“Hey Alexa, switch on the living room lights.” Imagine getting home after a tiring day at work, then having everything switch 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. In India, the smart home devices market saw a yearly growth of 107% to reach 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 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, offers huge potential. No wonder tech majors Amazon, Apple, Google and Samsung are pouring in billions of dollars to unlock the potential of smart homes with devices powered by their software. Amazon, for instance, announced 15 new products powered by its Artificial Intelligence (AI) personal assistant Alexa in less than 90 minutes at an event in Seattle last month.
Tom Taylor, senior vice president of Amazon Alexa said that while Amazon was building devices such as the Fire tablet, e-reader and even a phone, it wondered what could be done by combining microphones, cloud and Machine Learning (ML). “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.
Google too is interested in an ecosystem of its own. It has a separate Home devices division that includes Nest Labs, which makes products such as 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. Samsung’s SmartThings ecosystem of devices and services banks on its Bixby voice assistant and plans to make it ubiquitous by 2020. South Korean rival LG too is working on its SmartThinQ line of products.
But in a country like India, the first smart device in most homes will be from brands like Xiaomi which have made these more affordable. The Chinese brand has everything from smart security cameras to air purifiers and routers, all connected to its Mi Home app.
Gateway to smart homes
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 AI and ML.
“The smart speaker market is still in a nascent stage with more than 55% of smart speakers selling under the price of $50,”
Hattie He, a research analyst with Canalys Shanghai said. “Festive promotions, discounts remain the top reason for 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 are priced Rs 4,499-28,000, depending on the audio quality and the features offered. At 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% in the Indian smart speaker segment in the second quarter of 2018. Amazon was second to Google with a market share of 32%.
Infrastructure for smart homes
Prasanna Gokhale, chief technology officer, ACT Fibernet 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 growing
Along with smart speakers, we are seeing an uptake in connected home appliances like refrigerators, robotic vacuum cleaners, microwave ovens and so on. 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 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 said that ecosystems being built by Amazon, Google and Apple will decide the future of smart homes.
Smart homes too getting popular
Bengaluru-based Embassy Group, which specialises in luxury condos 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.
How secure are smart devices?
The advent of connected homes has raised the spectre of violations of privacy and security. “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. “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 explained.