Amazon Echo – A Boon to Baby Boomers
When the first Amazon Echo device was released back in June of 2015, we questioned whether it would really take off in the mainstream. At that point Alexa was basically a glorified Bluetooth speaker that could control the lights and add items to an Amazon shopping list. But over the past couple years we’ve all seen new functionality, and some amusing-yet-compelling use cases, thanks to Amazon’s TV ad campaigns.
Since then, sales numbers skyrocketed, and especially over the past year – survey estimates this past summer put Echo sales at more than 10 million units. And now there are all sorts of Echo spinoff devices, like the Echo Dot, and the newer Echo Show, a video-enabled version.
Never be without your lyrics again — Echo Show, $150
More than two years after adding a few Amazon Echo devices around the house, I still have mixed feelings. The low-level creepiness of knowing she’s always listening never quite goes away, but thanks to some special skills I’ve set up (more on that later) the Echoes are useful enough that they’ve kept their rightful places in my house.
The true test came when my uncle stayed with us for a night over the Thanksgiving holiday. We gave him a quick introduction to the Echo Dot on the nightstand, and showed him the commands for controlling the Philips Hue bulbs scattered around the house. As we turned in for the night, we heard Alexa reciting the news headlines in his room.
I awoke the next morning to find my uncle browsing Amazon while using Siri to text message his friends about the Echo. “I gotta get an Amazon Alexa, period. She’s great, exclamation point!”
He put down his phone and turned to me. “This morning I asked her if she could play me Willie Nelson and she just started playing Willie Nelson! I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off though.” I heard Red Headed Stranger still quietly playing from the other room, and stuck my head in the doorway. “Alexa, SILENCE!” My uncle resumed browsing on his phone. “I might need to get a couple of these.”
And with that, and as-important developments like Comcast’s voice remote, I think we’ve officially reached the point where speech recognition devices are advanced and intuitive enough to actually be useful to the average person. These days it’s easier to use voice commands than to squint at phone screens and use tiny virtual keyboards, especially for the older generations. Even my Mom, who back in 2005 threatened to disown the entire family when we surprised her with a cell phone upgrade, is already on the Echo bandwagon.
A few of the services that currently work with Echo devices
What about privacy?
With all the devices now listening in around the country, we’d be remiss not to mention privacy. Sure, it can be a little unsettling to own a device nearby that may or may not be recording your conversations – speaking of which, did you hear about that Google Home bug that caused some devices to record 24/7 and store it all in the cloud?
At least a few times a week, I’ll see the Echo in my living room light up randomly, without the “wake word” ever being spoken. If you ask “Alexa, is Jeff Bezos spying on me?” she’ll respond coolly, “I only send audio back to Amazon when I hear the wake word.” Really, in this day and age, what device isn’t collecting information about our habits and trying to find a way to make sense of (and monetize) all that data?
For most of us, it really comes down to how useful a device is versus how concerned we are about the data we might be sharing with it. Security breaches are a part of life these days, when even buying a can of paint can result in the headache of having your data compromised and your card reissued.
Turns out it’s increasingly not that hard to overlook privacy concerns — when the product makes life easier. Sure, I worry that my data will end up in the wrong hands. Do I worry enough to unplug all my devices, stuff them into the closet, and go back to the dark ages before Alexa turned on the lights for me? Nope. But if I were engaged in more behavior that Jeff Bezos and Uncle Sam would find interesting, I might feel differently.
One thing is for sure, when it comes to Alexa: I feel for people whose actual name is Alexa. When I run into human Alexas, I always ask them: So – how’s it going? The answers vary, but in general, they either don’t own the device, or they’ve changed the wake word….
IFTTT IT Works, Don’t Mess With It (Update)
A couple years ago, we wrote about IFTTT (If This Then That), a glue service that connects smart home devices and web services. In a nutshell, IFTTT gives services and devices a way to talk to one another, and then allows you to write simple scenarios (or “applets”) using a “trigger” from one service and an “action” from another. For example, changing the light color (action) when your weather station detects rain (trigger.)
We’ve been using IFTTT on a near-daily basis since 2014 – and over the course of these past few years, the IFTTT experience has changed quite a bit. So we thought it was time for an update of our own (and maybe a small rant).
Big changes to the business model
It’s been our longtime hope that IFTTT would bring more features to its users through a paid subscription plan. Yes, we would happily shell out $10 a month to be able to set up synchronized alerts (for example making lights turn red AND calling my phone if the greenhouse is overheating — currently the only way to accomplish this is to set up multiple instances of the same trigger).
Back in 2014, that seemed like a sure thing. IFTTT’s founder, Linden Tibbets, even came right out and said that they were looking towards charging consumers for a premium service in the coming months. He also mentioned opportunities “on the channel side” — which turned out to be the direction IFTTT took.
