Living with (and building for) the Amazon Echo

We’ve had our Amazon Echo for just 15 days but it feels like we’ve jumped 15 years into the future.

Voice interfaces have been steadily improving for years — Siri being the mainstream’s first taste — but having an always-on, ambient, personal assistant around the house totally transforms their usefulness.

For those who’re yet to experience Alexa, she’s the entity that emanates from the Amazon Echo, a wine-bottle-sized cylinder of internet-connected speakers and microphones sent directly from the future. It’s a much more dramatic product than I’d expected.

The Echo is always listening, but it only springs into life when you ask Alexa for something:

Alexa, will it rain today?
Alexa, remind me when its 2:30.
Alexa, what’s the meaning of life?

42. Obviously.

In this short time, my wife and I have come to rely on the Echo more and more:

Its replaced AirPlay for music: The convenience of being able to have the Miles Davis Pandora station waft into your living room after a short incantation is some seductive magic. As is being able to say “Alexa, turn it up!”, “Alexa, skip this” or “Alexa, thumbs up”. Even if you get your music from someplace other than Spotify, Pandora, iHeart, TuneIn Radio or, er, Amazon Prime Music, the Echo still has a trick up its sleeve. I can just say “Alexa, connect to my phone” and I’m instantly streaming from any app on my Phone. The Echo is — on top of everything else — one of the best Bluetooth speakers you can buy.

Hands-free Timers: I’m a messy cook; the kitchen is not a safe place for our smartphones. Being able to say “Alexa, set a timer for 15 minutes” or “Alexa, what’s 200 degrees Centigrade in Fahrenheit” is saving both our palate and our expensive devices from certain destruction.

Leaving the House: It might be because we’re British and thus genetically predisposed to care about the weather. In being able to say “Alexa, will it rain today?” or “Alexa, will it be hot this afternoon?”, she’s able to effortlessly satisfy this stereotype.

However, the “Alexa” invocation isn’t foolproof. Last week my wife and I were watching the Iowa caucuses on CNN when suddenly, unexpectedly, Alexa gushed:

“How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”

I have no idea what Wolf Blitzer said to offend her.


But as an engineer and product person, the Echo really whets my appetite because you can build apps for it. Well, they’re called “Skills.

Amazon have quietly been building a solid library of third-party skills. There’s now over 200 including new additions from Uber, Spotify and Dominos. And they’re clearly taking their new ecosystem seriously: on the developer/platform side there’s a new VP and a $100m Alexa Fund. On the consumer side there’s, well, a superbowl ad.

So to learn more, I built a Skill.

Here’s some observations from my experience:

Getting Started

Building voice interfaces is no easy task, let alone a framework for arbitrary commands for third-party apps — but the Alexa Skills Kit (as the programing interface is called) is an impressive bit of software.

As a developer you specify the ‘intents’ your Skill supports (think of these like controllers in an Rails app or Activities in an Android app), then specify the various phrases people might use to invoke that intent. You also specify any variables that you expect as part of the incantation. These can be standard types (dates, numbers, places), enums you specify, or arbitrary literals (not recommended, but sometimes necessary). Your code then gets passed clean structured data to act upon.

This programming model is flexible enough to make most things possible, but there’s a few limitations. It’d be great to have a programmatic way of updating enum of custom slot types — either via an API or have the Skills Kit read and cache the values from JSON served at a URL. It’d also like to see an expanded list of built-in types: it currently only support US cities, for example.

These nits aside, it’s clear a lot of work has gone into the ASK, and it’s super-easy to build pretty complex voice-driven interfaces really quickly.

Needs better support for asynchronous tasks

Not everything happens in an instant. Today, when you ask Alexa something, she can only reply with one block of speech. This works great if the Skill you’re interacting with has the answers ready in an instant, but that’s not always the case.

Imagine your Skill calls an API which takes 5 seconds to respond — not all that uncommon for complex operations. There’ll be an awkward 5-second pause after you pose the question before you hear a response. Granted, you know something’s happening as the Echo’s blue lights pulse in the meantime. But it’d be a much better experience if Alexa offered Skills the ability to respond immediately with something like “OK, let me look that up for you”, and then a few seconds later with the actual response.

A great use case is a hypothetical Lyft app. When you order a ride, it might take 10–60 seconds for real drivers in the real world to accept the job. In Lyft’s app, this latency is satisfied with a spinner. But to make this experience work on the Echo, a Skill needs to be able to reply instantly (“OK, let me get you a ride”), then keep you updated (“I’m still trying to connect you with a driver…”), before letting you know: “I got you a ride. Your car will arrive in 4 minutes”. That experience is not possible today and it desperately needs to be to enable a whole class of semi-asynchronous or long-running Skills.

Notifications Notification Notifications

Today, Alexa can only respond to commands you utter. There’s no way the Echo can notify you that something happened — you always have to ask. But events and alerts are critical agents in some of the most useful experiences.

Take that Lyft example again — wouldn’t it be useful if Alexa could tell you when your ride was one minute away? What if Alexa could let you know that the pizza you ordered had been dispatched, or for that matter, remind you that your latest Amazon order would be delivered sometime this afternoon? None of that’s possible today.

Now, I can totally understand why this isn’t in for the v1 — tasteful notifications are hard to get right — but the issues are all solvable. Access to notifications needs to be tightly controlled to prevent abuse, but Amazon already has a certification scheme in place for Skills. It’d also make sense to have a low per-Skill quota to prevent over-use. As a user, I’d also want to be able to set do-not-disturb periods to prevent interruptions.

I really hope the folks at Amazon are actively working on notifications right now. They’d dramatically expand the universe of what’s possible.

Access to long-form & streaming audio

Right now, Skills are able to play short (<30 sec) audio clips. This is really designed for audio branding — perhaps a sound trademark. But I can imagine whole classes of experiences that become possible if Skills are able to access live audio streams or play long files.

