It’s 2018, and my 2016 Alexa has finally started talking to my 2012 Nest.
The bestselling voice assistant (technically the Amazon Echo, but who calls it that?) and the bestselling smart thermostat (from a company bought by, spun off from, and now re-absorbed by Google), have sipped from the same Wi-Fi for years. All that time, neither my wife (the household IT expert) nor I could get Alexa to acknowledge the Nest existed, let alone ask her to turn the heat up or down. So they sat silently a few feet from each other, like estranged spouses in a childish feud.
Sometime in the last few months, one of those automatic software updates that wallpaper our modern life solved whatever the issue was. Alexa could now be paired with our earlier model Nest. Of course, neither Amazon nor Google had seen fit to inform us of the fact, and the devices might never have spoken to each other had I not investigated before I sat down to write this story. (Cue the estranged spouses, arms folded, backs turned: It was their fault!)
Just as this living-room feud was solved, however, a larger one between the two companies was brewing. Amazon informed Nest it was about to stop selling new Nest products (this according to a bombshell Business Insider report earlier that month, but it’s a story I’ve also heard from sources at Nest.) That would include the just-announced Nest smart doorbell and smart lock.
Well, fine, said Nest, we’re taking our ball home. You don’t get to sell any of our stuff at all. (Which is the retail equivalent of “you can’t fire me, I quit!”)
The upshot is that when current supplies sell out — barring some behind-the-scenes negotiation — you won’t be able to get a Nest product on the world’s largest retail store from anyone other than a third-party seller. And that seems to be fine with Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, who also doesn’t seem to want to sell Google’s Pixel smartphone or Home Speaker.
It is coincidental, I’m sure, that Amazon just bought a company called Ring for a reported $1 billion. Ring makes connected security cameras, just like Nest does. Surely this odd behavior is not evidence that Alexa’s Godfather sees your home as his turf, and is prepared to send a message to the other guy about sleeping with the fishes.
Google, meanwhile, proved it could be just as petty, retaliating by blocking YouTube from working on Amazon’s Fire TV platform.
When I first heard the news of a Nest-Amazon war, my eyes rolled skyward: oh, come on. The smart home space seems perpetually stuck in this Game of Thrones-style internecine conflict between great smart Houses that demand insane amounts of loyalty (House Apple and House Samsung are just as walled-off), all of which confuses and maybe even frightens the regular citizenry.
Escalating retaliatory behavior really doesn’t build consumer confidence, either. This has got the early days of the Stark-Lannister war written all over it.
The companies may care deeply, but who among us really gives a damn which logo our smart home tech has on it? When we walk in the door of an evening, we just want the tabletop voice-activated doohickey to talk to a bunch of stuff like the lights and the wall-mounted temperature control thingy. Don’t make us think more deeply than that about it. We’ve had a long day.
If you play well together, if everything just works with everything else, the whole market takes off faster. But if you’re fighting a battle of disconnected formats, nobody wins, because nobody wants to take the time to figure out what talks to what.
Our homes are not platforms. They’re our personal environments.
Google and Amazon (and Apple, and Samsung) could easily spend the next decade locked in a battle for the smart home just as Android and iOS have spent the last decade fighting for the smartphone. But the smartphone, at least, is a platform: you pick sides in your initial purchase, and beyond that point everything (mostly) just works.
Our homes are not platforms. They’re our personal environments. Who’s going to feel comfortable letting their private castle be dominated by a single company? I don’t want a Nest brand home. I don’t want an Alexa brand home. Seriously, you might as well hand the house keys to HAL and be done with it.
Instinctually, when we let devices into this most personal of realms, we see the safety in diversity. Every device gets a little bit of insight into our behavior but no one company gets to build up a complete picture. Besides, we just want to pick and choose what to buy on a device-by-device basis, and when we do that we invariably end up with a hodgepodge: Amazon for our voice assistant, Google for our thermostat, Hue for our lights, MyQ for our garage door, and so on.
What are you going to do, hire every last brilliant engineer with an idea for a new home gadget to stop new companies from springing up?
You can try to fight the trend. You can be greedy and dream of controlling the entire flow of juicy analytic data flooding in from the home front, even though you know the market would never stand for such a monopoly. There are just too many other players, too many ways to be undercut.
You can endeavor to become the “dominant” smart home company, whatever that means. This will generate a lot of headlines, because the media loves a conflict, and a lot of testosterone-fueled boardroom meetings.
But it won’t necessarily be the best business decision you’ve ever made.
We’ve seen this movie before. At the end of the great Mac-Windows wars of the 1990s, when Microsoft had its boot on Apple’s neck, Bill Gates’ company suddenly realized it was better off buying a piece of Apple, and supporting the Mac, than letting the company die off altogether. It was a market that could be nurtured back to life and create its own profitable revenue stream for Microsoft.
The smart home space is another case study in nonzero sum competition and why it makes so much sense. Google and Amazon can both win, faster, if they play nice, because more of us will want to join in. A rising tide of interoperability will lift all boats, economically speaking.
A little friendly competition is fine, sure — but making sure your devices and their devices are talking, and talking proactively, should come first and last. Whether it’s a solution like the neutral open platform that Andy Rubin’s startup Essential envisions, or it’s more a patchwork of agreements between companies, we the consumers do not care. Just get ‘er done.
Someday it will seem crazy that any gadget on your home Wi-Fi didn’t just automatically shake hands with every other gadget on your home wifi. Someday they’ll just hook up like lovers and present you with a list of options of ways they could work together. No more painstaking marital therapy between the voice assistant and the thermostat.
Why not make that day sooner rather than later?