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October 13, 2018

The smart home conundrum: Amazon or Google?

by John_A

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If you want to make your house as smart as it can be, you’ll need to make a choice.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve dreamed about having a “smart” home. I grew up watching The Jetsons and reading about the future, and while most of my friends were waiting for flying cars I just wanted to be able to talk to my house and have it do things. Not crazy things, mind you, just simple things like turning on the lights or the TV, or locking the doors and arming the alarm. I’m no longer a kid, and I can actually do those things. Now I just need to decide who to talk to in the middle of the night.

And Siri decided she just didn’t care all that much even though HomeKit offers a lot in theory.

Amazon and Google have the inexpensive automated household “stuff” market locked up tight. Alexa and Google Assistant are happy to serve, turning lights on and off, adjusting the thermostat, and even locking the door without adding any significant costs to the things they can control. They are both cheap, too — in fact, they are free if you have a smartphone and everyone has a smartphone. Amazon and Google can do this because they aren’t worried about making money from Alexa or Google Assistant and use both as a conduit to other ways to make money. Ads and online shopping bring BIG BUCKS.

This makes everything so cheap that even if you don’t have smart stuff in your house now, you will soon. And eventually, you’ll have enough smart stuff that you’ll be pulling your hair out trying to use both Alexa and Assistant at the same time.

I just hit this cap, though it was more a stroke of bad luck than anything else. The update to the Google Home app “lost” all my Philips Hue lamps. If you’ve been through this you know it’s a pain to get things back in order and you’re left renaming lights that don’t work and deleting application data and sacrificing chickens as part of the “official” fix. Once I finally got my Hue account relinked and connected I thought I was gold until I tried Alexa and nothing worked. You can guess what happened once I was able to re-link my Hue account to my Amazon account and ran out of chickens.

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I decided to stick with Alexa around the house. All the new stuff Amazon showed us with smart plugs and subwoofers for the Echo and a microwave that can pop me some popcorn when I tell it to are things I need in my life. They’re also things that will never work well with Google Assistant, no matter how hard companies like IFTTT or SmartThings try. Too bad the Echo Show sucks and my Lenovo Smart Display does not suck and now is mostly there to keep me company and tell me my calendar while an Echo Dot is hidden behind it to turn off the bedroom lights.

Hey Google, tell me about the weather tomorrow and Alexa turn out the bedroom lights rolls right off the tongue. Not.

If you fall into the smart home trap you’ll get here, too. You’ll either have too many things, or have bad luck with an update like I did, or just get tired of trying to remember what room name you gave the foyer in the Google Home app when it has a light called FrontLight01 in the Hue app and you can’t use the same name in the Alexa app or the world will end. And it’s our job to help you make decisions about buying all this stuff, so I’m going to do my job and help you.

Pick one. Pick either Amazon and Alexa or Google and Assistant, and pick it before you start looking at all the smart things you want to buy.

Both have their strengths and weaknesses: everything works and is easy to set up with Alexa but letting Amazon have control of your contacts and calendar is crazy — but both also have a wide array of products that make them worth using. That means choosing between cool stuff like Smart Displays and wireless subwoofers that pair to Bluetooth speakers, but in the long run you’ll be glad you don’t recreate my mess. That takes a lot of the fun of having a smart home away and replaces it with headache, and none of us need an AI assistant to help us get a headache.

November 14 is the day I can pop up some Orville Redenbacher in my smart microwave.

Don’t worry. We’ll still be here to tell you what’s cool and what sucks about all the new smart things. I have a room full of new stuff to look at (spoiler: The Arlo Pro 2 is incredible and buy as many Amazon Smart Plugs as you have outlets in your home) and will have to try it all with both Alexa and Assistant and hope no more chickens get hurt.

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