For example, I’d love to be able to ask Alexa to start streaming the sound from our baby monitor when we put our daughter to sleep. I’d love people to build Skills which access long-form audio content beyond podcasts — for example LBC’s back catalogue of programming stretching back nearly 10 years.

The built-in apps (TuneIn, Spotify, Pandora, Audible etc) are all able to play >30 sec audio files, and connect to live audio streams. It’d be great to see the same abilities made available to third-party Skills too.

Multiroom

Perhaps this is the ultimate first-world problem: I’d like my ambient voice-activated virtual assistant to be in every room of my home. Yes, I know, I’m lucky enough to have a home with enough distance between rooms so as to not be heard properly between them — let alone lucky enough to have an ambient voice-activated virtual assistant. But I’ve begun to expect — no, rely — on Alexa’s presence, so that I’m confused when I walk in to the bedroom and can’t verbally add diapers to our shopping list.

First, it’d be great if, in a multiple-Echo home, Alexa were smart enough that only the nearest device responded — like the Echo’s beam-forming mic on steroids. Though we only have one Echo, that’s probably not the case today.

It’d be even better if multiple Echos could work together. I’d love to be able to say, from the kitchen: “Alexa, play a lullaby in the Nursery”. Yes, I’m that good a dad.

A more natural invocation model for third-party Skills

While built-in apps like Amazon’s own or Pandora can be invoked with natural phrases like “Alexa, is it going to rain today?”, or “Alexa, play some Gregory Porter”, third-party Skills have a more rigid invocation format:

Alexa, ask Tube Status if there are any delays
Alexa, ask Automatic where my car is
Alexa, ask TV Shows when is American Idol on?
Alexa, ask|tell|open {skill name} to|for|about|if|whether {some command}

This results in some pretty awkward sentences, and the formal structure interrupts the illusion that you’re talking to a truly smart assistant. To really make Skills shine, Alexa needs to be clever enough to figure out what you’re asking, and delegate to the right Skill. The commands above should be as simple as:

Alexa, are there any delays on the Tube?
Alexa, where’s my car?
Alexa, when is American Idol on?

Now, again, I totally get why this is the state today — the formal structure makes it much easier for Alexa’s brain to invoke the right Skill and pass your command to it in a structured way. But we’re shooting for amazing here — and being able to invoke Skills using natural language and arbitrary sentence structure is critical to the illusion Alexa purveys.

Audio Out

The Echo is a really great little speaker — at least as good as the other Bluetooth speakers in its price range, and they just stream Bluetooth audio. But it’s not Hi-Fi. For me, the Echo is missing a line out jack that I can wire into a proper set of speakers to play back the streaming audio.

Of course, I could still use a laptop/phone/AirPlay to stream Spotify to my Hi-Fi but it’s testament to how awesome Alexa’s interaction model is that I want to use the Echo to control everything. Given that the current hardware doesn’t have an audio jack, a quick fix would be to let Alexa control another Spotify client — kind of like Spotify Connect in reverse. Or I could hack it


That’s quite a list, and I feel a little guilty pointing these things out: I’m aware we’re at the very very early stages of what’s possible. But these suggestions aren’t borne out of frustration, they’re driven by the wide-eyed excitement of what could be possible.

While the door is ajar for great new experiences, it’s not yet been fully opened. But the expressiveness, flexibility and sheer novelty of this new platform is incredibly exciting. Much like the promise of VR, the advent of natural, ambient and pervasive voice interfaces like Alexa already feels like we’re at a new frontier.

The Echo is not a product I expected from Amazon, but like the Kindle, I think we’re all about to realize they have a hit on their hands — and their success is well deserved. The Echo is badass.

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“Home Smart Home” — Target’s Open House smart home showroom in San Francisco

Home Smart Home: A Primer on the Internet of Things for the Smart Home

I’m about to move to a new house. I’m the kind of guy who, rather than thinking deeply about wallpaper patterns or which Crate & Barrel table to get, spends his time thinking about the optimal setup of the TV and speakers in the living room, how to ensure wall-to-wall WiFi coverage, or how to get the best possible sound in the kitchen.

So it’s timely and exciting that in the last few years, several trends have converged so that the promise of the connected home — the smart home — is, at last, beginning to be realized. Vastly cheaper and faster semiconductors, widespread smartphone adoption, and a new slew of low-power wireless mesh networking standards have all enabled a new generation of connected products to emerge: everything from LED lightbulbs, digital locks & networked sound systems to intelligent thermostats, video doorbells, and wireless HD cameras. Oh, and the WiFi Crock-Pot.

The Belkin WeMo WiFi Crock-Pot

Each of these products on their own is a good step forward (except, maybe, the crock pot), but the real trick comes when they work seamlessly together. In our new home, that is my goal. So I began to research the products on the market today and how they can work together. I thought I’d share what I’ve learned.


For me, it’s been useful to think of smart home products in four general categories:

  1. The Devices Themselves
    Devices are the ultimate actors in the smart home. They dim lights, switch things on or off, open locks, and turn motors. Some are sensors: proximity, movement, moisture etc which can trigger other devices to spring into action to take place. Some are physical switches which you can use instead of getting out your smartphone just turn on the lights.
  2. Protocols & Standards
    A smart home needs a way for all the devices in it to be discovered, networked and controlled. You’ll have heard of WiFi and Bluetooth, but there’s a new generation of standards and technologies which deal with the specific challenges of low power, low range, high-reliability use cases.
  3. Controllers & Hubs
    Controllers and hubs manage all the devices in your smart home and connect them to your phone and the internet beyond. They’re the parts of the system which actually issue the commands to turn on the lights, set the temperature or play your favorite podcast when you walk in the door.
  4. Apps & Services
    Once you’ve invested in all these smart devices, you want to be able to elegantly control and manage them. Most smart home products come with their own app, but there are third-party apps and services which add value on top: perhaps by providing a simpler interface, or by acting as aggregators between the multiple smart devices in your home. This is a fast-growing category, so it’s worth showcasing a few examples.

