Is Voice Control the Killer App for Residential IoT?

Like possibly everyone else who grew up watching Sesame Street, I loved Apple’s new ad featuring the Cookie Monster using Siri to help make cookies:

And the behind-the-scenes follow-up is possibly even funnier if you haven’t seen it. The pairing of the childlike Cookie Monster and Siri is pure genius.

Great as these ads are, I think Apple is actually doing a very good job of advertising Amazon’s product. Here’s why.

Voice control has the potential to be the killer app of residential Internet of Things. Finally, here’s a reason to hook an oven up to the internet: So you can issue voice commands to control it while your hands are covered in beef marinade.

But Apple is way behind Amazon on this front.

Based on talking with my friends, I suspect I’m an atypically heavy user of the “Hey Siri” feature on my iPhone 6s. In the car, Siri does what I want about 80% of the time. I have better odds if I bark the words “Hey Siri” as if I’m a little ticked off. Whether that says more about me or about Siri is up to you to decide.

In my kitchen, though, Siri basically doesn’t work, even if things are quiet. There’s something about the acoustics of the room, I guess. And often I’m running the exhaust fan, or boiling a pot of water, or maybe the ballgame’s on.

Plus, even when you can get Siri to respond to the “Hey Siri” part, it turns out it can’t understand the command to “set a timer for three and a half minutes.” Three minutes, yes. Three minutes, thirty seconds works too.

The Amazon Echo doesn’t suffer from any of these problems, and they’ve just opened up an API to allow arbitrary devices to fit into the Alexa infrastructure. The new Alexa API competes with Apple’s HomeKit, which also has the promise of allowing third-party devices to fit into Apple’s Siri-controlled ecosystem.

Here’s the thing, though: My main gripe about Siri — broadly speaking, it’s my main gripe about Apple, come to think of it — is the lack of integration with other vendors’ apps. Siri has great control over music in Apple’s ecosystem, but try telling it to control playback of your Audible book, or to bring up directions in Google Maps. As a result, I’m skeptical that HomeKit will take off, outside of some particular cases that are narrowly controlled by Apple.

Amazon, on the other hand, seems to be in the best position to realize the vision of the Spike Jonze movie Her. (Well, not the part about the man falling in love with his female virtual assistant. That’s just weird.) Imagine Echo-like functionality built into all sorts of devices scattered around your house — I don’t think Amazon’s goal is for Alexa to control every device in your home — in the long run. And imagine being able to walk around your house and have it respond to arbitrary commands to turn down the heat, close the garage door, give you the current score of the ball game, and pre-heat the oven. Pretty compelling.