Kyle Rankin

Kyle Rankin

Chief Security Officer
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Kyle Rankin

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What brand is your home? Do you live in a Google, Apple, or Amazon house? Because in a modern “smart home” you may choose only one, and that choice locks you into dependence on only that vendor and its approved partners for any future appliances and home gadgets. Your “AI” voice assistant may talk to you, but it won’t talk to its competitors.

The modern smart home is a place where every appliance and device has its own embedded computer connected to the Internet and streaming data not just to the customer, but also to the vendor. While the battle for the phone market is ongoing, and whoever wins that battle wins control of the most personal and most important computer (and data) in a modern person’s life, Big Tech companies have decided that the home is the next big front in the battle for marketshare. Winning this battle means extending the same type of complete control and data collection companies currently enjoy on phones into the remaining parts of our life currently outside of their grasp.

Walled Gardens in Our Actual Walls

Geoffrey A. Fowler wrote a great article in the Washington Post elaborating on this problem:

Silicon Valley is invading your home because it wants to replicate the control it has today on the Web and smartphones, but this time build it into kitchen, bedroom and bathroom appliances that are harder to replace. On Tuesday, Amazon introduced a smart thermostat, talking picture frame and even a rolling robot — each of which you operate primarily through Amazon’s Alexa assistant. In other words, they want to install their walled gardens into our actual walls.

He goes on to explain a particular incident where Sonos was explicitly prevented by Google from adding consumer-friendly interoperability features in their smart speakers (emphasis mine):

Sonos’ Concurrency idea was born of competition. A decade ago, the Santa Barbara, Calif., company was the biggest player in the small industry of connected speakers — which at the time didn’t involve talking DJs. Then in 2014 Amazon debuted its Alexa-powered Echo speakers, and the industry took off. Sonos didn’t have the resources to compete with a general-purpose AI from Amazon, Google or Apple, so in 2016 it started working on a technology to let consumers summon different AIs. It patented the idea and started demonstrating it to other companies in 2018.

But Google refused to let Sonos release the product. Google’s distribution agreement says its assistant must operate as the only general-purpose AI, according to Sonos. “Google has repeatedly declined our invitation to even demonstrate our Concurrency technology,” Eddie Lazarus, Sonos’ general counsel, said in a recent interview.

Your Home’s Operating System

Why would Google insist on this restriction? As the primary interface into a smart home, the voice assistant is, for all intents and purposes, the home’s operating system. Since one of the main benefits of having a smart home with a voice assistant is the ability to issue voice commands that integrate with other smart gadgets, if you only have one home OS, your gadgets had better be compatible with it. With only one voice assistant, you can’t mix and match smart home gadgets and appliance vendors–you must stick the vendor’s own products and any it allows to talk to it.

Even more important than having control over third party gadgets is having control over all voice queries. Voice queries are the new search engine request. This is not only an incredible source of private data vendors can (and do) exploit, it also gives them control over any third parties that might integrate with those queries. Combined with the data streaming from the other smart appliances and gadgets in your home, this is very valuable data. Being the sole voice assistant also lets them ensure their own products are the default for any relevant queries. For example, Amazon’s Alexa naturally defaults to using Amazon as the store for any queries about buying products.

Hold the Keys to Your Home

With the current trajectory, the smart home will become much like your phone–under a single vendor’s control, not yours. They will get to choose which appliances integrate, which services they use for your voice queries, and what happens to your personal data. If they do something you don’t like, it will be even harder (and more expensive) to switch to a competitor than it already is with a phone or laptop.

Fortunately it’s not too late to change the current situation. If there is any hope for a smart home where you hold the keys, it must start with open standards for how devices communicate. Only then is there a space where truly open alternatives to Big Tech smart home gadgets can exist for the average consumer outside of do-it-yourself electronics projects.

There is an effort underway with the industry organization Matter to create such standards but like with other industry standards membership and compliance is voluntary. Consumers should pressure existing smart home companies to comply with open standards and vote with their wallet. For our part, we will continue our work to build alternatives that don’t lock you in, based on our Social Purpose commitment to protect people’s privacy, security and freedom.

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