Amazon Lets Users Create Their Own Smart Home

The broad consumer market is taking off, not only because there are Internet-connected devices everywhere, but also that the Echo has captured people’s imaginations, according to an Amazon exec.

by Ángel González, The Seattle Times / April 6, 2016
The Amazon Echo, a hands-free speaker you control with your voice that connects to the Alexa Voice Service. Shutterstock

(TNS) -- Amazon.com is giving all developers the key to its customers’ smart homes — or at least the homes of those with a device animated by Alexa, the voice-powered, artificial-intelligence assistant.

On Tuesday, the tech giant released a tool that allows makers of smart home devices to connect their creations to Alexa without having to develop their own complicated voice-recognition models first.

Until now, Amazon had extended the support to only a few companies, including Nest, Samsung SmartThings and Ecobee, as part of a test that began in summer 2015.

This latest move could unleash a flood of voice-controlled thermostats, light bulbs, switches and even coffee makers that work with Alexa, further strengthening Amazon’s newfound role as an arbiter of smart home technology.

That’s a position the company unexpectedly found for itself as a result of the surprising success of the Echo, the Amazon home speaker built to include cloud-inhabiting Alexa technology.

Alexa is an open platform, designed to let outsiders teach it what Amazon calls “skills,” from reading the news and telling ribald jokes to playing streaming music through Spotify and summoning an Uber driver.

Up until now, the idea of a smart home had been reserved to either the superrich — who could afford expert help — or passionate geeks.

But now the broad consumer market is taking off, not only because there are Internet-connected devices everywhere, but also that the Echo has captured people’s imaginations, says Charlie Kindel, the Amazon executive in charge of Alexa Smart Home.

“The experience with voice is what’s really setting this off,” he said, adding that a “significant portion” of Alexa customers use smart-home applications.

Kindel said Amazon originally started developing smart-home abilities for Alexa with a couple of partners, but soon it became clear many hardware makers were interested. The company broadened its strategy toward developing a set of developer tools that would ultimately, with Tuesday’s announcement, become self-service.

“We think this is really going to accelerate the frantic pace of adoption,” Kindel said.

The market opportunity for Amazon to secure a big role in the home-automation movement is enormous, according to analysts.

“It’s a big deal,” says Colin Sebastian, an analyst with Baird. “Voice recognition technology is advancing quickly and Amazon wants to be a leader for various reasons.”

Among the reasons is that the more devices Alexa powers, the more data Amazon collects and the more Alexa improves — making it even more useful and desirable.

Also important for Amazon: People can buy things on its online store by just talking to Alexa. And Amazon can sell even more smart home devices.

On Tuesday, as it released the “Smart Home Skill” tool, Amazon also redesigned its Alexa Smart Home store to make it easier for customers to shop by brand and to highlight new products.

©2016 The Seattle Times Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.