It’s not just you: ‘Smart’ homes are confusing

smart-home-start-building-1240x720-v2NEW YORK – Jan. 26, 2018 – You thought choosing a smartphone or deciding whether to buy an Amazon Echo rather than Google Home was hard.

Now try coming to grips with which smart light fixture, faucet or fridge to buy. Get past that, and good luck setting everything up.

Smart speakers such as the Echo and Google Home have helped give a prominent voice to Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant. On Feb. 9, Apple will jump into the fray with its long-delayed HomePod smart speaker controlled by its own famous digital assistant Siri.

But the tech industry is on the clock to start making good on the near- and long-term prospects for other products and services inside our increasingly connected and artificial intelligence-driven society. These are the voice-driven devices, appliances and cloud-based products populating our kitchens, living rooms and bathrooms, not to mention outside and in the car.

It’s not hard to buy into this idea of ubiquitous virtual assistant-infused devices that get to know our routines and serve our needs, whims and passions. They’ll help us find something to watch on TV, warn us if we’re out of milk, signal there’s an intruder in the house or a pipe is about to burst.

“Our vision is if Alexa is truly your assistant, you can imagine her getting smart enough to say, ‘You left the lights on in the basement; do you want me to turn them off?'” Tom Taylor, senior vice president for Amazon Alexa, said in an interview. “That for us is where it is truly an intelligent assistant instead of a simple replacement for a switch.”

Samsung Electronics’ new South Korea-based president HS Kim wants the abbreviation IoT to connote “Intelligence of Things,” rather than the term currently used, “Internet of Things,” a nod at where the business is growing.

And yet for all the ambitions the industry has for the intelligent home, you are left wondering how to make sense of it all.

“We used to talk about computers being complicated. Now we’re talking about a whole new range of products. It’s mind-boggling,” says veteran tech consultant Gary Arlen, the president of Arlen Communications.

While there’s a degree of cooperation, big tech’s usual suspects – Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Samsung – all want to protect and expand their sphere of influence: to compile data on everything there is to know about you and ultimately to make gazillions selling you more things.

That’s partly why some of the people I talk to haven’t been persuaded yet to buy a connected washer, air conditioner or even smart bulbs.

“Each have their own business models and reasons to do what they’re doing. It’s not in their best interests to help their competitors be successful,” says Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies.

The major tech companies are trying to streamline their own platforms, using artificial intelligence and cloud computing to get devices to talk to you – and each other. With Samsung, for instance, its SmartThings smart home platform connects with third-party-like products such as door locks and water valves, and you’ll be able to use one app to operate different household devices. Samsung products add one more voice to the mix: Bixby, a digital assistant that’s trying to catch up to rivals Alexa and Google Assistant.

“Our message to the market is that there is more complexity than necessarily is needed. We’re working to take complexity out of the process,” said Tim Baxter, president and CEO of Samsung Electronics North America.

The company spent $14 billion in the last year on R&D to fuel Internet of Things innovation and has declared its intention to connect and infuse all its devices with intelligence by 2020.

Amazon, Google and Apple have similar goals. At the huge tech trade show CES in Las Vegas this month, you didn’t have to go very far to find numerous products boasting kinships with Alexa or the Google Assistant, and to a lesser degree, Siri: Not just those smart speakers anymore, but bathroom mirrors, security systems, PCs and TVs, augmented-reality glasses and automobiles.

Google claims 400 million devices have the Google Assistant, though the figure mostly accounts for Android phones. In the home, the Google Assistant now works more than 225 brands and more than 1,500 devices. Amazon said more than 4,000 devices from 1,200 brands now work with Alexa.

Though Apple had no direct visibility at CES, more than a dozen announced products, from Moen’s smart shower head to Yale’s smart lock, are compatible with Apple’s HomeKit home-automation framework.

Smart home product sales should read $4.5 billion in revenue and 40.8 million units in 2018, up 34 percent and 41 percent, respectively, The Consumer Technology Association forecasts.

As the companies arm-wrestle for your affection, you’re left wondering whether you have to choose sides. And what if you choose wrong? Fortunately, many companies are gravitating toward more open systems.

The products that are compatible with Samsung’s SmartThings can respond to voice commands from Alexa, the Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana and Bixby. Only Siri is notably absent.

Bixby is coming to select TVs and Samsung Family Hub refrigerators. But Alex Hawkinson, CEO of Samsung-owned SmartThings, says Bixby won’t get a home-court advantage over the other digital assistants when it comes to SmartThings.

Last year, Amazon and Microsoft reached an agreement in which Cortana and Alexa can team up. But Alexa, Siri and the Google Assistant still don’t directly talk to one another, and there’s no telling if they ever will.

Copyright 2018, USATODAY.com, USA TODAY, Edward C. Baig