How is Alexa disrupting the smart home industry and can Apple and Google rival it? by Jonathan Brill
Amazon’s Echo is already shaping up to be the best-in-class interface solution for the best-selling class of Smarthome products. It’s already better than Apple’s HomeKit interface and anything the manufacturers would build themselves. For people who are comfortable working with Alexa to get music played, to keep their calendar organized, and for anything else, using it to adjust their lights or adjust their climate control – which is by far the two most common use cases for smart home – will seem like an obvious thing to do.
The two best-selling classes of smart home products are climate control (first Nest, then Honeywell – which owns 50% of the American home thermostat market) and lighting. Lighting started off as Phillips only but sales of connected light switches are increasing in new homes, mostly led by best-in-class industry brand Lutron.
So, when you get home, or get up, or go to bed, you’re transitioning. You’re doing something different in your home and want to adjust your home to meet your new needs. Turn lights off in one room, on in another, or off altogether. Turn the temp up or down or set it for bedtime. These are things people do every single day, and for people who have a little bit of money and want a little extra convenience or novelty – spending something like a thousand dollars on 1–2 $200 thermostats and $200-$500 on replacing your light switches with “connected” ones might make sense.
A recent trip to an Apple Store perfectly illustrated the changes to the smart home market over the last three years: the shelf space is now about 10% of what it used to be. There used to be dozens of different products prominently displayed in the iPhone accessories section, but now there are just a few. Here are the staples:
And there’s a Canary “smart” security camera, a variety of Philips light bulbs, a Schlage keypad entry doorlock, and some other stuff that’s pretty use case specific. But the all-stars are what they’ve been for five years: a thermostat and lighting control.
Three years ago you would have found a half dozen door locks and lighting controls, a Chamberlain internet connected garage door, a small number of sprinkler controllers, and a bunch of cooking and kitchen appliance inventions. No longer. The selection now is from a small number of Apple Homekit-compliant brands, and that’s not an accident.
The Lutron switch has its own app, which is good, but bulky, and a much more streamlined Homekit interface – which is accessible from the lock screen and gives you 99% of the functionality you’d want on a day-to-day basis in two clicks.
Apple’s iOS HomeKit lighting control screen – accessible from the lock screen
For day-to-day use, my family prefers using Alexa, however, because most of them a) don’t carry around smartphones in the home and b) enjoy using Alexa to do anything. More than that, being able to walk in the house and simply say “Alexa, lights on” and have the house respond is basically the perfect smart home interaction. It takes less effort than walking to the switch, but it’s almost more pleasant and just as reliable.
Apple has made control through HomeKit about as good as they possibly can, but there’s really no comparison. Once people get a taste of being able to speak commands into the air and have their environment made more comfortable, they’ll never go back to not doing it. It’s a more intuitive, natural interface for these products. It’s like my kids poking at the monitor of the first computer they’ve seen, expecting it to be as intuitive as the iPads they’d used. Not knowing that the world was coming their way.
Well, my kids can now walk into their house and say, “Alexa, lights on”, and every other house is going to seem like a call back to olden times when people still had to get up and walk to a switch in the dark.
The challenge that Google will have is that it’s going to take another year for their product to perform as well as the Echo, and that’s another year of Amazon selling tens of millions of units of a loss-leader product to people who are already spending low thousands of dollars a year with Amazon.
The implications for the industry are that Amazon is now a must-have integration, more so than iOS or Android – and that all roads to monetizing day-to-day customer interaction with a smart home product have to run through Amazon.