Let’s investigate each layer in turn:


1: The Devices Themselves

In the last few years, there’s been an explosion in connected devices for the home. We’re long past the days of the pointless internet-connected fridge — today’s devices offer real utility: being able to remotely open your front door when you have a package delivered while you’re at work is actually pretty useful.

I don’t have space to go into much detail here, but here’s a limited listing of some of the most prominent connected devices for the home:


2: Protocols & Standards

A connected home is about, you know, things being connected together. To make that work, you either need to buy all your smart home products from a single manufacturer (not awesome for choice, price or longevity) or, better, buy products from multiple manufacturers which employ technologies and standards which let them work seamlessly together.

But right now, this is nowhere near as simple as it should be. There are multiple competing smart home networking technologies each with their own idiosyncrasies. Some manufacturers are playing a game of vendor lock-in, while others support multiple standards making compatibility easier if more complex. So today, it’s still valuable to have a basic grasp of the various underlying technologies smart home products use. It’ll help you take better buying decisions and make it easier to successfully build an integrated smart home. Here’s a quick guide:

ZigBee

ZigBee is a low-power wireless networking technology that creates ‘mesh networks’ — this means every ZigBee device in your smart home works together acts to extend the range and robustness of the network. For ZigBee devices to be controlled via the internet or your smartphone, you need a ‘bridge’ or ‘hub’ which, literally, bridges your ZigBee network to your home WiFi network.

ZigBee is probably the most open of the connected home protocols. Just like WiFi, it’s a standard developed and certified by the IEEE and promoted by the ZigBee Alliance — a group of chipset and product manufacturers. It’s not owned my one manufacturer in particular. This means a wide range of vendors use ZigBee in their products.

But there’s a catch: ZigBee devices all use the same wireless communications protocol but ZigBee standardizes multiple control protocols (known as ‘Application Profiles’). This means not all ZigBee-enabled devices will work together. For example, Philips Hue uses the ZigBee Light Link profile. But some ZigBee-based bulbs use the ZigBee Home Automation profile, so they won’t necessarily cooperate. Confused? You should be.

Furthermore, some manufacturers explicitly prevent their ZigBee-based devices from working with those of other manufacturers. Net: you need to do a bit more digging to guarantee they two ZigBee devices will actually play nicely together.

On the upside. ZigBee uses the same frequency worldwide, so ZigBee devices from the same manufacturer will work regardless of where you bought them (assuming voltage compatibility).

Z-Wave

Z-Wave is a proprietary technology created by Sigma Designs but it’s been liberally licensed to many manufacturers — giving a wide choice of brands from which to buy compatible smart home products. Unlike Zigbee which supports multiple control standards, Z-Wave is both a communication standard and a single control standard. The group which runs Z-Wave also takes more control over the device certification process meaning you can be pretty certain that any Z-Wave-branded device will work with any other: Z-Wave-enabled hubs will be able to discover and control all the Z-Wave devices in your home, regardless of manufacturer. This is a big win as it means if you decide to base your connected home on Z-Wave, then you’re not tied to one vendor (as you are with Insteon, for example). And, just like ZigBee, Z-Wave creates a mesh network to ensure robust signal throughout your home.

But there’s a small catch: Z-Wave is licensed for different frequencies in different countries; a Z-Wave device made for the US won’t work in Europe and vice versa. Given the voltage differences, you might already have to buy locally-sourced devices, but it’s worth being aware of. I nearly pushed the ‘buy’ button on a bunch of US-sourced components, then discovered they’d not work in Europe.

Weave (Google/Nest)

Weave isn’t a radio standard like ZigBee or Z-Wave, it’s a control layer that sits on top of those networks, along with others like Bluetooth and WiFi. It defines a common language for smart home device discovery and control — thus in theory, allowing all devices which imeplement Weave to discover and control all the others.

It’s being built into Android so will likely eventually compete with Apple’s HomeKit as an aggregation layer for controlling devices from different manufacturers. Weave was created by Nest (owned by the same company that owns Google). It’s how Nest’s devices talk to each other and how some devices in the Works with Nest program communicate with the Nest thermostat (some devices instead use Nest’s cloud API rather than Weave). While the Weave ecosystem today clearly orbits Nest, they’re hoping other manufacturers build in Weave support, but to date, adoption is limited.

The Insteon Protocol

Insteon one of the leading US brands making smart home products. But their products don’t use ZigBee and Z-Wave, they use a proprietary communications standard. The primary perceived advantage of their protocol is that it uses powerline networking in addition to radio waves to communicate between devices. This extra channel means Insteon networks should in theory be more resilient to interference, and can communicate over longer distances — though both ZigBee and Z-Wave are pretty resiliant. Insteon devices are also able to partially work with older X10 devices.

However, as Insteon is a proprietary protocol and isn’t even licensed to other manufacturers, you have to buy the hub and all your smart home devices from Insteon — the least open and interoperable option.

WiFi

Some smart home products connect directly to your WiFi network — the Belkin WeMo and Lifx ranges being notable examples. Because each device connects directly to your home WiFi network, there’s no need for an ‘bridge’ or ‘hub’ as in Z-Wave and ZigBee-based systems. That often means they’re cheaper — especially if you just have one or two devices you want to install.

There are downsides though: most of the other smart home protocols— particularly ZigBee, Z-Wave & Insteon — form mesh networks where every device actually acts as a router, further extending the range and reliability of the network. WiFi devices just connect to your existing home network, so you need to ensure you have good WiFi signal strength in all the places you want to site your devices.

