Amazon Echo: Ringmaster of the home automation IoT circus

With a $100M investment fund and the opening up of cloud service APIs and an SDK, Alexa and the Echo could become the brains of your home automation and IoT network.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

A few weeks ago I wrote about how the Internet of Things in your home is a disconnected, compartmentalized Tower of Babel, which as a result of competing standards and ecosystems has become vendor-siloed.

I also wrote about my initial experiences with the Amazon Echo, which is now shipping in volume to all Amazon customers.

My main beef with the Echo was that it lacked a lot of the 3rd-party streaming service integration as well as the multi-room capability that the SONOS system enjoys.

At the time, I wasn't able to evaluate Echo's other capabilities, namely its ability to control home automation products that run on the Philips Hue and Belkin WeMo standard.

I have since installed a few WeMo and Hue devices in my home, and I have to say, I like what Echo can do with them.

It's cool to be able to say "Alexa, Bedroom lights fifty percent" and then have the Philips Hues in the entire room dim. Or say "Alexa, Espresso machine on" and have the Rancilio Silvia in my kitchen connected to a WeMo smart switch begin its heat-up process.

While Philips Hue is completely controllable by Alexa, not all the WeMo devices work with Alexa yet. Specifically, what doesn't work is the new WiFi to Zigbee bridged stuff that competes with Hue, such as the new LED Lighting Set and the OSRAM Lightify colored strip lighting (an extremely cool product, by the way) that Belkin recently released.

Belkin assures me this support for the new WeMo Zigbee stuff is coming shortly, so that I will be able to mix and match Hue and WeMo components and use Alexa as the master control from my bedroom without having to jump into multiple smartphone/tablet apps.

Right now I have the non-Alexa controlled WeMo stuff on a timer schedule that is administrated by my iPhone. It joins the ranks of other siloed, independently app-controlled Wi-Fi devices such as the SONOS entertainment system, my Big Ass Fan, my Jandy iAqualink pool control system, my NEST, and my alarm system.

All of this home automation stuff is good, but there is so much more potential here. In my article about the Echo and how I compared it to SONOS from a content-delivery and services integration perspective, I lamented about other vendors (such as SONOS) not being able to tap into the Prime Music ecosystem.

While this hasn't happened yet (SONOS has recently joined forces with Cupertino so that it can stream from Apple Music, later this year) Amazon has recently made some pretty impressive moves on advancing the home automation space that is likely to put it into the position of front runner, despite all of Apple's competing efforts with HomeKit.

Firstly, Amazon has created a $100M fund to support developers, manufacturers, and start-ups of all sizes who are passionate about creating new experiences designed around the human voice.

This alone is significant, but Amazon did not stop there.

Second, Amazon has now de-coupled the Alexa software and cloud service from Echo, through the use of the Alexa Voice Service. That means that any manufacturer of IoT devices can use Alexa's voice recognition to control that device.

So theoretically, a company like SONOS could build Alexa and voice recognition into a future ZonePlayer component, or into the SONOS smartphone controller software for Android and iOS.

It also means Amazon itself could (and probably will) write Alexa apps for Android and iOS and also other set-tops like the XBOX One or even Windows 10, to compete with Microsoft's own Cortana.

But it goes beyond integrating the Alexa Voice cloud service into competing devices.

With the Alexa Skills Kit, any IoT device can now become Alexa-controlled. So this means stuff like Honeywell smart thermostats (sure, NEST would be nice, but I don't see that level of cooperation happening) Big Ass Fans and any number of Wi-Fi and Zigbee-enabled appliances can now be hooked into a single home automation network.

And if you have enough passive voice detection equipment distributed in your home and also installed on your mobile devices, potentially Alexa could control everything from everywhere, not just from an Amazon Echo.

Suddenly, the Echo and Alexa just got a lot more interesting and potentially, much more powerful. Talk Back and Let Me Know what you think.

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