Apple, Google, and Amazon Are Integrating Their Smart Home Devices. Should We Care?
Last month, tech giants Apple, Amazon, and Google announced they would be teaming up to establish a standard for developing smart home products that would make devices from different brands compatible. The standard would be open-source, allowing all smart home device manufacturers to make products that easily integrate into a smart home system comprising devices from various brands.
In other words, this alliance promises that one day, your Amazon Alexa would easily work with your Phillips Hue smart lighting system, your Samsung smart fridge, your Google Smart TV Kit, your IKEA smart window blinds, and your Apple iPhone. Set up will be a snap, and we’ll all be living the dream of home automation. No longer would we have to live Kashmir Hill’s familiar nightmare during her 2018 experiment living in a fully hooked up smart home:
“It took at least two hours to get all of our Christmas lights plugged into smart plugs from WeMo and Sonoff, and then to get those plugs online with their apps, and then to get those apps to talk to the Alexa app. The first night I said, ‘Alexa, turn on the Christmas lights,’ they all turned on in sparkly synchronicity and it was magical. But one day, Alexa stopped recognizing ‘Christmas lights’ as a group, and I could not figure out how to fix it, so I had to ask Alexa each night to turn off the lights one-by-one. (‘Turn off kitchen Christmas lights.’ ‘Turn off living room Christmas lights.’ ‘Turn off bookcase lights.’) This was way more annoying than turning them off manually. The fantasy of the smart home is that it will save us time and effort, but the friction involved in getting various devices from different companies to work together meant that many things took longer to do.”
Getting smart devices from different brands to work together — ‘talk’ to each other better, so to speak — has been one of the biggest obstacles to the uptake of smart home technology. If that is solved, then the boon to manufacturers’ bottom lines will likely be the biggest benefit to result from this alliance for compatibility. Mainly because, “the biggest problem with the Internet of Things, generally speaking, is that no one has figured out how to build products that actually do anything useful enough to justify their price tags or enormous security flaws,” wrote Joel Hruska for ExtremeTech in 2017.
The issue remains. No one — not Apple, not Google, and not Amazon — has really cracked what an effective smart home looks like yet. There’s a lot of thinking and innovation around what’s possible, but much less around functionality — i.e. what are the functions of home automation that are really useful and life-changing and how does a smart system as a whole — comprising, yes, integrated devices — provide that? The former may eventually lead to the latter, but we’re certainly not there yet.
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“We may have all of these components but we still have to work out the right ways to combine them. Hence, people proposed all sorts of electric devices for the home, and we collectively worked out which made sense and where — everyone in Britain has a kettle, most people in America have a blender, and no-one has an electric can opener,” explains media and tech expert Benedict Evans in a blog post about smart home technology. “The same is happening with ‘smart home’ now. Lots of ideas for products are being tried — some will be the kettles and some will be the can openers, and it will only be obvious which in hindsight.”
In the meantime, sold on the vision of a smart home that makes our lives better and the ease with which we can now set this up (thanks to the new alliance), we’ll have bought smart home products as willy-nilly as they’re being produced — spending so much money on both function and folly that manufacturers won’t care to invest in, say, telling the kettles from the can openers and making the former better, and more useful, while leaving the latter behind. The result isn’t a more streamlined, more useful, more life-easing smart home; it’s a sprawling horror show of smart tech mutations that give the appearance of ease while perpetuating an increasingly invasive state of corporate surveillance and digital vulnerability in our most private spaces.
The alliance promises that establishing a standard for compatibility will lead to greater security — allowing all smart devices to communicate with each other with “end-to-end security and privacy,” it says. But these devices are also communicating with their makers, too, and that’s unlikely to change. Any smart home component, across brands, is collecting information on its users — eavesdropping on their conversations and spying on their movements, gathering intimate data that is being sold to other corporations (and possibly being given to governments gratis) and either way is being used to manipulate everything from users’ purchases to their political beliefs. Not to mention that smart home devices are frighteningly easy to hack.
So, while a comfortable state of all home smart devices, regardless of brand, talking to each other without any need to troubleshoot might seem like the dream, it’s worth remembering that they talk to their makers as much as they talk to each other. And those behind-our-back digital conversations are all going into how to get us to buy more devices, that may or may not be as functional as we hope.