Adventures with Alexa

When Ian McMurray was given an Amazon Echo for his birthday, it began a challenging voyage of discovery…

I’ve hinted – strongly, on occasions – to my wife that I’d prefer it if she didn’t buy me technology, but there you go. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve spent my entire career in the tech industry – but I also have my blind spots. On the one hand, I’ve reinstalled Windows more times than I care to remember (the joys of being family tech support) – but on the other, I’ve never actually embraced mobile phones. In fact, it goes deeper than that: I think mobile phones are the invention of Satan himself – but I guess I’m just showing my age.

This, unfortunately, led to my first Echo crisis: with no phone to download the app to – how was I going to make progress? Fortunately, the app will run on a PC – and shows every sign that it’s not meant to.

I got the Echo set up. First impressions were that it was a brilliant, but ultimately futile, piece of kit. The novelty of asking Alexa for the time, or the weather forecast, or to tell me the capital of Romania, quickly wore off. She turned out to be most useful for setting reminders. Thus far, though – nothing I couldn’t just as easily have achieved previously.

I also pretty much exhausted doing the stupid things Amazon obviously expects new users to do – although I have to say, I got an excellent laugh from her response to my question: “Alexa – what’s my wife’s name?”

What to do? I asked my wife why she’d bought it for me.

“Well, I thought you could use it to play your music.”

Fatal flaws

That was a nice thought. There’s little doubt in my mind that, for its size, the Echo delivers very acceptable audio quality. But: her plan had two fatal flaws. The first was that, to use the all-singing, all-dancing Amazon music service, you need to be an Amazon Prime member – and I’m not. Second, and more damningly: every piece of music I would ever want to listen to resides on my PC, which benefits from a very nice Creative Labs sound card/speaker set up. If I want to play music, I can – very easily, and with better quality than the Echo can manage.

After a month, my wife became aware that I wasn’t talking to Alexa as much as she’d hoped…

Why am I telling you all this? Well: I write pretty frequently about what’s going on in smart buildings and home automation. It’s academically/theoretically a fascinating subject – but I never saw its practical relevance to my own situation, especially given the physical challenges of our home (a 17th century cottage that’s 35m long, has internal walls half a metre thick making whole home Wi-Fi a significant challenge – and two separate electricity supplies).

The research I did as I tried to turn the Echo from a novelty into something more worthwhile opened my eyes to a whole range of possibilities. If I was prepared to spend the time and money, and suffer the inevitable pain that, in my experience, is an inevitable consequence of trying to install and configure technology, there were things I could do that would certainly make life more convenient – and more fun.

And so it was that Christmas arrived – and, despite anything I might have thought I’d said, under the tree were two smart light bulbs, a smart power plug and an IP door entry system…

Completely useless

The two light bulbs were immediate candidates to be sent back, as they were screw fittings and almost all the lights in our house use bayonet fittings.  Subsequent research revealed that, in fact, they’d have been completely useless anyway as my wife hadn’t realised that you needed a Philips Hue to control them.

As for the IP door entry system: my wife had – rightly – gone for what seemed to be a top of the range unit. However: to really be of value, you needed to have your mobile phone (the mobile phone I don’t have) with you at all times (not least because, without extra effort and expense, the front door bell would no longer ring as such). Plus: unless you connected it to a mains supply, it looked like you needed to take it apart (a non-simple procedure, from what I could make out) once a month to re-charge it.

It soon joined the bulbs on the ‘to be sent back’ pile.

Which left me with the smart plug. I got that up and running with relative ease and, as I write, I can tell Alexa to turn off the lamp on my desk – the lamp that is within arm’s reach…

The only problem is: the application my wife had in mind for it would require it to be installed somewhere else in the house – somewhere the Wi-Fi signal doesn’t reach…  The house is actually wired for Ethernet, and I’ve already installed an access point at the far end of the house. What was needed was another access point.

Neat pile

So: in a neat pile beside me in my office, I now have a Wi-Fi access point, a Philips Hue and two screw fit bulbs (bought with the proceeds of returning the original bulbs and the door entry system) – and my wife’s cast-off tablet (which I now discover isn’t capable of running the version of Android required by today’s apps). I keep meaning to get around to doing something with them…  I’ll keep you updated on progress.

In writing about home automation, I’ve often wondered how custom installers can thrive in the face of the apparent threat from all the DIY kit that’s now available. I think I now know.

The good news, it seems to me, is that Echo has made significant numbers of people think hard – like me – about home automation. I guess it’s no surprise that custom install manufacturers, such as Control4, have been quick to embrace Alexa (so to speak).

But, like me, those people may well find that automating your own home – especially if it’s a little out of the ordinary – isn’t necessarily nearly as simple as it’s made out to be. There are people out there who want – need – what the custom install industry has long been able to offer. Targeting the right prospects is, as always, key – but the bigger challenge is how home automation specialists can articulate the message that to truly achieve the integration and convenience of a technology-enabled home, what are really needed are the skills and experience of a professional.