Your browser is not supported. Please update it.

28 September 2018

Amazon adds Alexa to all the things, ramping up the stickiness

Amazon has launched a pile of new smart home devices, with a particular focus on encroaching into Google’s Chromecast territory. Its Alexa-enabled microwave has stolen most of the headlines, but this is an onslaught of new devices that are intended to significantly raise the barrier-to-exit, and make it exponentially harder to leave an Echo ecosystem once you’re inside it.

In the straight-to-consumer smart home world, there are two clear camps – Google and Amazon. There are smatterings of smaller islanded approaches, from vendors looking to expand on the professional installation experience, and some limited adoption from CSPs, but with Samsung’s SmartThings and Apple’s HomeKit seemingly very far off the race pace, Google and Amazon are a long way out in front.

Amazon has more device integrations, and seems keen to keep things that way. With all these new devices, Amazon is in some ways forcing its new competitors to up their game. Of course, it would like them to ensure their newly updated and connected device has an Alexa integration, but the company is looking to hold feet to the fire, and drag these companies forward.

What’s more, every additional Echo device added to a home makes it that much more unlikely that this home will jump ship – moving to another camp. This is due to the cost, in terms of both time and money, of recreating the features that the Amazon environment is providing. This is such an influential effect that many homes that decide to try and move stand a good chance of reverting, recoiling at the need to reconfigure everything. It’s a very powerful sunk-cost.

We anticipate many of these new devices to fall by the wayside, but that seems to be part of Amazon’s strategy – to flood the market with as many devices as possible and worry about longevity a few quarters down the line. The $50 Echo Auto device, an iPod-shaped unit to add Alexa functions to a car, is emblematic of the expansionist strategy. But similarly, if Amazon needs to, scrapping the line will cause it little harm in the long run. CNET has a good list that will show you the devices in detail.

Amazon encroached further on the audio industry, and on Sonos in particular, unveiling a $130 subwoofer that can be paired with existing Echo systems, as well as the $300 Echo Link Amp and $200 Echo Link. The two Link units are for hi-fi enthusiasts, but given the elitism and snobbery that is quite prevalent in that area, we aren’t convinced that Amazon will have much success with these units.

However, the $35 Echo Input is a much audio better proposition, competing directly with Google’s new Chromecast Audio range, and cheap enough to be an easy gift choice. In a similar vein is the $30 wall clock, which integrates Alexa into a conventional analog unit. This is another good way to bring Alexa into rooms that might not suit an Echo hub.

But the device we are most interested in is the Amazon Smart Plug, a $25 unit that provides will let users hook up all manner of ‘dumb’ devices to a smart home ecosystem – with the one major proviso being that they function in an on-off manner.

Lighting is a good use for such devices, but things like white-goods appliances or entertainment require more than just power to operate. Some heating appliances, as well as fans or dehumidifiers are also good candidates, especially since there are so few options in the market for a natively connected unit.

But that might swiftly change, since one of Amazon’s quieter announcements was the Alexa Connect Kit module, a hardware devkit aimed at developers that provides WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity. It is pre-certified with the FCC, which solves a few headaches, and Amazon has also set a fixed fee for interactions between the device and the back-end Alexa cloud services. Amazon is not giving away many details on what that actually entails, but it looks like the move has streamlined some developer choices.

This should mean that it is easier for developers to add both connectivity and a voice assistant to their devices. It is Arduino compatible, for easy tinkering, but the bigger improvement is that fixed-fee – as it should provide a way to estimate the run-time costs for these devices, once they are in the field.

This has been a lingering concern for some time, as it has such an impact on the pricing of a device. Vendors know they can’t sell a customer an annual subscription for connecting their fan or uplighter, nor could they generate a per-use bill. As such, the ongoing price of connectivity has to be factored into the sale price of the device itself, meaning a higher sticker price. That makes it harder to compete with the dumb options.

Amazon is also turning the screw via software updates. It has added a quiet-mode called Whisper, to avoid disturbing people, as well as ‘WiFi Simple Setup,’ which will share credentials with new devices so that the user doesn’t have to manually do it. Multi-room audio APIs are now available for non-Echo devices, as well as stereo-pairing.

Perhaps most interesting is Hunches, a feature that apparently uses machine-learning techniques to guess what the next useful action will be. Amazon’s example is asking whether a user will want to lock their front door if they are triggering a sleep-related action. Location-based routines, essentially geo-fencing, have also been added.

In terms of other device support and integrations, there are new APIs for doorbells, which will let doorbell devices sync with Echo Show screens when rung. The Smart Screen SDK has also been made available, which claims to let developers provide ‘anything with a display’ with the Echo Show features.

Alexa Guard is a feature that will let Alexa arm home security systems. There are launch partnerships with ADT and Ring (now an Amazon subsidiary), but we expect other security firms to get on board, to prevent them being sidelined by Amazon down the line.