It’s easy to get carried away with elaborate and expensive home automation projects when you’re just starting out. A better place to begin though, is with a simple, temporary setup that doesn’t cost a lot but will still give you a glimpse of some of the conveniences of home automation without making a big commitment. When I heard that iHome had introduced a reasonably-priced outdoor smart plug, I knew immediately that it and some holiday lights would make an excellent home automation starter project.
This is by no means a Clark Griswold-level undertaking. My family’s holiday decorations are fairly simple. In the front yard, we put up lights in the bushes and on the columns on either side of our front door. Inside, we have a Christmas tree in our living room with lights. The first step was to put up the outdoor lights the weekend after Thanksgiving on what turned out to be a mercifully warm day.
After the lights were up and working, I plugged them into the iHome’s iSP100 Outdoor SmartPlug, which I connected to an outdoor outlet near my front door. The iSP100 is about as simple as you can imagine. It has a short cord attached to a plastic box that holds its electronics. One end plugs into a standard US outdoor electrical outlet, and the other end takes two or three-pronged electrical devices.
In a press release today, Amazon announced the newest feature addition to its Echo devices:
Amazon today announced an all-new Alexa feature that lets you control and synchronize music across multiple Amazon Echo devices in your home. Starting today, you can target music to a specific Echo device or a group of devices—just ask. Soon, this ability will be extended to control multi-room music on other connected speakers using simply your voice.
The feature is currently only available on Echo devices, but Amazon has also announced a couple new tools to help expand Alexa-powered audio to other speakers. There’s a new Alexa Voice Service SDK that device makers can adopt to enable their speakers to play music in sync with Echo devices. That SDK will be made available early next year. And there is also a new set of Connected Speaker APIs, available today, which allow third-party speakers to be controlled via an Alexa-enabled device.
It should be noted that multi-room audio is only available through a handful of music services. Amazon Music, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn are available today, while Spotify and SiriusXM support is coming soon.
Alongside the announcement today of a new Echo product coming soon, the screen-equipped Echo Show, Amazon has launched a redesigned Alexa app for iOS. The new app's highlight feature, apart from a much-improved interface, is the addition of messaging functionality.
Newton, the email client for power users, today launched Amazon Echo integration with an Alexa skill. The skill enables email management with nothing but your voice; in addition to having Alexa read emails to you, you can perform the following list of actions by voice:
- Mark as read
- Mark as spam
Replying to or composing new emails is not possible with Alexa, but personally, I don't think I would trust a voice assistant to write my emails anyways – at least not until the technology grows more foolproof. The option to perform simple actions by voice, like archiving or snoozing messages, is much more appealing.
Newton's expansion to Alexa-equipped devices follows the introduction of a Windows version of the client in beta form earlier this week. As a daily Newton user, I wrote about the iOS and macOS versions last Friday for Club MacStories members, and look forward to seeing the service continue to grow and improve.
Today Amazon announced that its digital assistant, Alexa, is being integrated with its iOS shopping app.
Using the app's current microphone button, which is available to the right of the search bar, users can make nearly any type of Alexa request. This request can consist of things you might ask of an Amazon Echo, such as playing music, turning on smart lights, checking the weather, and so on.
Both first-party and third-party skills will work from within the Amazon app. The one limitation so far, noted by Khari Johnson of VentureBeat, is that the Door Lock API is not currently available, so smart locks can't be controlled through the app. Johnson also shares that while Alexa will be available to some users in the Amazon app today, it will be rolling out to all users over the next week.
Today's announcement hopefully means that existing Amazon Echo users will have a solid first-party experience on iOS, something that surprisingly has not been provided by the company's current Amazon Alexa app. It also opens up Alexa to any Amazon customer who doesn't currently own an Echo.
Starbucks has started a limited beta test of voice-assisted ordering via its iOS app. The beta is currently limited to 1000 users but will expand through the summertime. Android support is slated for later this year.
The feature, called My Starbucks barista, is part of the Starbucks iOS app and gives customers the ability to order, make changes to their order, and pay via voice. The feature’s interface is reminiscent of a messaging app and lets you interact by typing into a text field if you prefer that to voice.
Starbucks also announced the Starbucks Reorder Skill for the Amazon Echo. Customers can say ‘Alexa, order my Starbucks’ to order items designated as their ‘usual’ food and beverage order.
