Amazon Echo could change the way you view the 'smart home'

Amazon Echo

The Amazon Echo

Credit: Michael Brown

Plenty of reasons exist to be skeptical of the 'smart home' in its current form, but Amazon's Echo virtual assistant shows glimpses of genuine potential. Here's why.

I roll my eyes at the concept of the "smart" refrigerator. I don't need a 'fridge tweet to tell me I'm out of orange marmalade. Smart toaster oven? I scoff. And smart locks on the doors to your home seem like a particularly dumb idea — unless you crave the company of criminals.

In other words, I'm a smart home skeptic. However, my days of completely resisting the technology have ended. Before I explain why, consider these three reasons why you might want to remain skeptical about smart home gadgets

1. Many smart home gadgets are products in search of a problem

I understand why you might want a smart thermostat, such as Nest, however overpriced it may be. I can also see why someone might want a smart home video security system, especially if the property is a vacation rental or second home.

But a lot of smart home products feel gimmicky, such as robot vacuum cleaners, smart toaster ovens and refrigerators, and smart Crock-Pots. I'm sure they offer some utility, but do they really justify the money you'd spend to replace perfectly good "dumb" appliances? The benefits seem underwhelming.

2. Smart home hubs are confusing, products incompatible

So many smart home platforms exist today, from the likes of Apple, Google, and Samsung, along with a group of different standards, including Bluetooth LE, Wi-Fi, and ZigBee, that the whole thing is a bit much. What works with what?

From Business Insider:

"Currently, there are many networks, standards, and devices being used to connect the smart home, creating interoperability problems and making it confusing for the consumer to set up and control multiple devices. Until interoperability is solved, consumers will have difficulty choosing smart home devices and systems."

Amen to that.

3. Smart home represents security and privacy risks

Smart home hubs and gadgets are parts of the Internet of Things (IoT), which is notorious for its vulnerabilities. Tales abound of malicious hackers commandeering baby-cams, home security systems, and other smart devices. Smart-home product makers are often too slow to close known security gaps. And in many cases, there's not much you can do about the flaws. From sister site

"Surprisingly, there are few security apps available that can monitor Internet of Things devices, let you know about any new emerging attack vectors, and tell you about any recent compromises."

Alrighty then. Let's move on to why I've eased up my smart-home resistance a tad.

Amazon Echo is smart home's Trojan horse

Amazon Echo has been a sleeper hit. It's a Bluetooth speaker with the built-in Alexa virtual assistant that is, in reality, a smart home Trojan horse.

I bought an Echo in early 2015. I love how I can ask Alexa questions while cooking, play a specific song on request, or get news and weather updates. For these reasons alone, I recommend Echo. Alexa also gains new "skills" every week via software updates. Among them are a growing number of smart home skills.

Ultimately, thanks to Alexa, the temptation to stick a toe in the smart home waters proved too much resist, so I started out small. I bought Belkin's WeMo Switch Smart Plug ($40 on Amazon), primarily for the ability to automatically turn my office lamp on or off, for convenience and security reasons — and because I can control it with my voice using Alexa. (You must set up and configure the switch via Belkin's WeMo app, however.)

wemo app Belkin

Using the WeMo Switch, I can ask Alexa to "turn on the lamp," and it magically turns on. It's not an enormous time or energy saver, but it is cool. And the WeMo Switch, unlike some smart home products, was a breeze to set up, it works over Wi-Fi, and it doesn't require a smart home hub to work.

Smart-home reservations remain ...

Despite my enthusiasm around Alexa, I'm still not ready to move deeper into the smart home scene just yet. Any related devices that I purchase need to have clear benefits — ones that are worth their potential security or privacy risks. Such devices need to augment what I've already purchased, rather than seek to replace something. I'm also curious to see how Google's upcoming Echo competitor, Google Home, pans out. An Echo-like speaker with all of Google's smarts could be a game changer.

Lots of reason exists to be skeptical about the smart home. If you own an Amazon Echo, however, you already have at least one good example of the smart home's future potential. 

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