It's not often I pass up buying the latest new gadget. But I did with the Amazon Echo when my invite to purchase one arrived. I'm starting to regret that decision a little.
I made my choice based on what Amazon Echo could do at the time; not what it might do in the future. That's generally a wise approach when it comes to gadgets, mainly because you never know what future capabilities might be promised and added or simply never arrive at all.
Here's the thing: Even though Amazon never advertised the Echo as a smarthome hub, it's slowly becoming one. And it's doing so quietly.
That's vastly different from how other large companies are planning to be the brains of a smarthome. Take Apple for instance. Nearly a year ago, it announced the HomeKit platform but very few products that support it have yet to be seen.
Some of Apple's HomeKit partners have recently said the rollout is going slower than expected; delayed even. Apple says that's not the case and that some HomeKit products will launch next month. I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle. Yes, we'll surely see a few HomeKit products at Apple's WorldWide Developer Event next month. Enough to show a year's worth of effort? I'm dubious of that.
Either way, one could easily argue that Amazon and it partners have made more progress in far less time.
The Amazon Echo, for example, launched through an invite program in November. It was touted as a Bluetooth speaker for streaming music, along with Alexa, Amazon's voice-controlled interactive assistance software. That wasn't enough for me to pull the purchase trigger. I already have a great Bluetooth speaker -- I bought a Marshall Stanmore last year -- and both my iOS and Android phones already have excellent voice assistants.
Since then, however? Amazon and developers have begun to make strides in turning the Echo into a smarthome hub.
Three months after launching the product, Amazon announced an SDK for cloud-based apps and services on the Echo so developers could create voice-controlled applications. In April, Echo gained support to control home automation products such as the Belkin WeMo line and Philips Hue lights. And earlier this month, the Amazon Echo gained IFTTT, or If This Then That support, for owners to create smart actions triggered by custom events. You can create an IFTTT recipe to have the Echo set your Nest thromstat to a pre-defined temperature, for example.
In just half a year then, Amazon has stealthily matured the Echo beyond the original promise of the product. And it's surely not done yet.
Granted, as a DIY smarthome owner since 2010, I still see some challenges ahead for Amazon.
For one thing, the device only includes Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios. If you use home automation products that rely on other radios or protocols -- say Zigbee or Insteon, for example -- there's no native support for them. Luckily, more and more of these products are relying on multiple radios inside them, so Amazon has the main two covered.
Another challenge? In a larger home with multiple stories, you may need more than one Echo to control your home. The device is reportedly excellent at hearing your commands from across a room or two but when you add multiple floors to the mix, that's a stretch.
Even so, Amazon's Echo has much going for it already. Makers of smart switches, bulbs and other devices are hungry to get their products in homes so they're more likely to work with Amazon due to its brand and reach. And even though Amazon strangely doesn't allow user reviews of the Echo to be published on its site, most owners seem happy with the device.
That's worth repeating: They're happy with the Amazon Echo as it is today. As the company quietly adds new features, these buyers are likely to be happier yet. They'll at least be no worse off. And new apps or services could push some of them to buy either their first or additional smarthome products due to Amazon Echo integration.
Lucky them: Amazon has a whole storefront devoted to smarthome products. That store and the evolving Echo might make for a potent smartphone combination; all without a single announcement that the Echo might become the hub for your smarthome.