Alas, we never did get the premium subscription we hoped to see. Instead, in February 2016 IFTTT launched a $199/month subscription plan for its service partners. IFTTT also allows applets to run directly from those partner apps now, so users can access a curated selection of applets without ever downloading the IFTTT app.
And our hope for synchronized actions? IFTTT can do that now, but only partners have that ability, not consumers. So now BMW has its own applet that makes Garageio open the garage door, turns up the Nest thermostat, and turns on the Philips Hue lights when the car pulls in the driveway – but there’s no way for the user to use different hardware or customize the applet. For consumers wanting to do more with IFTTT, there is another option – the “Maker” channel, released in June 2015. This channel lets users create applets using any device or service that can make or receive a web request. For example, I was able to get IFTTT pulling the data from my Dexcom continuous glucose monitor, and then I set up various alerts for low and high glucose thresholds – calling my phone, turning on lights, putting a notification on the Comcast X1 box, etc.
However, the Maker channel still doesn’t allow multiple actions per applet; I had to create separate applets for every trigger/alert combination – which, in addition to being a pain, makes for a long list of applets that need to be updated if you decide to make changes.
So how’s that partner subscription working out?
In the early days, services were added to IFTTT for free, often with no development work on their part – IFTTT just connected to apps and devices with open APIs.
Now that IFTTT is asking services to pay for its platform, some have been vocal about their support for the new IFTTT while others were cut off for refusing to shell out the cash. The founder of social bookmarking service Pinboard even wrote a blog post about why he chose not to sign on, citing “squirrely terms of service” and that IFTTT “wanted him to do their job for them, for free.” Of course, in that same blog post he also compared IFTTT to a sewer pipe, so read into that what you will.
Interestingly enough, there are several key partners that are NOT paying to be part of IFTTT’s platform (Philips Hue for example) – and IFTTT is keeping mum on how many of its approximately 360 partners actually subscribe. (Our napkin-math says that even if ALL of them signed on, they’d be making about $621K/year. We’re not financial geniuses, but that nonetheless seems a bit low for an ongoing concern.)
When asked in an interview with Fast Company whether Philips was willing to pay for the platform, George Yanni (Head of Connected Technology) was noncommittal at best. He mentioned that he “wasn’t sure how the process would go,” and that Philips has enjoyed a “long, very successful partnership with IFTTT, where we’ve both gotten a lot of value and publicity out of it, so we’ll just have to discuss with them to see how best we do that going forward.” Sounds to us like IFTTT might have a problem getting its most popular services to pony up.
While it remains to be seen whether IFTTT’s new business model is actually paying off, we can say with some certainty that the user experience is going downhill. Which brings us to a quick summary of the gripes we have with IFTTT:
1. Too many name changes to keep track
Since 2012, IFTTT has renamed itself more than a gangster on the lam. Over the past 5 years, we’ve seen the terminology evolve from “tasks and add-ins” to “recipes and ingredients” to “applets and services.”
There was also an awkward, short-lived phase in 2015 where IFTTT changed its name to “IF” and released a trio of companion apps – “DO Button” “DO Camera” and “DO Note.” The idea behind these apps was a button widget that you could set to do something in another app – for example, to automatically send a text to let your spouse know you’re leaving the office, or to make your phone ring in the event you need to excuse yourself from an awkward conversation. IFTTT soon reversed course again (perhaps realizing that maybe people didn’t want to download 4 separate apps -!) and re-rolled the DO functionality into the main app (which is back to being called IFTTT now.)
2. The process isn’t as easy as it used to be
When setting up triggers and actions, IFTTT used to have shortcuts to your favorite services, which made it easy to create new recipes – oops! — applets. That top spot has since been replaced with “popular” services, followed by a long list of all available services.
This is almost certainly designed to encourage more discovery, but that backfires when the list is so cluttered that it’s easier to use the search box than scroll to what you need.
A few of the many services you’ll scroll through to find what you actually need
3. Midnight rides and other glitches
It seems like IFTTT is generally less reliable since migrating to its new platform, possibly because it’s a challenge for service partners to keep up with changes to the API. There was one week in January where many of the applets we set up stopped responding to triggers altogether. Likewise, the Automatic car adapter initially worked quite well with IFTTT (we like to use it for logging business miles, or to be notified that the car just left the grocery store, so it’s too late to add anything to the list.)
Currently, IFTTT and Automatic are hit or miss – sometimes alerts happen promptly, and sometimes they get stuck and come sailing over the transom several hours later. (This is much like Leslie’s now-rogue doorbell-cam, which now rings more than a half hour AFTER being triggered.) Waking up at 2 a.m. to a notification that my car is halfway across town is an eye-roller, yet I’m always compelled to go make sure it’s still in the driveway.
