If you buy a smart home device right now, it’s more than likely it’ll work with Amazon Alexa, or Google Assistant, or maybe even both—but while these digital assistants are adding a layer of convenience on top of a living space full of sensors and gadgets, they aren’t really the smart home platforms we should be striving for.
We should give Alexa and Google Assistant credit where it’s due first: While they might not be ideal (more on that in a moment), they have at least helped to make some sense out of an expanding smart home landscape, and just about saved us from having to have dozens of different controller apps open at once.
Whenever you buy a smart home gadget, it’ll come with an app of its very own—letting you turn the light on and off, or lock and unlock the front door, or view a live video feed of whatever is happening in the upstairs attic, or whatever it is. If you buy your smart home gear from a variety of brands, the number of apps you need to keep on top of can rise very quickly.
Alexa and Google Assistant
Enter Alexa or Google Assistant: if a piece of hardware is compatible with these services, you can get at them through the Alexa or Google Home app as well as the app that’s supplied by the manufacturer. It means you can say to your smart speaker “turn off the lights” or tap a button on your smart display, and every smart bulb in the building will switch off—even if they’re all made by different manufacturers.
So far so convenient, but the first problem is that you don’t get the same level of functionality through Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa as you do from a device’s own app. Take Philips Hue bulbs, which are fantastic and which work with Google Assistant and Alexa—unless you use the dedicated Philips Hue app, you don’t get access to as many bulb colours, or advanced features like timers and scenes.
Sure, the apps from Amazon and Google make life easier, and let you combine together devices from different hardware makers, but you’re already missing out on some of the functionality you might need… and so it’s back to the original apps you go.
Then there are the extra steps involved—your Google Nest and Amazon Echo speakers aren’t communicating with these compatible gadgets directly, but rather sending messages up to a server, where they’re passed on to another server, and returned to your home before your commands are eventually carried out.
Apple HomeKit may have its faults—as in it’s very reliant on Apple gear, and it doesn’t support as many gadgets as Alexa or Google Assistant—but it is at least trying to put together a smart home platform that works at a more fundamental level, with less of a reliance on the cloud and with more functionality built into the one app.
For better solutions, we have to go back to older technologies—protocols like Zigbee and Z-Wave that have been around for much longer than the digital assistants from Google and Amazon, but which have struggled to attract enough hardware support to truly dominate the smart home space. These protocols both create a mesh network in your home, operating at lower power and on a different band than your wifi or Bluetooth to, ideally, allow all of your devices to communicate with one another.
Provided you have a hub.
This is why, despite Alexa not really being a smart home platform, you might want to spend the extra money to get an Amazon Echo Plus: It comes with a Zigbee hub built-in. That means tighter integration with other Zigbee-enabled devices and a smart home network that doesn’t have to beam commands to and from the cloud every second (both Zigbee and Z-Wave devices create their own mesh network).
Right now the Echo Plus seems just about the best deal out there for a smart home that’s as well integrated as it’s possible to be in 2020: It supports the broadly supported Zigbee, and the ubiquitous Alexa, which gives you a choice of ways to get all your installed devices happily talking to each other.
Neither Zigbee nor Z-Wave have taken over the world yet though, and nor has Samsung SmartThings, which is a good option if everything you need in terms of devices is available with a SmartThings badge on it. SmartThings, like Alexa and Google Assistant, requires communication with the cloud, but it also gives you more control over your smart home products without the need of additional apps, and a community of fellow users is often adding new products that aren’t officially supported to the ecosystem.
Still, despite the options available none of them are perfect. Right now, you need to either buy all your smart home kit from the same manufacturer or rely on a smart home standard that has its faults.
The future looks to be a little smarter
After years of issues with incompatibility and limitations, there might finally be light at the end of the tunnel: Late last year we heard news of yet another initiative called Project Connected Home over IP, aiming to put together a definitive standard for smart home devices once and for all.
Google and Amazon are on board, as are Apple, Zigbee and Samsung. We might finally get a truly smart platform that brings together all the popular devices on the market, without the sticking plaster of Alexa or Google Assistant on top (though digital assistant integration will still be involved).
“The project aims to make it easier for device manufacturers to build devices that are compatible with smart home and voice services such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, and others,” goes the official blurb.
“The planned protocol will complement existing technologies, and Working Group members encourage device manufacturers to continue innovating using technologies available today.”
This all sounds good in theory, and should mean you no longer have to worry if your devices are connecting via wifi, Bluetooth, or other standards such as Zigbee. Device manufacturers won’t have as many standards to worry about, and can pass on any potential savings in development costs on to end users.
We’ve been here before though—it’s going to take more than positive noises to produce a smart home platform that is both convenient and efficient. At least the big names are all on board, which gives us hope that a rather messy landscape of standards and devices might eventually get tidied up.