The Problems and Promise of Amazon Echo

October 14, 2015
By: Rob Enderle

I’ve been using Amazon Echo for several weeks now, and my wife has decided this is her favorite tech in the house.  I’m not as sold on it – largely because there are things it does poorly that really annoy me – but she likes the ability to control the music in one room, and now kind of wants one in every room. Meanwhile, I’m a tad worried that they may find a way to take over the house.

Echo Is the Future That Isn’t Here Yet

There is little doubt that Amazon Echo is a picture into the future when we’ll use our voice to command all our stuff, but it also showcases that this future isn’t here yet.  It likely goes without saying that I have a smart house, made smart by all Insteon switches and controls.  In addition I have Sonos speakers throughout the home and a variety of set top boxes on every TV (TiVo (News - Alert) being the most dominant). 

Image via Shutterstock

Echo does connect directly with Insteon, but the commands to turn things on and off have to specifically be tied to each single device and use the same terminology.  For instance, unless you’ve named the switch on your stairway “stairway,” the command to turn it on won’t work if you just say “turn stairway lights on.”  Right now only my office light is coming on and off reliably, and even though I have a whole house grouping, the command to turn all the lights in the house off only works for about half the house lights, and that’s just half the time.  This is likely because the Echo doesn’t talk to the lights, it talks to the Insteon hub which then talks to the lights and something is lost in translation. 

Moving to Sonos: Echo doesn’t talk to a Sonos hub, but it will talk to a Smart Things Hub (by Samsung (News - Alert)) which will, in turn, talk to Sonos speakers.  The only problem is that all you can do is turn the speakers on and off using an existing playing playlist.  You can’t push the music or control it from the Echo.  Practically speaking, this makes it far easier to just bring up the Sonos app and direct the speakers and music directly. Passing one command system into another to control a third, all by different vendors, was nasty to get working and really wasn’t worth it. 

Now there is an interesting workaround for Sonos.  Alexa, the personality on Echo, is also on the new Fire TV. If you have a Sonos TV Sound bar you can route the music from Fire TV through it and then use either Alexa or the Sonos control to route that to other speakers.   The other handy thing about this is you then command the Fire TV remote – which is push to talk so Alexa isn’t trying to respond to everything it hears – and the voice control is where you are (you don’t have to walk into the room where Echo is).  Fire TV is less expensive and you get TV functionality with it, but it isn’t as cool looking as Echo.   

Wrapping Up:  IOT’s Problem is Interoperability

As I set up for this I was over on the Smart Things website, where folks are complaining that Insteon doesn’t work; then I wandered over to coverage on Echo, where folks pointed out the issues with getting it to work with Sonos; in my house right now, nothing is working with TiVo other than TiVo’s own extenders.   (There is a workaround for sound on Sonos that works much like how I did with Alexa, but that only routs the sound, not the video image).  So, based on my experience, if you have a Sonos TV Sound bar and want Alexa with Sonos, then the new Fire TV is the best route.  If you don’t have Sonos and/or just want to impress the neighbors, get Echo. It looks cooler, even if you really can’t route the music off it easily.  If you want to control other stuff and are a gadget geek go for it, but if not just be happy that Alexa is a nice tabletop Siri and leave it at that; you’ll be a ton less frustrated. 

I expect ten years from now we’ll look back at this and wonder how anyone put up with it, but for now Echo and Alexa are new enough to be fun.




Edited by Kyle Piscioniere