WiFi devices are also a little less easy to setup. The other standards have simple pairing systems where you press a button on the device to pair it with your hub or phone. WiFi devices generally require a more laborious process where you first have to have your phone join a network radiated by the device, then you tell the device your home SSID/password before it finally connects. However, given you set these things up once, this may not be a big deal. Just don’t change your WiFi password though…

Bluetooth

While its been around since 1994, Bluetooth has been steadily evolving. Not just for wireless headsets and speakers, Bluetooth — especially Bluetooth LE — is a key technology for many smart home products. Once paired, Bluetooth devices can automatically reconnect when they come within range of each other making the technology perfect for applications which rely on presence — smart door locks for example, which might only unlock when you and your phone are nearby.

Today, Bluetooth is mostly used to connect devices directly with your phone (e.g. flic.io buttons) rather than with a central home hub (ZigBee and Z-Wave are more common in that scenario), but more and more hubs are being launched with built-in Bluetooth support which suggests more devices might eventually be able to use Bluetooth without connecting directly to your phone.

X10 — An Honorable Mention

X10 was the first real standard for connected home devices — it was developed way back in 1975. While there are still lots of X10 devices available, few of the modern consumer smart home platforms (SmartThings etc) speak the X10 protocol leaving this looking like a technology in decline. The only exception is Insteon which partially works with X10 devices, but mainly for backward compatibility reasons.

Summary

ZigBee and Z-Wave are the two leading modern wireless standards for smart home products where those products are destined to be part of a whole-home system. WiFi is still pretty prevalent for one-off connected devices (e.g. the crock-pot) or small/simple setups.

The competition between ZigBee and Z-Wave has been compared to a modern day VHS vs Betamax. I’m not sure it’s that divisive — in the VHS/Betamax case it was video rental stores’ desire not to stock two formats for every movie that forced a winner. But smart home devices aren’t rented out — they’re owned long term. It’s also perfectly possible for both technologies to live alongside each other — both the Samsung SmartThings Hub and the VeraPlus hub, for example, supports both protocols. The Verge has also published a great write-up of the competition between the two.

In an ideal world, consumers shouldn’t have to deal with all this complexity — you should just be able to buy a product off the shelf from any manufacturer, and it’ll just work. But for now, until the industry coalesces around a smaller number of standards and irons out the interoperability issues, it's worth knowing a little more about this layer of the smart home stack.


3: Controllers & Hubs

To make your smart home come alive, you really want your smart devices to work together and be controllable from a number of different surfaces: smartphone apps, physical buttons — sometimes, even your voice.

This isn’t trivial though — not all products and services play nice together out of the box. The most common way to link multiple smart home products together is through a hub, or through an app on your smartphone. Or both. Here’s a look at some of the common hubs and controllers you might consider for your smart home:

Samsung SmartThings Hub

The Samsung SmartThings Hub is a ZigBee and Z-Wave enabled hub which comes with a great app for iOS and Android. SmartThings also make a range of useful devices like smart plug, motion sensor, proximity sensor and even a moisture sensor. But the best part is that the hub will also be able to recognize and control devices ZigBee and Z-Wave devices from other manufacturers.

For example, the SmartThings app (via the SmartThings hub) can control Cree or Osram Lightify LED Lightbulbs. Just power them up, pair them with the hub and, voila.

SmartThings also has good partnerships with other controllers — in particular, anything you can control from the SmartThings app can now be controlled from your Amazon Echo — so its trivial to enable “Alexa, turn on the kitchen lights”.

SmartThings was acquired by Samsung in 2014 which means it has solid backing from a major consumer electronics vendor. This bodes well for broad support going forward.

Philips Hue Hub

The Hue Hub is, unsurprisingly, about powering your Philips Hue lightbulbs and fixtures. It uses ZigBee Light Link to talk to your Hue devices, and connects to your home WiFi/Ethernet network so you can control your lights from your phone both inside and outside the home.

Hue lamps will only talk to the Hue Hub, but the hub can also control pretty much any ZigBee Light Link-based smartbulbs such as those from GE Link and Cree. This means the Hue Hub is a pretty great option for folks wanting to build a whole-home wireless lighting system. The Hue app which control the hub is first class, and having the ability to control bulbs from a range of manufacturers means you don’t have to put expensive Hue lamps in every room.

Philips actually broke the ability for the Hue Hub to control non-Philips Light Link bulbs in late 2015, citing “an increasing number of interoperability issues”. But after a backlash from consumers, they backtracked and the hub can once again control non-Hue lamps. While this was a big misstep, their quick reversal shows Philips are closely listening to their nascent community — a great sign.

VeraPlus

Both the SmartThings Hub and the Hue Hub, while they’re able to control devices from multiple manufacturers, are really designed as the focal point for their own range of devices. VeraPlus is different in that it’s sold, by default, as a naked hub, ready for you to buy your own Bluetooth, ZigBee and Z-Wave devices to go with it. This makes it definitely a product for the more adventurous smart home builder as you have to do the legwork to determine device compatibility.

Logitech Harmony Hub

We don’t — yet — live in a future where everything in your home is wireless-network-connected. Lots of things like TVs and stereo systems still only have traditional infrared remotes. The Logitech Harmony hub is an internet-network-connected IR blaster that lets you bring control of these devices into your smart home system.

While the Harmony’s primary selling point is to let you use your smartphone as a universal remote control, you can also trigger Harmony “Activities” (a preset series of infrared remote control commands) from the SmartThings app, or from IFTTT (see below).

Some interesting things then become possible. You could use the push of a Flic button to trigger movie night where the TV comes on, the lights dim and your blinds close. Or, you could trigger the TV to come on for an hour every evening as a security measure, when your SmartThings system knows you’re away from home.

