Three kinds of people
Tech-literate humanity pretty much falls into three categories right now, all predicated on their response to the phrase “Internet of Things” (IoT). First, there are the people with serious concerns about the complex, imperfectly secured, largely user-inaccessible communications network that is currently the “Internet of Things.” I can respect that. No one wants their toaster plotting against them.
Second, you have people thrilled their devices are learning to network without them. We’re getting past the nonsense necessary to kludge together a half-functional home from a pile of disagreeing, disagreeable electronics. I respect that too, as only someone who recently spent six hours on the Herculean task of getting my computer to recognize the existence of the smartphone sitting on top of it can.
Entering Phase One
But it’s the third group I want to talk to today, the group that exists with every issue: people too busy doing actual stuff to have any investment in the question. Here’s the deal, people with lives: “Internet of Things” means getting a human space to provide digital services without an intervening interface. It’s happening, now. We’re officially into Phase One of stepping into a room, telling it what you want in normal human words, and the room doing it. It’s pretty cool.
The oft-quoted goal for IoT devices is “zero UI.” “UI” is User Interface, how you get your gadget to do things. It used to be punched paper cards, then a command line. Now it’s graphical bits and bobs you poke and swipe, but the Holy Grail has always been no interface at all. You talk, it does.
Apple, Amazon, and Google have products out right now meant to do just that. CRT Labs recently spotlighted these tech giants, who are shaping the future of IoT through voice control.
How you like them Apples?
Apple’s entry is Siri. Y’all know Siri. Everybody knows Siri. Well, except the actual Siri, who didn’t know she existed until well after she did. But most everyone else is at least acquainted with the disembodied voice of the Colossus of Cupertino. As a rule I’m not a big Apple fan, but even I grant that Apple interfaces set the standard for clarity and convenience. Oddly, of the three big players, Siri is probably the least user-friendly, with voice input limited to fairly formal commands.
Siri — or more accurately Apple Home, the app that lets Siri take over your house — is only compatible with a short list of devices, most Apple-branded. However, Apple has a huge plus: no new equipment. The Google and Amazon options require users to purchase a dedicated hub. Apple provides a simple upgrade for owners of various iThings that lets the gadget run others. If you’re already an Apple user, that’s a darn good reason to stick with Siri.
What Amazon brings to the table
Of the two dedicated-technology solutions, Amazon is the most complete. In keeping with Siri’s “evil computer from a 70s Sci-Fi film” naming convention, Amazon’s voice assistant is called Alexa. But it seems she can be trusted to open the pod bay doors. Amazon’s entry is the most user-friendly of the three biggies, with programmable algorithms that improve understanding of voice commands over time.
Unlike Siri, Alexa is also designed for ease of integration with third party tools. This makes her less likely to go into a sulk and stop speaking to your stereo, or interrupt a Netflix binge to have a Bluetooth shouting match with your TV. Amazon offers more options besides Alexa. Tap, Echo Dot, and Echo are entry, core, and premium respectively, but all of them will broadcast Pandora or order a pizza if you ask – and they smoke Google on price. The entry-level Tap hub is $49.99, less than half the $129 Google Home.
Google Home is hard to review because frankly, it’s not done yet. As with lot of Google products, it has impressive technical crunch: like Alexa, it’s designed to learn over time. And Google Assistant, in addition to not sounding like it wants to play Global Thermonuclear War with Matthew Broderick, can even answer questions and consider context like time of day. But its list of compatible gadgets is short. Comparable to Siri, but without Siri’s certainty that at least Apple-branded products will work.
Review aside, the vital point is this: the Internet of Things is here. Whether you think it’s the robot apocalypse or our first step toward Star Trek, it’s now part of the world. Get a piece.