They say the heart of any home is the kitchen, and while nice in theory, we all know that in most American homes, it’s the room with the biggest TV where everyone hangs out. In my decade-plus of covering the smart home, it’s baffled me that no company has really embraced the TV as a central hub for the smart home.
Yes, you can navigate three menus down on a Fire TV-enabled television and turn a smart light off, and your Apple TV or Google Chromecast will let you view a security camera livestream if you know the exact incantation to summon it. But to date, the relationship between the smart TV and the smart home has been more parasitic than symbiotic.
That could be about to change. Amazon has its big fall devices event tomorrow. Yes, there’ll probably be new Kindles; personally, I’d like to see a new smart speaker (the flagship Echo fourth-gen is very long in the tooth), and I’m sure we’ll see some minor Fire TV Stick upgrades. But instead of also hoisting a bunch of new random gadgets at us that maybe make it to the next holiday buying season (I’m looking at you, Halo Rise), I’m hoping this event will be a big reset and refocus moment for Amazon’s hardware division.
The relationship between the smart TV and the smart home is more parasitic than symbiotic
Chastened by layoffs, huge losses, and the departure of longtime commander-in-chief Dave Limp, the future has been looking bleak for Amazon’s devices and services division. Today, that future likely hinges on two things: generative AI and a big shift in its hardware focus.
With rumors that Limp’s successor will be none other than Microsoft’s hardware whisperer Panos Panay, we can hope for some shiny new surfaces for Alexa in the coming years. But the current hardware play needs to shift away from the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach to find a tighter focus. The obvious place to do this is by bringing its Alexa and Fire TV division and its devices and services division into closer alignment.
This week’s event at its shiny new headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, is a prime opportunity for Amazon to show it truly understands its smart home mission. One way to do that is for Amazon to focus less on a myriad of smart displays and more on that giant smart display in our living room: the TV.
The smart home has stagnated because it’s too complicated — yes, even in the (not so) golden age of Matter. For the average consumer, who is Amazon’s bread and butter, it’s just not compelling. But make it all really easy to use from your TV, and that’s a whole other ball game.
Roku has seen this potential with its smart home hardware play — repackaging Wyze cameras and gadgets but integrating them neatly into its TV OS. It’s a natural step for Amazon to turn the TV into the hub of its smart home ecosystem, and maybe even package some smart home services into your Prime subscription. We all signed up for free delivery, but now we’re hooked on an all-you-can-eat buffet of Good Omens and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan; who’s to say there aren’t some compelling smart home services we’d be happy to bundle, too?
The Amazon Fire TV Cube is already halfway to this smart home hub vision. A hybrid Echo speaker and Fire TV, it’s the only TV streaming box with hands-free voice control, allowing you to turn on your living room lights from your TV without having to press a button. Add a Thread radio and Zigbee support on top of its powerful processor and connectivity options (Wi-Fi 6, Sidewalk, Bluetooth LE, and ethernet), and the Cube becomes an all-in-one smart home hub that runs your TV.
The user interface on Amazon smart displays is about showing; there’s very little doing
That last part is the key. People are prepared to spend money on a device for streaming TV shows and movies. It’s a harder sell to convince a non-techie family member that it’s worth handing over $130 or so for an Echo Show 8 that can (sometimes) show you your video doorbell. (Believe me, I’ve tried).
Smart displays simply aren’t compelling enough. They’re not very good smart home controllers, and their equally capable smart speaker siblings sound better and cost less. If Amazon leans into its TV hardware as a display to support its smart home platform, it could start to move the needle for smart home adoption in the right direction. The Fire TV Cube is the high end, but imagine a Fire TV Stick or the inexpensive Fire TV Omnis with Thread and Zigbee smart home hardware built in.
This is what Samsung is doing with its TVs, packing Thread and Zigbee radios and Matter controller capabilities into its fanciest 2023 models, with this likely to permeate through the rest of its lines in 2024. Apple’s doing it, too. Its Apple TV streaming device is already an all-in-one TV / smart home device. As for Google… well, as always, Google is still playing catch-up.
Yet, ultimately, what’s holding the TV back as a smart home interface is software. Noone has successfully turned the biggest smart display in our homes into a usable smart home controller, and really, they should.
Samsung is probably the closest with its SmartThings interface, but it’s unwieldy to navigate compared to a smartphone or tablet. Apple’s new tvOS update makes the Apple TV interface more useful for smart home control — giving you quick access to scenes and cameras on the big screen. Google’s Chromecast also lets you call up live camera views on your TV; although, there’s no UI for this; it’s all voice control.
Amazon’s Smart Home Dashboard for Fire TV (launched in 2021) is usable but in need of a complete overhaul. My 65-inch TV can clearly fit more than eight icons on the screen… . Amazon has the hardware it needs (more than it needs!). Now, it needs to focus on the software. The Alexa app on the phone is still a hot mess, and the user interface on its smart displays is much more about showing; there’s very little doing. A sleek, streamlined easy-to-use smart home UI on a smart TV (without rows of ads) is something I know I’d use.
Of course, all of this could be largely moot if Amazon is ever able to achieve its much-touted goal of the “ambient home” — one that responds intuitively and proactively to the needs and wants of its occupants with little to no input or direction from us humans.
In this world, we wouldn’t need smart displays littered all over our houses or a powerful, intuitive interface in our living room. One central brain running your home, intelligently responding to your needs and wants, and controlling your connected devices without you having to think about it seems to be where Amazon is headed. “Our North Star is the Star Trek Computer,” Limp told me earlier this year, before the news of his departure.
With 90 percent of Alexa routines having no interaction by the customer, the leap doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it once was, especially with the new supercharged AI. “With the emergence of generative AI and Large Language Models, [creating the Star Trek Computer] now seems like a very tractable problem,” he told me. “It now feels like we have the tools to get there.” While Limp is out, his rumored replacement, Microsoft’s Panay, is similarly AI-savvy and unlikely to move away from this vision, which has been at the core of Alexa since day one.
Generative AI has the potential to solve many of the complexities of the smart home, making it easier to use, more intuitive, and, crucially, able to interpret context. Context is king in the smart home — a home that turns on your lights at 3AM because it’s dark outside isn’t smart.
Amazon’s smart home ambitions hinge on generative AI and a new hardware focus
If Amazon is to fulfill its ambitions to create a “dramatically different experience” in its ambient smart home with generative AI, it will still need hardware to power that experience. And here is where the TV makes sense. While smart displays seemed like the solution for Amazon (which wanted to move away from a smart home that’s run from your phone, seeing as it’s the only major smart home ecosystem that doesn’t make one), they don’t provide enough value. Almost everyone has a TV.
A Fire TV Cube-style streaming device / smart speaker combined with a powerful smart home hub channeled through your house’s largest “smart display” could be a compelling package — and one that would allow Amazon’s assistant to flex whatever AI superpowers the company has planned.
Crucially, this wouldn’t be something just for the early adopters. For the vast majority of American consumers, the TV is that trusted device that could provide a soft landing for the leap to the smart home. Here’s hoping we see a vision of that future at tomorrow’s Amazon event.