The Amazon Echo, Dot and other Alexa-enabled devices don’t often play well together in the same house – particularly if they’re within earshot of each other. That wasn’t a problem because most of us had only one smart speaker – if we had any at all.
But that’s changing fast. Amazon says the number of households with more than one smart assistant-enabled device doubled last year. That lends credence to an independent survey taken late last year declaring that nearly 1 in 4 US households had a voice-enabled device inside – and about 40 percent of those have more than one.
Which can only mean that more of us are experiencing the headaches of these early days in the Alexa multi-device experience.
Seen in that light, mesh Wi-Fi pioneer Eero, which Amazon announced it was buying , is not just another pretty peripheral in the online shopping giant’s growing connected home portfolio, like ecobee and Ring, which the company invested in last year.
More likely, Eero’s whole-home networking smarts will turn out to play a pivotal role in making Alexa intuitive to use, smartly identifying where you are and what devices should listen and respond to you. And oh, by the way, offer more privacy. That’s a far cry from how it works today.
I live in one of those multi-device households. We’ve got four voice-activated Alexa devices – an Amazon Echo, an Orbi Voice mesh network from Netgear and two ecobee4 thermostats. And if we’re in the kitchen, all four devices can hear us. Which, if you’ll pardon the pun, is a recipe for disaster.
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The thermostats are usually the first to grab requests for cooking timers and mood music. One ecobee4 thermostat tells us it isn’t built to fulfill our request. And the other informs us that the Alexa cloud service is unavailable – no doubt because the first voice-enabled thermostat is engaging it. Meanwhile, Echo and Orbi Voice, the two full-featured Alexa devices that round out our collection, sit idle.
We’ve since disabled Alexa in the thermostats. But that just brought to light new issues.
The Echo sits by the dining room table, with line of sight to the stove not 20 feet away. The Orbi Voice unit is twice as far, with two walls between. Yet it inexplicably answers calls for a cooking timer which, due to the walls and distance, we have trouble hearing when it goes off and even more trouble canceling. Because while Orbi Voice can hear us perfectly well when we want to set a timer, the alarm drowns out our pleas to turn it off.
It doesn’t have to be this way. And building the on-site command-and-control center around Eero will go a long way toward taking the whole-home Alexa experience to the next level.
The concept is simple, at least in theory. In tech, they call it “hybrid cloud,” or “intelligent edge.” Rather than putting most of the intelligence in the cloud, as the Alexa service is now designed, an on-site hub would have the authority and the smarts to run things locally. Which means that unless it’s downloading a new song you asked it to play or looking up something for you on the internet, it wouldn’t be connected to the cloud service.
Such a setup would have myriad advantages. For one, Wi-Fi routers have gobs more processing horsepower than all the Echos and Dots you’d ever want to buy. And because it’s managing communications between all the connected devices, the intelligent hub would have a better view of the whole house. It would also have more data and smarts to help it decide which family member is asking for what – and from where in the house.
With all that capability and information, the hub would be able to handle more requests locally, which means it could still manage more household tasks, even when the internet goes down.
More local processing also means the service would respond more quickly. You can test this today by asking Alexa to turn off the lights. For us, it takes three or four seconds before the lights go dark. That’s because the cloud service is responding to the request. That’s not a big deal, in this case. But you can see how it could limit new uses.
If all that know-how sounds like a scary proposition from a privacy perspective, then it’s time to fill you in on perhaps the best benefit of Alexa 2.0: An intelligent edge architecture means that more command-and-control occurs inside the home, without ever involving the cloud service. That means, if the service is constructed correctly, that in more cases what happens at home stays at home.
There are more signs beside the Eero acquisition that suggests Alexa architects understand the benefits of hybrid cloud for their platform and are working toward it. Recently, in fact, Amazon announced it has granted Alexa certification to the reference design for Qualcomm’s mesh networking technology, upon which Eero is based. The kit will make it much easier to build voice-enabled smart home hubs, like Netgear’s Orbi Voice. And like what Eero presumably will build for Amazon.
That will be cool. For when that happens, we finally might end up with a truly smart home, as opposed to a collection of connected devices, which is pretty much what we have now.
Mike Feibus is principal analyst at FeibusTech, a Scottsdale, Arizona, market strategy and analysis firm focusing on mobile ecosystems and client technologies. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeFeibus.
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