Does Alexa offer genuine automation? How about Google Home?

By: Maynard Handley (, April 10, 2020 7:03 pm
Room: Moderated Discussions
For the purpose of this post, I'm interested only in automation, not in voice control.

So imagine various possible triggers (user presses a button, sensor reading exceeds a certain value, person enters a house) which cause the execution of some logic which then does sends commands to lights, speakers, motors, whatever.

My question is the extent to which the Amazon home ecosystem and Google home ecosystems are interested in this sort of thing. Amazon is a sprawling mess that's buying new IoT companies every week, so the answer there is probably something of a mishmash but I'm trying to get an overview.
The impression I get of the Amazon system is that they very much envision a world where
- the primary trigger is almost always voice and
- users are not much interested in creating logic
This may be an accurate assessment of society, but that's for another day. We're tech people and we like logic!

So my understanding of the Amazon world is that
- 3rd parties can create Alexa skills, but that's not relevant to users. If you buy an "Alexa-enabled fridge" it will do whatever is necessary to teach your Amazon Echo about fridge skills, so that you can ask "Alexa, what's the temperature in my fridge" and get an answer.

- users can create routines; basically a trigger (usually voice but maybe a time, a button, a sensor) along with a sequence of actions to perform BUT there are strong constrains here
+ the actions are a small set of limited Amazon actions, not generic skills
+ can actions be sequenced, or just one action? I'm not sure.
+ no obvious logic (if A AND (B OR C) )
You can work around some of these via IFTTT, but that's something of a copout; it's nice that you can hook into IFTTT but an admission that you have to leave Amazon.

So I look at all this and I wonder what the long term plan is. IS there a long term plan?
What got me especially thinking about this was the context of an Echo Show. I have one of these because Amazon offered it for free when I bought something else, so, sure, why not? But I keep being disappointed in just how little I can actually do with it. Amazon has a particular set of use cases in mind, none of which interest me. When I look at it, I think "here's an Iot screen, speaker, and touch input device". In an ideal world, a world where Amazon prioritized automation, I should for example
- be able to use that touch input to create the equivalent of a smart button AND
- that screen to create the equivalent of a smart indicator light.
But that seems to be totally beyond the capabilities of the ecosystem; I can see absolutely no way programmatically to do anything with the screen, or to do anything with the speaker beyond the obvious Alexa things (play music, answer questions, notify me about an alarm).

For an example of the sort of multi-faceted automation I'd consider interesting, think of something like
- I hit a smart button
- a smart socket switches on (so some dumb device is switched on)
- a timer starts for say 5 minutes
- a visible indicator of some sort, somewhere, is switched on
- the timer expires and
- the smart socket is switched off
- the visible indicator is switched off

So who's doing an adequate job in this space? Anyone?
On the Google side I know even less than on the Amazon side.

On the Apple side
- the automation is somewhat richer. You can create rich multi-step routines and complex triggering conditions. (You can get much of this via the Apple Home app, but not all. The most complicated programming constructs exist in the OS, but aren't exposed by the Apple app, you need a third party app.)

- you have some escape methods to go further. HomeKit can trigger Shortcuts (generic iOS "macros" that run locally, specifically on the HomeKit hub, so, say your Apple TV, and Shortcuts can do things like interact with IFTTT, though of course at that point you're no longer running purely local...)
Shortcuts can accept some parameters, but this is still a sub-optimal space; passing the parameters back into HomeKit (eg as far as I know right now if you want to set your Hue's color based on the weather, you have to route that through IFTTT, you can't construct a color of interest within an IOS automation then feed it back into HomeKit).

- you also don't have the ability to change what should be an obvious feedback mechanism, namely your TV screen through Apple TV! Just like I can't programmatically do anything useful with an Echo Show screen, I can't programmatically do anything useful with the screen an Apple TV is connected to :-(

- but because the ecosystem does have the concept of "control a light including its color", you can at least control indicator lights in a useful way. Most of the iDevices line includes a status LED that can be utilized in this way, and it's a nice touch, instantly making them a lot more valuable than most of the competition. (iDevices BTW is very cross-platform regardless of the name.)

This is somewhat rambling, but the essential point is the question of who is doing anything interesting in home AUTOMATION as opposed to just "home control". Obviously I'm using Apple products for my setup, but what's done in other ecosystems affects us all. And HomeBridge and IFTTT allows HomeKit to control a lot of non-HomeKit certified stuff, which is why even something like an Echo Show is of interest to me --- if I can find a damn way to do ANYTHING with the screen!
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Does Alexa offer genuine automation? How about Google Home?Maynard Handley2020/04/10 07:03 PM
  Does Alexa offer genuine automation? How about Google Home?Anon32020/04/11 06:30 AM
    Does Alexa offer genuine automation? How about Google Home?Maynard Handley2020/04/12 05:16 PM
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