While other network-connected IR blasters exist, the Harmony Hub is the most user-friendly and works with the widest array of the major smart home systems.

Amazon Echo

The Amazon Echo is a voice-activated personal assistant for your home. If you thought tuning into a Pandora station with just your voice was pretty cool, asking Alexa (the entity you interact with through the Echo) to turn on the lights or open the garage door is one step beyond.

The Echo currently integrates with SmartThings, Insteon, Wink and Philips Hue. So if you’ve based your system one of these ecosystems, you can ask Alexa to turn things on or off, or brighten or dim your lights.

Nest

The Nest Thermostat was one of the first smart home products to capture people’s attention. It was, and is, beautifully designed, and provides real utility: it helps people save money on their energy bills by being smarter than their old timer thermostat.

The key value of products integrating with Nest is they can react to Nest’s ‘home’ and ‘away’ states, or feed Nest with extra information about when you’re in or out of the house to improve it’s prediction algorithm. The Nest ecosystem isn’t a solution for full-house control (e.g. master control of your lighting), so it’s not really comparable to SmartThings or HomeKit.

HomeKit (Apple iOS)

HomeKit isn’t an app, it’s an iOS-managed database of all the HomeKit-enabled devices in your home. Similarly to the way the iOS’s HealthKit acts as a broker for all your health information between iOS apps, HomeKit lets any HomeKit-enabled device be controlled by any app which has integrated with Apple’s HomeKit iOS APIs.

The main benefit of HomeKit is that you can control your devices using you voice via Siri and via your Apple Watch which makes for some pretty futuristic experiences.

The bad news is that there’s not — yet — wide device support for HomeKit: SmartThings doesn’t support it, Nest doesn’t either. But given the prevalence of iOS devices among the demographic of people that are likely investing in smart home products, you can expect the range of HomeKit enabled products to inexorably grow over time.

The thinking here is that HomeKit is trying to act as the aggregator between all these connected home products, but this paradigm breaks down pretty quickly if, for example, your significant other uses Android rather than iOS.


4: Apps & Services

Besides the bespoke apps which come with most smart home products, there’s a number of folks building apps and services which tie together smart home products from different manufacturers. These have done the legwork of integrating with various smart home products’ APIs, so they act as aggregators to control many things at once or as connectors which let you link two systems together which don’t work together out of the box.

IFTTT (If This Then That)

IFTTT isn’t really an app, it’s a service that acts as the glue between various internet services and smart home systems. It’s like a digital Swiss Army knife. It lets you, for example, trigger a Logitech Harmony Activity from your Amazon Echo. Or, perhaps, IFTTT can make your Hue lights flash blue when someone @mentions you on Twitter — if that’s your kind of thing. In an open-standards-based utopia, IFTTT shouldn’t need to exist. But thank goodness it does.

Yonomi, Stringify & Muzzley

These are three startups which have built very similar apps. Rather than wait for systems like Weave or HomeKit to proliferate, or for manufacturers to coalesce around ZigBee or Z-Wave, these startups have taken matters into their own hands. Each has integrated with a number of popular smart home products’ APIs and SDKs in an effort to let you link them together. This is similar to SmartThings’ approach, but the intelligence is in their app and cloud service, rather than a hub which sits in your home.

Similar to IFTTT, you can think of these apps as smart home Swiss Army knives which bridge the gap between otherwise un-interoperable smart home products. The downside is that each apps has a somewhat limited set of products it works with — so if you’re going to rely on one of these as the virtual hub of your smart home, you need to check to see if it’ll work with the products you already own or are looking to buy. Nevertheless, for now, its a good thing these apps exist.

Elgato Eve & MyTouchHome

Elgato Eve (left) and MyTouchHome (right) for iOS

These are the two leading HomeKit controller apps for iOS. MyTouchHome is a pure HomeKit client — it exists to set up, manage, and control any device that’s Apple HomeKit compatible. The Elgato Eve app is ostensibly for controlling Elgato’s own Eve devices. But the app also acts as a full HomeKit client so it’s useful if you have one or more HomeKit-compatible devices — even if you don’t own any Eve devices.

Of the two, the Elgato Eve app is slightly slicker designed. It’s also free whereas MyTouchHome is $1.99. But they’re both worth playing with to get your head around how HomeKit works.


Where I Landed

After all this research, I’m going to purchase a SmartThings hub and a Logitech Harmony Hub. The SmartThings hub supports both ZigBee and Z-Wave — offering the ability to control a wide range of devices from many different manufacturers. Their app works on both iOS and Android and integrates with the Amazon Echo for voice control. SmartThings also easily integrates with the Logitech Harmony to let me control my sitting room TV, amp and cable box using the SmartThings app or the Amazon Echo.

The main missing pieces of this solution are: the ability to control my devices via Siri (there’s no HomeKit integration in SmartThings) and lack of integration with the Nest Thermostat.

How do we fix those?

Making SmartThings it work with Nest

This is where SmartThings’s secret weapon comes into play: the SmartThings IDE. The IDE is a proper development environment which lets you write custom code (or, for the less adventurous, copy and paste it) to get the SmartThings hub and app to interface with other systems that aren’t officially supported. It even links to GitHub to easily pull in libraries from there.

The SmartThings IDE

For a hacker like me, this really is the best of both worlds: An elegant app which supports a wide range of off-the-shelf hardware, with the blessing of the manufacturer to open the hood and tinker around. The IDE is how — with a little bit of copying and pasting code — you can get your Nest Thermostat and SmartThings Hub working together.

