low volumes and over relatively large distances, even over interfering noise. What it was listening for was its "wake word", which in this case was the name "Alexa" (though it could be easily changed to "Amazon" instead). When the Echo "heard" that wake word, it began listening for commands its online voice recognition system could understand.

Originally, these commands had mostly to do with enabling the speaker system to play music, which could originate from a number of online music services, including Amazon's own Music services. However, it could also answer basic questions that might be asked of it, such as how many grams were in a cup of flour, what the capital of Belarus was, and so forth.

While many reviewers mocked the device initially, it began to gain rapid acceptance by the public in the US. Amazon opened the system to developers, and, surprisingly, a large number of home automation tools began to appear. The device removed the awkwardness of having to find a remote, or pull out a smartphone in order to use home automation. Users could say "Alexa, turn on the living room lights", and it would just happen with surprising reliability.

Even what seemed at first to be small abilities came to assume an important place in households. For example, the original Echo enabled the user to easily set timers, by just saying "Alexa, set a timer for one minute and ten seconds". For a cook with his or her hands full, this was a great aid. It proved so popular that in mid-2017 Amazon added the ability to set named timers, meaning it was easier to keep track of multiple timers.
At home with Google

It didn't take that long for the Alphabet company Google to realise that the Echo posed something of a problem for it. Google seeks to "own" activities such as search as much as possible, and with the increasing success of the Echo, its share of that market could come under threat.

The Google Home was announced by the company in mid-2016, and released at the end of that year, in time for the Christmas market. While very similar to the Echo, the Google Home was somewhat more ambitious at its launch, with more features "baked into" the basic model, where the Echo relied more on third-party suppliers. The Echo was very reliable at what it did, while the Home did more, but would tend to fail more frequently.
Apple's Siri

Siri was arguably the first commonly available voice-based assistant to be made available on smartphones. It was originally launched as an app for the iPhone in 2010, developed by the SRI International Artificial Intelligence Center, which is a non-profit associated with Stanford University in northern California (and arguably home to the core developments for personal computing itself). The technology was rapidly acquired by Apple, and was included as a feature on the iPhone 4S when it was launched in 2011.

The abilities of Siri remain somewhat controversial, with many regarding the system as now being, as compared to the Amazon and Google systems, somewhat underdeveloped. Others see Siri as being a far more ambitious project, that is unfairly judged by comparison to much more limited systems.

What is certain is that not only did Apple not spot the potential of using its voice assistant independently of its smartphones, but also that it has continued to not understand how this market works.

Apple began getting into the smarthome market by introducing HomeKit in 2014. This provided a framework for home automation to work with Apple's mobile operating system, iOS. It was only with the release of iOS 10.0 in 2016, however, that Apple added an actual Home app to its smartphones, providing a single location from which all connected devices could be accessed.

What considerably hampered development of devices that could connect to HomeKit was Apple's insistence that anything that did connect needed to use a specific secure communications chipset. This meant that manufacturers would need to make a version specifically just for HomeKit, outside of versions that worked for Echo and Google Home. Few did so, and those that did typically made these devices very expensive, to compensate for the extra development work involved, and the very narrow market Apple offered.

The result has been, predictably, that there are very few HomeKit devices available - the online Apple store lists around 20, if you can find them after going through four layers of navigation.

In 2018 Apple has finally realised its errors, and, after four years of poor performance, has replaced its previous hardware security requirement with software requirement instead, which should see more devices become HomeKit compatible, hopefully at lower prices.

In general, however, this has been a real failure for the company, going from having a leading position in the field, to not even being considered much of a contender, in just six or seven years.
The future of the smarthome

There are big differences between the way that home automation developed prior to 2014, and the way the smarthome has been developing since then.

Home automation has always required a very high degree of integration for it to work properly. It has mostly relied on that integration through the fundamental controls, such as the actual in-wall powerpoints, light switches, custom security systems, and fixed cameras. These controls have mostly been relatively simple, "dumb" devices.


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HI News 4.6 - Smarthome: Look who's talking
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