You pull into the garage after a long day at work, grab your stuff, and get out of the car. As you head inside, your hallway lights turn on, and Amazon’s Echo speakers fire up some relaxing music in the living room. The lights turn on there as well, though you notice that one of the bulbs has burned out.
You make a mental note to buy a new one. But then Alexa, Echo’s computerized assistant, chimes in over the speaker: She knew a couple of days ago that the bulb was nearly toast, and your spouse already granted permission to order a replacement through Amazon Prime. It’s actually waiting just outside the front door.
This scenario doesn’t exist yet, but it’s not as far off as you might think. Slowly and subtly, Amazon is laying the groundwork to be a major smart-home companion, with its massive powers as an online retailer as the secret sauce. While the company’s obsession with selling you stuff can sometimes seem overbearing–lots of people aren’t thrilled with the Fire Phone’s emphasis on buying additional items from Amazon, for instance–it could fit right into the automated home of the future.
Amazon product launches are often major events. The company summons the press, makes a big announcement, and splashes its new creations across the Amazon.com home page. Later, the company regales investors with tales of how its newest product has been selling in impressive–yet unspecified–quantities.
This has not been the case with Echo, a cylindrical connected speaker that streams online music and answers Internet queries. Echo went on sale in November, but only by invitation. You still can’t buy one without an invite today.
Maybe that’s because Echo isn’t a finished product, and it’s only now starting to realize some of its potential. A couple of weeks ago, Amazon added the first home controls to Echo, letting users toggle their Philips Hue light bulbs and Belkin WeMo switches through voice commands. Instead of having to whip out a smartphone, users can just bark out orders to Alexa, Echo’s always-listening assistant.
“While we can’t talk on behalf of Amazon, we think the company is exploring new territory with Echo that is really relevant to both smart lighting and the broader smart home,” says George Yianni, head of Connected Lighting at Philips. In the future, Yianni says Echo could trigger more advanced functions like security lighting, decorative lighting, and light-enhanced music. “We’re at the beginning of the road at the moment; the possibilities for connected lighting are endless,” Yianni says.
This won’t be the last smart-home integration that Echo users will see. Last month, Amazon launched a beta software development kit for Echo, which presumably paved the way for Hue and WeMo support. The company is also working on a public version, which could allow any smart-home device to work with Alexa voice commands. Perhaps that’s the feature Amazon is waiting on before it starts selling the Echo to everyone.
Another recent Amazon smart-home invention has attracted more attention than Echo’s new capabilities. Earlier this month, the company announced the Dash Button, a thumb-sized device that comes labeled with the household product of your choosing. Press the button when your supply of Huggies diapers or Tide detergent runs low, and Amazon will send a fresh order your way. (It, too, is available only by invitation.)
For an Amazon product announcement, the Dash Button had more of the requisite razzle-dazzle, but this only allowed the real news to fly under the radar: Amazon is also working on something called Dash Replenishment Service, which skips the button altogether and allows smart-home products to order supplies autonomously. Brother printers will send for more ink when they run low, and Brita pitchers will order new water filters after the current one has reached its purifying limits.
“Nothing is more frustrating than to run out of ink or toner when you need to print that important email or your child’s homework,” says Don Cummins, Brother’s senior vice president of marketing. “The intention of the program is to provide convenient and timely replenishment to ensure that users will have it when they need it most.”
Here, Amazon’s real smart-home strategy is laid bare: The goal is not merely to turn on your lights and spin up your washing machine, but to recognize when it can sell you something to keep those products running–delivered, of course, via Amazon Prime.
This level of automated consumption has its potential downsides, both practical and philosophical, and several pundits were quick to point them out when Amazon unveiled the Dash Button.
Over at Lifehacker, Kyle James observed that the Dash Button inhibits your ability to shop. Once you’ve customized the button through Amazon’s companion app, pressing it always sends you the same product from the same retailer, even when it’s cheaper elsewhere, or when it’s surpassed in quality by a competitor. Convenience, in other words, comes at a cost.
Brita spokesman David Kargas notes that customers have some options in this regard, though not directly through Amazon’s replenishment service. They can sign up for email or text reminders, or sign up for subscription programs. “The appeal of Dash Replenishment is that it automates the order process, so people don’t have to worry about getting busy and forgetting to reorder, in turn potentially leaving them with an outdated filter,” he says.
But on a deeper level, The New Yorker‘s Ian Crouch argued that running out of things has value. “The sinking feeling that comes as you yank a garbage bag out of the box and meet no resistance from further reinforcements is also an opportunity to ask yourself all kinds of questions,” he wrote, “from ‘Do I want to continue using this brand of bag?’ to ‘Why in the hell am I producing so much trash?’”
It’s entirely possible that Amazon ignores these concerns–willfully or not–and caters only to the consumer who’s happy to do the same. But when I think about Echo and Dash Replenishment Service as a whole, I like to hope that Amazon knows better. After all, the whole point of a thinking, speaking virtual assistant is that you can interact with it.
The original version of my hypothetical light bulb anecdote went a little differently. In the first draft, Echo’s Alexa assistant didn’t bother to ask about ordering that new bulb. Instead, she took the liberty of ordering it on her own.
I changed the outcome because I hope the future turns out a bit differently, and that our smart homes involve us in their decision-making instead of acting with full autonomy. Alexa’s offer to replace the bulb needn’t be a yes-or-no question. It could be an invitation to reconsider the bulb’s usefulness, to examine other options, or revert to a system that’s dumber. If Amazon’s system is truly going to be smart, it’ll have to allow us that much.