Making SmartThings work with Apple HomeKit

HomeKit integration is a little harder. Apple requires devices that want to be controlled by HomeKit to embed a special hardware chip in their hubs or devices. In classic Apple style, this is a way for them to exert control over who integrates with HomeKit. It’s the reason why anyone who purchased a Philips Hue Hub v1 had to buy a new hub (the v2) if they wanted to get HomeKit/Siri control over their lighting. Not awesome.

BUT, there seems to be a workaround. There’s an open source project called HomeBridge which can be run on a Raspberry Pi. This promises to let HomeKit discover your SmartThings Hub and the devices it controls. This isn’t a novice-level option — but if you’re comfortable with using a Raspberry Pi, editing text files and running terminal commands, you should be able to make this work. Disclaimer: I’ve not tried this myself, and its possible that a software update from Apple will break HomeBridge, given that it’s not an official Apple-certified HomeKit accessory.

There are also quiet, hopeful rumblings that SmartThings will officially get HomeKit support in the future. But like the Philips Hue v2 update, they might need to ship a new SmartThings Hub if and when that happens. Given that Apple and Samsung (who bought SmartThings in 2014) aren’t always the best of friends, I’m not going to hold my breath.

Next: Making it happen

We move to the UK in April 2016— and then the fun of actually wiring up our new home begins. I’ll report back and let you know how I get on.

If you’ve got experience with smart home products — either individually, or in trying to get them to work together — I’d love to hear your anecdotes in the comments below.

If you made it this far, thank you for persevering, and I hope you find this write-up somewhat useful.


Caveats

I wanted to be clear and open about the limitations, some self-imposed, of this review:

  • I don’t own (yet) any of these products. The statements above are based on my own internet research and a lot of reading of technical product manuals — not actually trying to wire these systems up for real. In this article, I tried to capture the essence of the research I’ve done for my own purpose. I do, however, own and love an Amazon Echo and a Nest Thermostat. In our household we have both Apple and Android smartphones — hence the interest in being able to use both types of phones, as well as the Echo, as control surfaces for the smart home.
  • I deliberately limited the scope of this article to major off-the-shelf products as much as possible. I know there are many many open-source & community-driven projects which can be used to link these disparate systems together. But implementing most of these are beyond the capabilities of the regular home owner. By focussing on what regular folks can easily buy in-store or online, and connect together without any soldering irons or coding, I hope to both show what’s now easily possible as well as expose the limitations and gaps.
  • I mostly focussed on products available or prevalent in the US (where I live now) and the UK (where I’m moving to). There’s likely other products in other countries which I’ve missed, but the US and European markets are both large and advanced, so they should be representative of the what’s available at the leading edge of mainstream.
  • I am not paid by any of the manufacturers mentioned. I’ve not been approached to endorse, review or link to any product. I collect no affiliate fees from any links contained in this article. If you’re a smart home product manufacturer, I’ll gladly test out your products for you and may even write about them, but I won’t act as a paid reviewer, or accept products in return for publishing positive articles or making endorsements.
Next Story — “I Trust You”
Currently Reading - “I Trust You”

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk

“I Trust You”

I sat down at the team meeting. It was my first day as the new PM for an already well-established product group with a strong engineering manager. 30 minutes in, with the simple stuff covered, the team started chewing on a particularly hard product design problem.

A junior engineer clearly had a strong idea for a solution, and was arguing his case well. But two more senior engineers had concerns about the long term implications of the suggestion, and were pushing back pretty hard.

It didn’t seem like we were getting anywhere, but then the eng manager paused and said:

“Ok, cool. I trust you.”

Within seconds, the team moved onto the next thing. I thought: wait, what? How did we go from an impasse to the next agenda item in 10 seconds flat?

Then I realized what was missing: I was waiting for the junior engineer to be overruled — something I’d seen time and time again. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the eng manager had used the discussion to give her feedback, stress test the junior engineer’s argument, and used three powerful words to propagate the expectation and the responsibility for the right outcome.


On a wall in Building 14 at Facebook’s Menlo Park HQ is a poster that says:

Trust = Goal Alignment + Competence

I’ve no idea who put it there, but I want to find them and buy them a beer.

Now, bear with me for a second — that’s a pretty geeky, technical way of defining trust, but it’s just so true.

When someone says ‘I trust you’, you’re not only telling someone we’re aligned, that we share goals, that we’re playing for the same team — you’re also conveying competence: that you’re good at your job, that I like working with you, that I know you’ll perform well.

I’ve been on the receiving end of senior people saying “I trust you”, and it feels great. It means I’ve been given both the power to affect change, and the responsibility to execute well.

So, what’s stopping us all saying ‘I trust you’ more often to the people we work with?

In my experience, it’s much easier once you’ve internalized these seven key principles:

1: Assume Good Intent

Hopefully you’re lucky enough to work in a place where the people around you are smart and motivated. But even if you don’t, few people come to work each day thinking ‘how can I screw this up for me and the folks around me?’.

People tend to value their careers and workplace reputations. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will do the right thing, but you can assume they are trying to do the right thing.

I’ve seen leaders tend toward micromanagement simply because they haven’t grasped the principle that most people have good intentions toward their work, the company, and, yes, you.

2: Feed People’s Rationality

What would happen if you asked 100 people “Do you make rational decisions?”. How many would say ‘no’? None. So if everyone believes they’re acting rationally, give them the benefit of the doubt: assume they’re operating based on facts or reason.

Rationality doesn’t occur in a vacuum — it thrives on facts and context. So as the product/people manager, it’s on you to ensure your team have as many facts and as much context as possible. Liberally share links to relevant news articles. Bring in industry or domain experts to speak to your team. Put your people on planes to meet your customers. Reserve time in your roadmap to explore your competitor’s products. Buy your team some books.

Focusing on providing facts and context means your rational team members have the tools to make good, independent, rational decisions — and that makes them much easier to trust.

