After a miscommunication in August, IKEA has added Alexa and HomeKit support to its Trådfri smart lighting system, which it originally promised back in May. The lighting system includes a gateway, remote controls, and LED lightbulbs that can be mixed and matched in different configurations at prices that are competitive with rival systems. For example, two Trådfri bulbs, a remote, and the required gateway costs $79.99 compared to two similar Philips Hue bulbs and a gateway for $69.99. Each gateway controls up to 10 lightbulbs using one of IKEA’s remotes, an iOS app, Amazon’s Alexa App, Apple’s Home app, or your voice via Amazon and Apple’s smart assistants.
The addition of Alexa and HomeKit support means the Trådfri lighting system can be integrated with smart home accessories from other companies and controlled with any Alexa or Siri-enabled device. The IKEA Trådfri app, which can be downloaded for free from the App Store, lets users control their Trådfri lights, customize settings like the warmth of the the light, and set timers.
The release of HomeKit-enabled devices has accelerated this year. An increasing number of manufacturers like IKEA are also hedging their bets by integrating Alexa support alongside HomeKit support, which is good for consumers who benefit whether they’ve chosen one system over the other or assembled a hybrid Alexa/HomeKit environment.
Amazon has introduced a new Alexa-enabled home security camera called the Cloud Cam and an in-home delivery service for Prime members. The Cloud Cam is an Internet-connected smart camera that records video at 1080p resolution. Amazon is selling it as a stand-alone product and as part of its new in-home delivery service called Key.
The Cloud Cam, which will be controlled by a yet-to-be-released Cloud Cam app, is available for pre-order with shipments beginning on November 8th. One camera costs $119.99, but it can also be purchased in bundles of two for $199.99 and three for $289.99. Each camera support’s Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant, motion detection, two-way communication, night vision, and has a wide angle lens that saves video clips from the past 24 hours from up to three cameras. Amazon is also selling subscriptions that range in price from $6.99/month to $19.99/month for storing clips for a longer period, distinguishing between people and motion from other sources like pets, zone control, clip sharing, and connecting to more cameras.
Amazon’s Cloud Cam plays an important role in the company’s new US-only Key delivery service too. When paired with certain third-party smart locks, which Amazon is bundling with a Cloud Cam for $249.99, Prime customers can use their Cloud Cam and an iOS app to let Amazon Logistics’ delivery people unlock their home and leave packages inside. The service is currently limited to Amazon Logistics’ delivery people who make deliveries in 37 US cities. Key can also be used to grant home access to third-party services like house cleaners and dog walkers.
Prime members who sign up for Key will be alerted by a forthcoming Amazon Key app when a delivery driver arrives with a parcel and can watch the delivery live or view a recorded video clip later. Access can also be limited to certain times of the day and be granted on a one-off or recurring basis. When a delivery driver arrives, they scan the package’s bar code, which is transmitted to the cloud and in turn, starts the Cloud Cam and unlocks your door. After leaving the delivery inside, the driver locks your door with a swipe of an app.
The combination of Alexa support and the Key delivery service set the Cloud Cam apart from other smart home security cameras. Of course, the greatest difficulty for Amazon is likely to be convincing customers to trust delivery drivers to unlock their homes even if a camera is watching.
Amazon’s Kindle app for iOS received a major update today, bringing redesigned navigation tabs, a new light theme, and more. The change that excited me most, small as it may be, is the greatly improved app icon – it includes a beautiful new illustration, and the word Kindle has been removed.
The Kindle app now feels more at home on iOS, with a familiar navigation tab layout lining the bottom of the screen. The first tab, Library, is essentially what the main interface of the app was before – all your books are found there. The Library tab is cleaner and simpler now, as several options it formerly contained have been assigned to other areas of the app. The Goodreads and Discover pages, for example, now live in the main navigation bar as Community and Discover tabs, respectively. Extra items like settings and sync have been moved into the navigation bar’s final tab, More. There’s also now a search bar at the top of the screen that’s accessible from nearly anywhere in the app. Overall, these layout changes make the app easier to navigate and less cluttered than before.
Joining the app’s original dark theme, you can now turn on a light theme for the app; this navigation theme is separate from the reading theme, which has long had dark and light options. The light theme looks nice, and I plan to keep it turned on. Another change is that while reading, it’s easier to get back to your library – the upper left corner contains a down-facing arrow that instantly closes your book.
I do nearly all of my book reading digitally, and I’ve long preferred reading in iBooks over Kindle due to it having the superior app in my mind. Today’s update fixes several of the issues I’ve had with Kindle, but unfortunately there’s one big problem outstanding: Kindle still doesn’t support Split View on iPad. Once Amazon adds that to its app, I’ll have less reason to always go with iBooks.
Mitchel Broussard of MacRumors shares an announcement from Amazon about a new Alexa skill for iCloud Calendar:
Starting today, you can now link your Apple iCloud Calendar to Alexa. To do this, iCloud Calendar customers can simply link their account in the settings tab in the Alexa app. Once linked, just say, “Alexa, what’s on my calendar today?” or “Alexa, add lunch with Sarah at noon to my calendar.”
iCloud Calendar support has been a top requested feature from Alexa customers, and we’re thrilled to bring this to Alexa devices in US, UK and Germany today.
It’s nice to start seeing some of Apple’s cloud offerings integrate with third-party services. Today’s Alexa integration follows IFTTT’s integrations earlier this year with iCloud Calendar and the App Store. Services as basic as iCloud Calendar shouldn’t be restricted to Apple-made devices, so I’m thankful to see Apple opening up – even if it’s just a little bit.
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.
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.
Interesting announcements from Amazon at its AWS event this week: the company is rolling out a suite of artificial intelligence APIs for developers to plug their apps into. These tools are based on the AWS cloud (which a lot of your favorite apps and services already use) and they leverage the same AI and deep learning that has also powered Alexa, the software behind the Amazon Echo.
Here’s April Glaser, writing for Recode:
Drawing on the artificial intelligence that powers Amazon’s popular home assistant Alexa, the new tools will allow developers to build apps that have conversational interfaces, can turn text into speech and use computer vision that is capable of recognizing faces and objects.
Amazon’s latest push follows moves from Google and Microsoft, both of which have cloud computing platforms that already use artificial intelligence.
Google’s G Suite, for example, uses AI to power Smart Reply in Gmail, instant translation and smart scheduling functions in its calendar. Likewise, Microsoft recently announced it’s bringing artificial intelligence to its Office 365 service to add search within Word, provide productivity tracking and build maps from Excel with geographic data.
It’s increasingly starting to look like “AI as an SDK” will become a requirement for modern apps and services. Deep learning and AI aren’t limited to playing chess and recognizing cat videos anymore; developers are using this new kind of computing power for all kinds of features – see Plex, Spotify, and Todoist for two recent examples. I’ve also been hearing about iOS apps using Google’s Cloud Vision a lot more frequently over the past few months.
I think this trend will only accelerate as AI reshapes how software gets more and better work done for us. And I wonder if Apple is considering an expansion of their neural network APIs to match what others are doing – competition in this field is heating up quickly.