With Ecobee4’s “Alexa Hub”, is this the start of voice platform lock-in?

With Ecobee4’s “Alexa Hub”, is this the start of voice platform lock-in?

The highly-anticipated (and ridiculously leaked) Ecobee4 smart Wi-Fi thermostat launched this past week. The overall design and features of the new thermostat remain the same from the Ecobee3, and the Ecobee4 comes with a remote temperature and occupancy sensor just like its predecessor. But wait, there’s more: Ecobee4 doesn’t just “work with” Amazon’s Alexa, she’s built right into the device.

Before I start talking about the potential catastrophes that the very functional and stylish Ecobee4 could bring to the still-young smarter home industry, I’ll start with more kind words. Ecobee has been an innovator in the smart thermostat world since its founding a decade ago. The Ecobee3 came standard with a remote temperature sensor, what a brilliant idea! It offered the ability to make your home more comfortable by better balancing temperatures across your humble abode instead of just measuring it at one location. It offered an sleek, easy-to-use interface on the thermostat’s screen and many integrations with other home automation companies’ products and services, like Apple’s HomeKit and IFTTT.

While I have not yet personally experienced an Ecobee3 (planning on the Ecobee4), it continues to get glowing reviews from others. And, I like the fact that it offers a great alternative to the uber-popular Nest thermostat from a start-up company dedicated to innovation in thermostats.

With Ecobee4, there aren’t many changes to the core technologies, features or overall design from the Ecobee3. The main change that you’ll notice right away is the blue stripe of light along its top edge. Hmm, where have we seen this before? That’s right, the ubiquitous Amazon assistant now referred to as “Lady A” on some podcasts (to prevent activation of Alexa on listeners’ devices) is now on-board. Literally. There is is an array of far-field microphones, plus a speaker on the back of the Ecobee4. It’s the Alexa Voice Service, at your service.

"Do we really need another platform that consumers will be potentially locked into?"

The Ecobee4 isn’t technically the first device to have Alexa built right in, but it does appear to be the first home automation product to fully integrate an Alexa hub and the signature blue lights from the Amazon Echo line of smart speakers. Honestly, this is great, and a wonderful innovation on the part of ecobee. In fact, they want to take the concept of an always-listening home even further. They also introduced their new Smart Light Switch (coming later this year), which will also have an Alexa Hub built right-in along with those dancing blue lights.

Blue lights? But what about extra lights of yellow, red, green colors of the Google Assistant? Siri doesn’t really have a “color”, and besides, she’s not directly integrated into any products outside of Apple right now. Cortana? Bixby? I won’t even bother.

But this is where the trouble begins…

PC vs Mac

Android vs iOS

Insteon vs Zigbee vs Z-Wave vs Thread vs Lutron vs HomeKit vs Wi-Fi (and don't forget cute little dotdot :|| )

And now... Alexa vs Google Assistant vs Siri vs um, nevermind

The goal of home automation is to control all of your connected stuff. Easily, and usually, automatically. While the recent entries of Amazon, Apple and Google into the smarter home world have actually started to help make this thing work better with that thing, the competition between these new players could temporarily hurt efforts to simplify connected home products. Do we really need another platform that consumers will be potentially locked into?

The Google Home and Amazon Echo Dot smart speakers, side-by-side.

The Google Home and Amazon Echo Dot smart speakers, side-by-side.

My concern is that the Ecobee4 could start that trend. Now, to be fair, I reached out to ecobee on this very topic. Of course, the Ecobee4, like its predecessor, supports Apple’s HomeKit and Siri, but ecobee is also working on support for the Google Assistant and Google Home. However, this evidently won’t come in the form of dancing lights at the top of a “Google Assistant” version of the Ecobee4 that would potentially have a “Google Assistant Hub” on-board. Ecobee said that support for the Assistant would be similar to how Alexa was supported on the Ecobee3, as an software integration that takes advantage of “Actions on Google” and potentially using the newly-released SDK as well.