3: Have Self-Confidence

People often fail to trust their team when they’re trying to ‘control for outcomes’. Generally, this is because they’re lacking self-confidence. They see a high personal cost to failure: a lower bonus, a missed promotion.

But this fear is generally unwarranted. Let’s assume your own manager trusts you. They know you’re trying to execute well. They want you to do well. They’ve read this quote:

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” — Jack Welch

That means your bosses are looking to you — the product/people manager — to grow the capabilities of your team. They’re expecting you to propagate trust down the organization. Not only do you deserve to have self-confidence, it’s demanded of you.

4: Failure Has Benefits

People learn as much — if not more — from failure as from success. In fact, in the long run, failure is critical to personal growth.

Even if you have doubts about someone’s ability to execute, internalizing that it’s OK for them to fail makes it much easier to say ‘I trust you’. If things go well you win. If they don’t, experience is gained and the team grows: you still win.

By saying ‘I trust you’, you’re being explicit that there’s a safety net. You’re creating an environment where people can feel good about any outcome. In that state, people will try harder because they have confidence that they can succeed or fail and be supported either way.

5: Set Clear Goals

If the equation of trust includes goal-alignment, then you have to set and agree on what those goals are. When you have clear goals, everyone knows what to work on — they’re able to independently determine how to have the most impact.

For me, setting clear goals is about two things — the metric and the expectation. The metric is the numeric, chartable way you measure progress. The expectation is the value you want that metric to have in the future. Getting tactical for a second, here’s a way of coalescing a team around a goal that’s worked very well for me in the past: a simple two-line chart.

Goals: Metrics and Expectations

This chart crisply states both components of a goal. The moving line unambiguously reports the value of the metric over time. The straight line clearly sets the expectation: where we started, were we need to be, whether we’re ahead or behind. Furthermore, plotting this chart is a forcing function for someone to write the canonical definition of the metric in software — there’s no room for ambiguity as to what you and your team are being judged on.

With tools like this, there can be no doubt that you and your team will come into goal-alignment. Of course, this technique assumes your metric is the right one — but that’s a whole other post in itself.

6: They Likely Know More Than You

As a product/people manager, you inevitably grow breadth at the expense of depth. While you might know more about the overall topography of your product, the folks on your team may know more about the details of what needs to get done, and ways to make it happen.

That inexperienced engineer who joined your team straight out of college six months ago might have a new technique they’ve read about on a blog, experience from a side project they can bring to bear, or the tenacity to prototype a hunch over a weekend.

Saying ‘I trust you’ is explicit acknowledgment that you don’t know everything and an encouragement to your team members to pursue their instincts.

7: “Trust, but verify”

We’ve all seen the unhealthy way to reduce risk: micromanagement. When you’re micromanaging, you’re assuming control. You think your experience gives you the right to interfere. But of course, this tactic torpedoes trust below the waterline. A better approach is to trust, but verify. In this model, you let people get on with it, but keep an eye out to ensure everyone’s still on-piste.

Verification can be subtle. If you have a goal chart like the one above, you can verify progress just by looking at it — you’re not having to overtly tap on anyone’s shoulder. There’s other tactics: you could talk to customers, you could test out changes in the product for yourself, you could subscribe to task notifications. You might even be able to see code getting committed.

Some people might say this kind of subtle verification is sneaky and underhand — that it’s not trust at all. I disagree. It’s simply good management. You’re not undermining trust; you’re strengthening it by avoiding the observer effect.


“I trust you”

You might think you’re saying this already.

In your head, you’re thinking: ‘of course my team know I trust them’.

But this isn’t something to leave to chance.

Tell your team in meetings. Tell your co-workers in 1-on-1’s. Have vigorous discussions about product and process, then say ‘I trust you’ again.

But you have to mean it. If you don’t feel comfortable saying ‘I trust you’ to someone — find out why not. Applying the principles above should make it much easier to fix your reluctance. It’ll make you a better leader/manager.

I’ve started to say ‘I trust you’ more and more, and I’ve started to hear people say it more frequently and more strongly. It feels great to say, but it means even more to hear.

Next Story — Here Are the Top IoT Influencers to Follow
Currently Reading - Here Are the Top IoT Influencers to Follow

Here Are the Top IoT Influencers to Follow

It’s been called the next Industrial Revolution and the “Third Wave” of the internet.Cisco predicts that it will be a $14.4 trillion dollar industry by 2020.

Just like the first wave of the internet, the Internet of Things (IoT) movement will change and disrupt every facet of industry, commerce and our daily lives — providing countless opportunity for you to start a new business in the space.

As a founder of a thriving IoT company, I closely follow the news, analysis and forecasts to keep up with this rapidly growing market. If you want to take advantage of the growing opportunities in IoT, you need to do the same.

In this article, I’ve compiled a list of the journalists, experts and analysts that I personally follow on a regular basis.

These are some of the best experts and influencers in the Internet of Things that you need to follow to stay ahead of the curve.

Stacey Higginbotham — The Internet of Things Podcast

Stacey is the creator of the Internet of Things Podcast, a leading podcast that discusses all angles of the IoT industry. Along with co-host, Kevin Tofel, Stacey provides a unique point of view and in-depth analysis on the latest news and trends in IoT. She also interviews the top leaders in IoT — adding to the show’s unique perspective.

Stacey also provides an IoT newsletter that is packed with news and analysis.

Twitter: @gigastacey

Michael Wolf — Smart Home Show Podcast

Michael is the creator and host of another leading Smart Home podcast called, “The Smart Home Show.” He combines in-depth market analysis with insightful commentary on the latest news and updates in the space. Michael has also become a leading authority on the Smart Kitchen.

