“Hey Alexa, switch off the living room lights.”
Imagine getting home after a tiring day at work, then having everything turn on — from adjusting the lights to room temperature to playing music — on a simple voice command. This is not really a peek into the future, but the present. Homes around the world are fast becoming smart, connecting to the internet along with a host of appliance and devices in it.
India is not far behind in the connected home revolution. From smart speakers to app-controlled air purifiers, intelligent robotic vacuums and smart refrigerators are all available in the market. In fact, the Indian smart home devices market saw a healthy yearly growth of 107 per cent to reach at 1.4 million shipments in the second quarter of 2018, according to IDC.
The arrival of Amazon Echo and Google Home with their ability to control smart devices through voice commands and that too in your own language has become a catalyst for adoption in India, along with faster broadband speeds, better Wifi routers and the ability of smartphones to now act as the hub for smart homes.
Amazon, Google are serious about connected homes
The connected or smart home market, though in its nascent stage, offers huge potential. No wonder all technology majors from Amazon to Samsung, Google and Apple are pouring in billions of dollars to unlock the potential of smart homes with devices that are powered by their software.
All aspire to create a full-fledged smart home platform. Amazon, for instance, announced 15 new products powered by its artificial intelligence personal assistant Alexa in less than 90 minutes at an event in Seattle last month. The Jeff Bezos company has also made it easier to get other devices to use Alexa to become smarter.
Tom Taylor, Senior Vice President, Amazon Alexa told indianexpress.com that while Amazon has been building other devices like the Fire tablet, e-reader and even a phone, they thought of what could be done with a combination of these microphones, cloud and machine learning. “Could we build a new interface of technology through voice and what would that first device be? We had a number of ideas, but certainly the first one was the Echo device,” he said.
“We thought a lot about different experiences and use cases,” he said, adding how one of these was a tiny alarm, which would be perfect for when your hands are dirty. “But the killer app for sure was music…”
“The first version of the Echo may have been us inventing on behalf of customers. Over the years we have been able to listen to customers and begin to respond to what they like. What do we hear from customers? They wanted us to grow in a couple of different ways… they would say I wanna be able to talk to Alexa where I am, this room, that room, in my car, at work…” he adds.
Google too is interested in an ecosystem of its own. It has a separate Home devices division that includes Nest Labs, which makes products like Google Home Mini, thermostats, smoke alarms, doorbells, security cameras, among others. Apple, though not as aggressive, has a platform for developers called HomeKit that can be integrated with security systems, appliances, locks and lighting control. The integration of HomeKit into mobile devices makes it much easier to set up the Siri voice assistant with home accessories. Samsung’s SmartThings’ ecosystem of devices and services banks heavily on its Bixby voice assistant and plans to make it ubiquitous by 2020. South Korean rival LG has too is working on its SmartThinQ line of products.
But in a country like India, the first smart devices in most homes will be from brands like Xiaomi which have made these more affordable. The Chinese company has everything from smart security cameras to air purifiers and routers, all connected to its Mi Home app.
A Smart speaker is a gateway to smart homes
Since the launch of the first Amazon Echo in 2014, tech companies have taken a liking for the smart speaker. In many ways, the smart speaker is like the smartphone, a gateway to connectivity and connected homes. It can not only play music, but answer queries, control smart devices and gradually evolve to do more thanks to the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning. For instance, Alexa adds hundreds of new skills every week.
“The smart speaker market is still in a nascent stage with more than 55 per cent of smart speakers selling under the price of US$50,” Hattie He, a research analyst with Canalys Shanghai, told indianexpress.com over mail. “Festive promotions, discounts remain the top reason of getting a smart speaker,” he said. Hattie added that voice assistants will soon become the key differentiator in the smart speaker segment.
In India, smart speakers cost anywhere between Rs 4,499 and Rs 28,000, depending on the audio quality and the features offered. At Rs 4,499, Amazon’s Echo Dot and Google Home Mini are the most affordable smart speakers and thus the most affordable way to control smart home devices.
As per Canalys, Google held a market share of 66 per cent in the Indian smart speaker segment in the second quarter of 2018. Amazon was second to Google with a market share of 32 per cent.