What Starbucks is implementing in its iOS app isn’t possible with Siri yet. Hopefully, this sort of experimentation will push Apple to open Siri faster to avoid the fragmentation that could result in multiple solutions being implemented across many vendors.
I try not to obsess over every single announcement from CES, but it seems like "Alexa everywhere" is a common theme of this year's event. Jacob Kastrenakes has a useful roundup of Alexa devices and integrations at The Verge – but there are also smartphones and cars launching support for Amazon's assistant.
It feels like Amazon is taking the "Netflix approach" with Alexa – to be on as many devices as possible and gain mindshare through convenience and simple user interactions (like Netflix, primarily in English-speaking countries in the first couple of years). I wonder if we're going to see a proper Alexa app for iOS this year to issue commands from an iPhone. I wouldn't be surprised to see something along the lines of Astra, only made by Amazon itself and integrated with most of the skills supported by the Echo speakers.
Astute take by Ben Thompson on how Amazon is building an operating system for the home with Alexa:
Amazon seized the opportunity: first, Alexa was remarkably proficient from day one, particularly in terms of speed and accuracy (two factors that are far more important in encouraging regular use than the ability to answer trivia questions). Then, the company moved quickly to build out its ecosystem in two directions:
- First, the company created a simple “Skills” framework that allowed smart devices to connect to Alexa and be controlled through a relatively strict verbal framework; in a vacuum it was less elegant than, say, Siri’s attempt to interpret natural language, but it was far simpler to implement. The payoff was already obvious at last year’s CES: Alexa support was everywhere.
- Secondly, “Alexa” and “Echo” are different names because they are different products: Alexa is the voice assistant, and much like AWS and Amazon.com, Echo is Alexa’s first customer, but hardly its only one. This year CES announcements are dominated by products that run Alexa, including direct Echo competitors, lamps, set-top boxes, TVs, and more.
"Works with Alexa" sure feels like this year's CES motto (I try not to pay too much attention to CES announcements, but the underlying trends are interesting).
I use both HomeKit/Siri and Alexa. There are advantages and problems to both ecosystems: Apple's approach is slower, perhaps more careful, and Siri works internationally; Alexa and the Echo are only available in a few countries, but the experience is leaner, generally faster, and there are dozens of compatible devices and skills launching every week. It's a complicated comparison: Alexa works with web services while Siri integrates with native apps and hardware (like Touch ID); Alexa is expanding to a variety of accessories and third-party services, but Siri and HomeKit are more directly tied into your iOS devices.
I expect Apple to continue opening up SiriKit to developers to match Amazon's rich ecosystem of skills, but even with more domains and apps, I think the idea of a dedicated assistant for the home is a winning one. On the other hand, I wonder how quickly Amazon can launch Alexa/Echo in other countries and build richer conversational experiences that go beyond simple commands. This will be fun to watch.
I use my Amazon Echo a lot. Since importing one from the U.S. last year, I've started using web services that provide native integration with Alexa, the platform that powers Amazon's speaker. Whenever I come across a new web service I could use, I check if they have an Alexa skill too. I like Amazon's take on the home assistant so much, I recently added an Echo Dot to my setup, which has further increased my usage of Alexa and connected services.
There's one big problem with the Amazon Echo, though: Alexa has no iPhone presence, and Apple is never going to give up the prime spot of Siri on their devices. Amazon has an Alexa app, but it's a clunky wrapper for a web view that has no voice functionality whatsoever. So while Siri has improved with iOS 10, it's still behind Alexa in terms of third-party integrations. I often find myself wishing I could ask Siri what I ask Alexa to do for me at home. I have to confess that I even considered an Amazon Tap – the poorly reviewed portable speaker with Alexa support – only to have some way to summon Alexa when driving.
Thankfully, developer Thaddeus Ternes sees this as a problem as well, and he created Astra, an iPhone app to issue requests to Alexa via voice. You might remember Ternes from Lexi, the predecessor of Astra that also allowed you to use Alexa on the iPhone. Lexi was pulled from the App Store and it's coming back as Astra, which sports a new design, support for timers and alarms, and background audio. After testing Astra for the past two weeks, I decided to put it on my Home screen and it's quickly become one of my most used iPhone apps when I'm not at home.