Twitter: @michaelwolf

Julie Jacobson — Editor & Co-Founder, CEPro

Julie has extensive experience in the Internet of Things and covers home automation, custom electronics and the professional installer market for CEPro. She is my go-to source for the latest and most in-depth analysis on the B2B side of IoT, home automation and smart home security.

Twitter: @juliejacobson

Greg Kahn — CEO, Internet of Things Consortium

Greg is CEO of the Internet of Things Consortium (IoTC), an advocacy group comprised of leading founders, executives and companies in IoT.

I follow Greg’s Twitter and LinkedIn accounts for daily news and analysis. Also, I subscribe to the IoTC’s newsletter, which is packed with news, analysis and commentary from the industry-insiders that make up the consortium.

Twitter: @GKmediaBUZZ

Megan Wollerton & Ry Crist — Associate Editors, CNET

Megan and Ry are associate editors at CNET, where they perform extensive reviews on the latest smart home products. I follow them to learn about the best rated products in each category of the Smart Home.

Twitter: @meganwollerton & @rycrist

Carley Knobloch — HGTV; The Today Show

Carley is a digital lifestyle expert on The Today Show and a Smart Home expert on HGTV, where she makes Smart Home technology accessible and stylish for everyone.

She tests the latest gadgets, lists the best products and teaches me how to get the most from technology without letting it take over my life.

Twitter: @CarleyKnobloch

Elizabeth Parks — Senior Vice President, Parks Research

As a VP at Parks Research, Elizabeth generates some of the best analysis and forecasting in the industry. She regularly shares highly informative posts on her LinkedIn account, including news, analysis, forecasts and predictions.

Twitter: @elizparks

David Isbitski — Evangelist for Alexa & Echo, Amazon

Dave helps tell Amazon’s story for their hit IoT product, Echo. I follow his Twitter feed to get frequent updates on Alexa’s developer program and to read the latest news in far-field voice technology.

Twitter: @thedavedev

Scott Amyx — Founder & CEO of Amyx+

Scott is a thought leader, futurist, speaker and author on the Internet of Things. He dives deep into the data side of IoT and helps to paint a future of the connected world.

Twitter: @AmyxIoT

Jenny Fielding — Managing Director, Techstars

Jenny heads up the IoT accelerator for Techstars and has made numerous investments in IoT. I follow her to get the latest information on investing in IoT, building Smart Home startups and Industrial IoT.

Twitter: @jefielding

Chris Davies — Executive Editor, SlashGear

Chris brings a fresh and honest perspective in his coverage of the Internet of Things for SlashGear. I follow Chris’s Twitter and SlashGear column to get in-depth reviews on the latest smart home products and honest analysis on the market itself.

Twitter: @c_davies

Blake Miller — Investor, Think Big Partners

Blake is at the forefront of the Smart City revolution, acting as a visionary and catalyst for Kansas City’s Smart City aspirations. I follow Blake to learn how the Internet of Things will change the urban experience.

Twitter: @imBmills

John Boitnott — Writer, Inc.com; Advisor

John frequently covers the Smart Home and Internet of Things in his Inc.com column. He highlights the endless opportunities in the space and makes relevant predictions for where the market is going.

Twitter: @jboitnott

Next steps

The most important thing to understand about IoT is that it is just getting started. If the Internet of Things is like social media, we’re at the point in which Friendster and MySpace were still relevant.

IoT will not only disrupt virtually every facet of our lives, it will create new markets that provide you with new opportunities. Follow these experts and explore ways to capture value in the Internet of Things. The only limit is your imagination.

Refer to the full article on Inc. Published on August 19, 2016. Author Andrew Thomas.


About Amyx+

Voted Top IoT Influencer by Inc.
Voted Top Global IoT Expert by Postscapes
Voted Top IoT Authority by the Internet of Things Institute
Winner of the Cloud & DevOps World Award for Most Innovative Vendor

Amyx+ , an award-winning Internet of Things strategy & innovation lab, is working with international and multi-national enterprises to help 1) understand the impact of IoT disruptions, 2) formulate and sharpen their IoT strategy, 3) quantify the business case, 4) experiment, learn, validate, 5) develop game changing technologies and 6) launch innovative IoT products and services worldwide.

Our team of 50 PhDs, scientists, engineers and strategists are deep experts in the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, machine learning, advanced data analytics, data visualization, blockchain, decentralized computing, standards and protocols, security, privacy, wearables, medtech and business transformation.

Our capabilities and service offerings are tailored specifically for the Internet of Things, with expertise in:

Strategy | Innovation | Product Development | Data Analytics

URL: http://amyxinternetofthings.com

Next Story — The Great Cake Bake Off
Currently Reading - The Great Cake Bake Off

The Great Cake Bake Off

What happens when engineers and foodies join forces to build an oven? Baking experiments! 🎉

We’ve been geeking out in the June Test Kitchen testing thermal distribution and convection air-flow in the oven. Simply put, we want to make sure the June Intelligent Oven can achieve uniform heating with the precision that most ovens only dare to dream of.

The goals of this study were two fold:

1. Understand temperature fluctuations and distribution during cooking
2. Fine-tune convection airflow speed and direction for most even browning

We used vanilla sheet cakes as our subjects. They are almost perfect subjects for understanding heat evenness and convective cooking performance because of the high sugar content that caramelizes easily to reveal patterns. We started with 16 different configurations to bake 16 cakes and determine how they browned. Well, it turns out 16 wasn’t enough. After dozens of cakes we finally landed on a breakthrough worthy of being patented.

We won’t go into details right now, but the results speak for themselves. The June Intelligent Oven punches well above its weight when it comes to cooking performance. To make things a little more fun, we decided to perform a side-by-side comparison with ovens in lower and higher price categories to test: baking precision, temperature distribution in the oven and cooking time. Have a look at the graphic above.

The result? June beats more expensive built-in ovens in both precision and speed by 100%.

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