The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Big Tech monopoly made smart speakers dumber

It’s not too late to stop a future where tech monopolies are installed in your walls

Does your home speak Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri? Big Tech doesn't want you to switch between them. (Andrea Chronopoulos/For The Washington Post)
10 min

I recently moved into a new home. But before I can get settled, I have to install a tech monopoly. Is it an Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri home?

Like a growing number of American homes, mine will be a smart home. Maybe you don’t think of yours as “smart” just yet, but this year alone, America will get 100 million more connected home gadgets like talking speakers, video doorbells, learning thermostats, robot vacuums and programmable lights. The “Jetsons” life has never been closer.

Except I don’t recall the part in the TV show where the Jetsons had to pick one vertically integrated megacorporation to run their home, mine data about their lives, decide where they go shopping and extract ongoing fees.

I’ve been writing a lot recently about the price you face as a consumer and a citizen for being trapped in a Big Tech economy. Here’s one it’s not too late to stop: Letting tech giants make your smart home more dumb. Their monopolistic mind-set makes your home more complicated, leaves you less choice and less privacy, and already resulted in less-capable smart speakers.

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.

Equipped with a touch screen, telescoping camera arm and wheels, the Astro is essentially a Ring camera and Echo Show built into a robot. (Video: Amazon, Photo: Amazon/Amazon)

Already, the Consumer Technology Association says 41 percent of American homes have taken the first — and most important — step into becoming smart: buying a talking smart speaker or display. Perhaps you got yours free with another purchase. Maybe you picked one that sounds best or works well with your phone. But the tech giants have made choosing a smart speaker more fraught than it might seem.

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The Amazon, Google and Apple artificial intelligence assistants inside smart speakers and phones are at once DJs and gateways for your future tech life. They not only enable you to command gadgets like a digital butler, but they also allow them to work together. It’s both a language — “Alexa” vs. “Okay, Google” vs. “Hey, Siri” — and an operating system for your home.

These assistants also serve the tech giants that made them. They decide what information to provide you, where you can shop and how seriously to take your privacy. One example: I dug into the Alexa settings for my old home and discovered that over the past three years, Amazon recorded 281,328 data points about it — every flick of a connected light switch and more.

And sometimes, they put up roadblocks that make your smart home incapable of working together.

Here’s just a sample of the challenges I’ve faced building my smart home: If I buy a Google Nest thermostat, I won’t be able to easily change the temperature with Siri. But if I buy a new low-price Amazon thermostat, I can’t operate it with Google.

Today, fitting together all your connected gadgets is as complicated as mixing Legos and Tinkertoys.

The companies claim these are more technical challenges than planned incompatibility.

“Can it be frustrating at times? Sure,” Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services, said in an interview. “But the North Star is that they are all interoperable.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all tech with the same critical eye.)

The Price of Big: How tech monopolies cost you

“Google is committed to making the smart home ecosystem more interoperable and open,” Google spokesman Jose Castaneda said.

“We believe all smart home accessories should work together to provide the most choice and interoperability for customers,” Apple spokeswoman Jacqueline Roy said.

Funny thing is, with the exception of Amazon, the giants’ support for flexibility and interoperability practically vanishes when it comes to giving you choice where it matters most: the AI assistant in your smart speaker.

In 2018, home-audio pioneer Sonos tried to make a smart speaker that lets you talk interchangeably with different assistants. Then Google squashed it.

The untimely death of a smarter smart speaker from Sonos shows how Big Tech really wants to monopolize our homes — and what it might take to stop it.

The forbidden speaker

When Post readers ask me which smart home products to buy, I’ve long advised picking “Switzerlands” that act neutral and work with lots of smart-home control systems. But it’s getting harder to be Switzerland in a Big Tech world.

Over Zoom recently, Sonos showed me the smart speaker that might have done just that, if it had ever been released. They called the technology Concurrency.

A Sonos product manager turned to one of its squat white Sonos One speakers with unreleased software and said, “Hey, Google: Will I need a jacket in Nashville tonight?”

Google answered.

Then he said, “Alexa: Will I need a jacket in Nashville tonight?”

Alexa answered.

This simultaneous conversation was no easy feat. No other smart speaker on the market can do that with Google Assistant and Alexa concurrently, so you can pick and choose different tasks for different assistants.

Sonos today sells speakers that let you choose between Alexa and Google, but only one can operate at a time — you have to disable one before you can use the other. In the Concurrency demo, talking to both of them required nothing more than saying their names.

And why might you want to chat with multiple assistants? For one, Alexa was better at conveying the weather in the Sonos demonstration. To the question about needing a jacket in Nashville, Google replied, “No, tonight is not predicted to be cold in Nashville. Expect a temperature of 78 degrees.” Alexa, meanwhile, was rightly worried about rain: “You can expect some sudden thunderstorms with a high of 90 degrees,” it said.

Or maybe you need to stock up on supplies. Alexa’s primary store is Amazon (though you can add on certain others such as Best Buy).

Or maybe you don’t want a company collecting so much data about your smart home. While Alexa keeps a log of what happens in your house until you go in and delete it, Google doesn’t store a history of how you use third-party devices.

The point is, you’ve got a choice. Or, rather, you could have.

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.