4. We still can’t help but use it
Despite being irritated at the direction IFTTT is going, I still use it every day. In fact, it saved me a lot of pain just this morning, when I awoke at 3:30 a.m. to a phone call from a robotic voice somewhere in the Silicon Valley, warning me that my seedlings were about to freeze. Unbeknownst to me, the circuit powering the greenhouse heater tripped, and the temperature inside the greenhouse was steadily dropping while I slept. If not for the alerts I set up, I surely would have woken to a greenhouse full of frozen tomatoes and peppers. It saved our seedlings last year too. So despite the frustrations, we’ll keep living with IFTTT (at least until something better comes along).
Connected Home for the Holidays
With Christmas right around the corner, you may be looking for a few last-minute things to put under the tree. There are connected gadgets everywhere you look this year; here are a few of our favorites in the smart home and OTT categories:
For sound sleepers: Philips Hue (starter kit includes hub and three LED bulbs for $189)
When we first saw the Philips Hue bulbs at CES a few years back, the novelty factor of these color-changing connected LED bulbs was unmistakable – but they weren’t something we zeroed in on as particularly useful. Boy, were we wrong.
For the stubbornly sound sleepers in your life, Hue bulbs can be a game-changer. I use them with the Sleep Cycle alarm for iPhone ($0.99) and now I wake up to soothing music and the rising sun on my nightstand. It’s so much better than a shrieking alarm clock in a dark room, particularly for those of us that tend to slap the snooze bar and keep on dreaming about the beeping explosive device we just disarmed while the rest of the family wakes up angry. You can also set the bulbs to light up on a schedule, if you prefer your own alarm clock.
The Hue bulbs work with dozens of other applications – and the API (Application Programming Interface) and SDK (Software Development Kit) are open so your favorite tinkerers have the freedom to develop their own apps for the bulbs. There are also frameworks like IFTTT that work with Hue bulbs, turning them into subtle notification devices that tell you when you get an important email, or when your loved ones touch down at the airport. You can also set up geofencing with your mobile device to turn on your lights when you get close to the house.
I could go on all day about the different ways you can use these bulbs, but suffice it to say I picked up my own set shortly after testing them in the lab.
The hue system consists of a hub (which uses a hard-wired Ethernet connection) and 3 LED bulbs, which connect to the hub using ZigBee radios (one hub can support up to 50 bulbs; each additional bulb will cost you $60).
For anyone with WiFi: Belkin WeMo Smart Outlet ($39)
This single connected outlet is a great way to connect dumb objects to the Internet. Just plug it in and set it up on the home WiFi network, then you can use the WeMo app to turn the outlet off and on from anywhere in the world, or set it to operate on a schedule. Perfect for turning off power-hogging devices overnight, remotely controlling Christmas lights and space heaters, and shutting off the iron you forgot to unplug before you left for the office. Like the Philips Hue bulbs, WeMo devices work with IFTTT to connect to other apps and devices – so when you leave the iron on, you can have it send you a text to alert you.
For the person who loses everything: Tile ($25-$180)
These little Bluetooth-powered trackers attach to your stuff and work with a mobile app to help you find the stuff you lose. Stick or keychain Tiles on your bag, your keys, or, in Leslie’s case, her irreplaceable, Lake Erie-sourced “Smiling Rock,” and use your phone to locate them when they go missing.
Leslie’s “Smiling Rock,” with a Tile affixed using the optional adhesive patch.
There are a few notable limitations. Chief among them: Tile’s search-and-find capabilities are powered by Bluetooth, meaning, not GPS. So you won’t be in the luxurious position of harrumping to the luggage claim agent, “I said Oakland, not Auckland!” — because it can only find your stuff if it’s within the Bluetooth range of the app. Rats!) But if you’re trying to zero in on which pile of counter clutter swalled your keys, or where the dog delivered the remote, it’s aces. The Tile app will show you when you’re getting close, and the Tile itself will play a little tune and vibrate until you find whatever it’s affixed to.
The Tile app supports up to 8 Tiles, and you can buy each tile for $25 – but you’ll get a discount for buying packs of 4, 8, or 12 (packs of 12 come out to the best deal at $15 apiece).
For your favorite Prime subscribers: Amazon Fire TV Stick ($40)
We got a great deal on this streaming dongle back in October, when Amazon let Prime customers order it for $19. But at $39, it’s still a solid device with a slick interface that is a lot more responsive than the Roku Streaming Stick ($49).