"We need true standards in the home automation world"

Beyond the basic “soft” integrations, Amazon and Google vary in how they’d like hardware manufacturers to integrate their assistants “directly” into products. Amazon has more specific hardware guidelines, requiring dedicated Alexa indicators, mute buttons, “initiation” buttons and so forth. Google, predictably—at least for now—is more open and just about the software and communication with its systems that power the Google Assistant. No requirements for special lights, buttons or the like, yet. The SDK largely targets the DIYers right now, and Google’s official site says: “Later this year, commercial device makers will also be able to use the SDK across a wide range of hardware.” Does this mean that there will be additional requirements for hardware makers? We’re not sure yet.

Of course, Amazon had the lead on Google for two years, and already had created the specs for the Alexa Voice Service and companies and developers had already started integrating it into products. But if the basic requirements for Alexa and the Google Assistant integrations remain as they are today, it may ultimately create a confusing marketplace for consumers. Thermostat A has Alexa built right-in, but Thermostat B just “works with Alexa”. And Thermostat C works with the Google Assistant, but you can’t talk directly to the thermostat itself because it has no microphones or a speaker. And, does this mean that Thermostat A is actually better than Thermostat B on how it’s integrated with Alexa?

Now, as I said before, I applaud Ecobee for innovating on the concept of making voice control seamless across an entire home. But does this mean that everyone will start offering smart light switches and dimmers with some sort of “Assistant” integration built-in? Oh, sure, Smart Switch A has Alexa built-in but doesn’t work with the Google Assistant. Smart Switch X has Siri built-in (yeah, right!) and doesn’t work with anything else. This could potentially be a total mess for consumers.

People are already confused by products that work with one platform but not another. Or worse, a product that looks really cool, but it’s only compatible with Z-Wave controllers. Thus, another purchase, another decision. If potential voice-platform lock-in is introduced to the market, consumers are going to be even more baffled than they are today.

As I’ve been saying for years, we need true standards in the home automation world. And we need them today. Don’t get me started on which one should win the current race, because that discussion deserves an entire dedicated article. Voice is going to be the next piece of the puzzle that needs to have a standard, or at least a more level playing field so that consumers understand that the voice integration in one product is just as good as in another…and the number of integrations in a particular product shouldn’t matter. Would Apple ever open Siri to be integrated directly into a non-Apple product? Probably not, but we can hope. Cortana, Bixby? Are you listening?

"I applaud Ecobee for innovating on the concept of making voice control seamless across an entire home."

I’ll go ahead and predict that in the next 12-18 months, we’ll start to see voice devices / smart speakers that are platform-agnostic. And this would be the best thing that could happen. After all, these things are usually fancy enclosures just arrays of mics and a nice speaker, with a few LEDs, a mute button and some sort of volume control…oh yeah, and Wi-Fi. Some innovative company could also build-in mesh Wi-Fi, and thus you could have steady signal throughout your home along with ubiquitous voice control abilities. And, while the smart switch integration is cool, light switches aren’t always in the best locations to place mics and speakers for great sound recognition or playback. What will come next? The Bose Smart Speaker Switch has the ultimate in room filling sound, from a 3/4” tweeter and 1/4” sub-woofer? Oh dear…

So, device makers…if you build mics and speakers into your products for voice control, please make them platform agnostic. Thank you.

PS

I remember when I was really looking at pushing the boundaries of my DIY home automation setup in the early 2000s—and yikes, I was still on X10—I wanted ultimately to control everything via voice and extend the capabilities of the system as far as I could. In those days, there was a system called HomeVoice that could listen in via special in-wall mics disguised as light switches, and ultimately send macros and home automation commands to various controllers connected to your PC. It required dedicated wiring, a mixer board, etc but it would have been really awesome! Sadly, the setup that I really craved was beyond my budget. Today, of course, it’s much easier: Just buy an Echo Dot for every room or a Google Home, link them up to your smarter home products and start commanding your home via your voice! Yesterday, very few choices and difficult to integrate. Today, over-choice and consumer confusion but easy to integrate. My how far we’ve come! 😉

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