But the real reason Amazon and Google are interested in selling smart speakers is to give customers easy access to their core business — e-commerce and search respectively. Research firm Gartner predicts that by 2020, 30 per cent of our browsing sessions will be voice conducted.
Infrastructure for smart homes falls into place
“In the last couple of years, we have seen a paradigm shift towards connected and smart homes in India,” Prasanna Gokhale, Chief Technology Officer, ACT Fibernet, told indianexpress.com over mail. He says smart homes with multiple smart devices need of lot of connectivity at high speed and low latency. “If you consider multiple high resolution streaming devices, and multiple connected devices in a home, each home requires to have more than 100Mbps of high-speed broadband connectivity,” explains Gokhale, adding that ACT Fibernet is IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6 network) ready, the next-generation of the internet standard.
Smart Home segment is small but growing
But the smart homes are not all about smart speakers. Yes, they are the entry point to smart homes at the moment, but we are also seeing an uptake in connected home appliances like refrigerators, robotic vacuum cleaners, microwave ovens and so on. The new generation of connected home appliances are Wi-Fi enabled and deeply integrated with a voice-based smart assistant depending on the ecosystem.
For example, Samsung’s Family Hub 3.0 Refrigerator is a connected refrigerator featuring a 21.5-inch touchscreen and AKG speakers. The Rs 2,80,000 refrigerator is integrated with Bixby allowing consumers to use various functions of the fridge using your voice commands. The new Family Hub can also control third-party devices that are part of the SmartThings smart home ecosystem such as lights, thermostats and home video cameras. The iRobot Roomba 671, on the other hand, has an Amazon Alexa integration that lets users trigger a cleaning cycle with voice.
“These devices have audiences that are small but loyal,” reasoned Dhaval Doshi, Founder and Director of Smarthome NX, a Mumbai-based company that helps consumers find and install the best technology for their homes. Doshi is of the opinion that ecosystems being built by Amazon, Google and Apple will decide the future of smart homes. “The smart home is not the same for everyone. Depending on your preferences and the layout of your home and the lifestyle that you have, you may use a variety of devices. For example, Amazon Echo is a great device for anyone who wants to start their journey in smart living by introducing a voice assistant in their home. But depending on your preferences you will buy lights, air purifiers, coffee makers or anything else that could work with the Amazon Echo. Therefore the purchase process for the consumer is iterative,” he explains.
Smart Homes too getting popular
Bengaluru-based Embassy Group, which specialises in luxury condos, houses, and villas, is betting on “smart homes” like many other developers across India. All units of its new residential project Embassy Edge in Bengaluru will have Amazon Echo speakers.
Reeza Sebastian, Senior Vice-President of Residential Business at Embassy Group said the combination of Amazon Echo and Alexa will enable limitless social integration possibilities for residents. “Residents will be able to experience the future of community living where homeowners can interact with each other, set up society meetings in the community, monitor movements, book cabs, order food and buy groceries – using just their voice,” she added.
So who are buying these smart homes? “In India, mostly millennials are the targeted buyers for smart homes,” Sebastian said.
How secure are smart devices?
The advent of connected homes has opened up new privacy and security issues with fears that personal details from food preferences to bank details could potentially be exposed. For instance, even though the consumers need to say wake-up commands such as “Alexa” or “Ok Google” to activate smart speakers, the fact remains that they are always listening.
Users have to be more aware of the capabilities of these devices and the risks that pose. Some devices share data with third parties while others do not. It is perfectly possible to use smart home devices with only a first-party relationship to the vendor,” explained Sean Sullivan, Security Advisor at F-Secure Corporation. “Choose your vendor carefully and think about whether or not you wish to enable functionality that requires third-parties. Is your data at risk? That depends on the care with which the vendor handles it,” he said.
“Anything connected to your network with access to the public internet can be a potential entry point for an outsider. Keep your internet router up-to-date, make sure you have a strong admin password set for the router, and make sure that you have a strong SSID password set. If you are using devices that require accounts, make sure you have a strong password set on those as well,” Sullivan explains.