Fire TV — also available as a $79 set-top box, with a voice-controlled remote — will be a welcome addition to any household with Amazon Prime (it also has apps for Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and Showtime plus some free content). The dongle is super easy to set up, and if you order it through your Amazon account it’ll show up at your door already signed in to your account (order it as a gift or pick it up at a retail store if you’re purchasing it for someone else, unless you want them streaming movies from your Prime account). My parents, the original cord-nevers, ordered one and they love it – in fact, Dad even says he prefers it to the Roku I got them a few years back.
IFTTT: A Nifty Framework for the Internet of Things
A while back, we started playing with an Internet of Things (IoT) framework called IFTTT – it rhymes with “gift,” and it stands for “IF This Then That.” IFTTT is free to use, and works with an increasing number of apps and gadgets to let you create sets of triggers and actions, known in the IFTTT vernacular as “recipes.”
Happy to report that what started as typical lab fiddling quickly evolved into something we use on a daily basis. Here are a few examples:
As I type this, I just got a text message from IFTTT notifying me that a package I’m eagerly awaiting is on the truck for delivery. I’ll get another one shortly after it’s dropped on my doorstep. I set up a recipe using “Boxoh Package Tracking,” where I paste in any tracking number – UPS, FedEx, USPS, DHL – and it texts me any time there’s a status change for that tracking number. I could have just as easily set it up to send me an email, update my Google calendar with the scheduled delivery date, blink my lights, or a bunch of other actions.
IFTTT also came in handy as Colorado’s warmer-than-average fall suddenly took a dive into record-breaking low temperatures this week. With my tomatoes still hanging on, I scheduled email alerts telling me to cover the plants when the temperature was forecast to drop below freezing the following night (it’s been arctic-cold for the last few, so, the tomato alert is now moot.)
Now that we’re tumbling into subzero temperatures, we can tell IFTTT alert us when it’s cold enough to worry about pipes freezing, as it did last night.
IFTTT is also good at finding and compiling useful information. It works with Craigslist, so if you search for something and then paste the search URL into IFTTT, it will alert you every time there’s a new ad that matches your search terms. Just for fun, I tried setting it up to email me whenever someone posted an ad for a free rooster (it sure didn’t take long to flood my inbox with that one.)
If you’re using a Fitbit or Jawbone fitness tracker, you can have IFTTT automatically put your sleep and exercise data into a Google Docs spreadsheet for you. Or it’ll save it to Evernote, or just text you congratulations if you meet your distance goal for the week, or manage to sleep a full 8 hours.
And if you use Square to take payments for your business, you can have IFTTT send all that data to a spreadsheet for you too.
IFTTT works with a bunch of connected gadgets, including the Philips Hue bulbs (which have some other applications of their own, but that’s another post). A lamp on my desk glows purple whenever I get a new email from Leslie, and it turns yellow if someone tags a photo of me on Facebook. This makes for a great, fairly unobtrusive notification system when I’m swamped and not checking my inbox frequently, but still want to know right away if there’s an important email or a potentially embarrassing photo. On a related note, I’d like to have a few words with the person who started #tbt (for the blissfully unaware, this stands for Throwback Thursday, and it involves old photos of your awkward high school self suddenly appearing on Facebook for all your acquaintances to see).
IFTTT also lets you publish the “recipes” you’ve created, so there are piles of premade recipes to browse for any given trigger — and some pretty interesting ideas in the mix. For example, one mother put SmartThings door sensors on the liquor cabinet and set IFTTT to call her cell phone if that cabinet opened when the teenagers were home alone. For frequent travelers, another user set all the Hue bulbs in his house to start playing a color loop to let his family know when he touched back down on home soil (using the Life360 app).
Another one we haven’t seen but seems imminently useful: You’re hearing impaired, and you live in the tornado belt. The bulb turns red whenever the Emergency Alert System broadcasts a tornado alert.
Clearly there are more potential use cases for IFTTT than we have space to write about, so you can check out more recipes here.
And as much as we like the framework, there are a few things we’d like to see change (and given the recent mentions of a paid service, hopefully these will be addressed soon.) While the simple IF This Then That clause has its merits, we should really have the option to create some more detailed recipes – i.e. IF This AND This (but only when it’s raining outside), Then That.
Or, in Leslie’s case, to set the Craig’s List trigger to only send her information about the kind of car she wants, when it is a manual transmission — automatics need not apply.
More importantly, most triggers run on 15-minute schedules, so you won’t typically receive notifications immediately – there is a delay of anywhere from 5 seconds to 15 minutes. When you’re just getting an alert about a package delivery, this is not a big deal. But if you set up a phone alert for your Nest smoke detector, your house might already be toast by the time you get the call about the fire.
Limitations aside, IFTTT makes for some fun tinkering that has the potential to do some really useful things. Chances are, this will only get better as more apps and devices hook in to the framework. And if there’s a premium version with better functionality in the works, count us in.