Google wouldn’t let me interview executives in charge of its smart home or assistant efforts. Spokesman Castaneda said Sonos has made “misleading statements” about the companies’ history of working together, without specifying what. (The two are locked in patent disputes about smart speaker technology not directly related to Concurrency.) “Interoperability will continue to be a priority for us, but we also want to ensure users have a positive experience using our products and that we protect their privacy,” Castaneda said.

It’s curious how at the prospect of losing control, Google — perhaps the greatest data harvester of our era — suddenly prioritizes your privacy. Sonos says it designed Concurrency so that no assistant provider can access the interactions made with the other assistants.

It’s not just Google putting up walls in our smart homes. Apple, which was a pioneer in voice AIs with Siri on the iPhone, only this summer announced a program that allows non-Apple devices to answer to “Hey, Siri.” But there’s a catch: The home also needs to have an Apple-made HomePod smart speaker in it.

Apple didn’t answer whether it would let Sonos speakers access Siri with or without Concurrency.

The exception is Amazon, which said Sonos could put Alexa into its Concurrency products. “We subscribe to the thought that voice assistants should be interoperable and that there’s lots of things you’re going to want to talk to Alexa about, but there might be some things you want to talk to Facebook about or Verizon about,” Limp told me. (Both Facebook and Verizon have developed voice services, though they’re not nearly as useful or popular.)

More than 90 companies including Amazon and Sonos have formed a voice interoperability consortium to encourage multiple AI assistants on devices. The problem is, the membership does not include Google and Apple, the only other companies whose assistants are used by at least 5 percent of American smart speakers, according to research firm IDC.

Amazon’s public support for the concept is good for us, but it’s also playing by a different monopoly playbook. Unlike Apple and Google, it doesn’t have an AI that comes pre-installed on a dominant smartphone, so it has less leverage in being everyone’s default-choice assistant.

“I can assure you that the premise that we want somebody to say they’re an ‘Alexa home’ is just not how we think about it,” Amazon’s Limp told me. “Homes, unlike phones, are not going to be homogenous.”

Yet Amazon dramatically undercuts competitors (including Sonos) on the price of its Echo speakers — sometimes selling them at a loss — because it can make money from them in other ways. Alexa pushes you to buy things from Amazon, including dozens of its own brand-connected products, from its new thermostat to a smart plug that only work with Alexa. Its popular Ring doorbells and security system are incompatible with Siri, and a second-class citizen with Google.

In other words, even Amazon only believes in interoperability when it suits it.

Amazon released a number of new Echo and Alexa-capable devices at its event in Seattle. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

Locked inside your own home

There are two potential futures for our smart homes, Sonos’ Lazarus told me.

In the first, we’re actually in control. Companies have to compete to offer the best connected appliances and services — and when they fail us, we can easily switch. Small but innovative companies like Sonos can’t get pushed around when they invent good ideas that weaken Big Tech’s grip.

In the second, we hand over the keys to a very small number of very big companies. They have so much power, they can even change how our appliances work without our permission. We already know what this feels like: During the summer, Amazon remotely activated its Sidewalk network on millions of Alexa smart speakers and Ring cameras, sharing a slice of people’s Internet connections with neighbors and Amazon.

How do we get to the first future? We need to make more Switzerlands.

Bear with me for a moment, because these details are important.

Industry organizations, like a group called Matter that all three tech giants have joined, can play a role. Matter is developing standards to help WiFi-based devices work better together. After formally launching in 2018, the organization now counts about 200 smart-home device makers as members working on interoperability and security standards. The first products with Matter compatibility should arrive next year.

Getting everyone to the same table was no small feat, said Tobin Richardson, the CEO of the Connectivity Standard Alliance that organizes Matter. “They are all now agreeing that the market’s going to be a lot bigger, and consumers are going to be more interested in open systems versus closed systems,” he told me.

By some point next year, Google says its newest Nest thermostats will be compatible with Matter. In theory, Apple’s Siri should use Matter, too. So, in theory, you’ll finally (hurray!) be able to change the temperature from an iPhone or HomePod.

But that’s a lot of “in theory.” There are many who want to do the right thing, but there’s no requirement for companies to use Matter in any particular product.

Right now, Matter isn’t even working on a standard for allowing more than one voice assistant on a smart speaker at the same time.

“Talking about working groups does not a commitment make,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) told me after a recent hearing she convened about competition in the smart home market.

Asking the most powerful companies in history just to have “elbows that are less sharp” isn’t going to work, said Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain during the Senate’s June hearing. “They’re trying to compete and they owe their shareholders that duty. Let’s set up the rules so that they know how to play to the chalk, but not go beyond it.”

What might that look like? Klobuchar thinks we need regulations around “self-preferencing,” which is when companies that make operating software (like AIs and app stores) use it to push their own other products.

Smart home products have also proven that they play too fast and loose with our privacy — Klobuchar tells me she unplugs her smart speaker when she’s on the phone with colleagues. (I can’t say I blame her.) Privacy legislation has been a perpetual source of conversation but little action in Congress, and inside the home may be where it’s needed most.

And then there’s interoperability. That’s tough to regulate: Interoperate with whom, and on what terms, and who pays? But we’ve conquered this before with industry working with academic researchers and the government. Remember the World Wide Web? It’s open to all, and it has been a pretty good thing for us and for the economy.

The greatest risk of monopolies is that they’ll obstruct the ideas that will make our homes truly smart. Our “Jetsons” future is on the line.

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