Amazon's head of devices says the smart home is still 'too complicated' — and working with major rivals like Apple and Google is the way to fix it

  • Although the rise of virtual assistants like Amazon'sAlexa has made it easier to use connected household products, smart home devices are still generally "too complicated," David Limp, Amazon's senior vice president for devices and services, said in an interview with Business Insider.

  • Part of how the company is trying to fix that involves working with competitors Apple and Google. The three companies announced a partnership in December to create a common standard for connected home products.

  • The move also highlights how companies that have traditionally been competitors are required to work together to boost the adoption of smart home products, a market that's been slow to take off.

  • At the same time, large tech firms like Amazon and its subsidiary, Ring, have found themselves at the center of privacy-oriented concerns. Limp says Amazon has increased security and privacy resources "across the board" in recent years.

For years, smart home devices have struggled to take off — despite the "Jetsons"-esque future that Silicon Valley giants have promised.

In 2016, for example, a survey of 2,000 homes in the United Kingdom conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that the majority of people were not interested in purchasing smart home gadgets.

But roughly three years later, it looks like that may be finally starting to change. Global shipments of connected home devices are projected to hit 1.39 billion by 2023, and in 2019, the market grew by 23.5% year-over-year, according to the International Data Corporation. In the first quarter of 2019 alone, global shipments grew by 37.3% compared to the previous year, the IDC also said.

Much of that growth can be at least partially attributed to voice assistants made by Amazon and Google, which can be found in everything from sink faucets to wall clocks to ovens.

But despite the proliferation of Amazon's Alexa and the Google Assistant, the technology itself is still too complex. So says David Limp, Amazon's senior vice president for devices and services, who oversees the company's sprawling line of Echo and Alexa products.

"The smart home is still too hard," Limp told Business Insider in a recent interview. "It's not really that smart yet, and it's too complicated."

Making the smart home work is critical for Amazon if it wants to compete with Google, Apple, and Samsung among others in the consumer technology market. Amazon missed out on the smartphone craze with its ill-received Fire phone, which Amazon quickly discontinued after its 2014 launch and resulted in a $170 million write-down for the company.

But since then, the company's Alexa voice assistant has become the face of the company's consumer presence. The company has said that there are now hundreds of millions of Alexa devices in the wild, and customers interact with Alexa billions of times each week. With roughly a quarter of the worldwide market for smart speakers as of the second quarter of 2019, Amazon's Echo devices have ousted other major players like Google and Chinese tech giant Baidu, according to market research firm Canalys.

"Amazon has a strategic imperative to be successful in this," Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst at market research firm Moor Insights & Strategy, said to Business Insider in a previous interview. "They weren't only enough to be part of the PC revolution. They failed in smartphones ... So it's strategically important, and more important for them than for Google and Apple, to be successful."

Boosting the adoption of smart home tech could be crucial for that goal. Amazon may be the leader when it comes to voice assistant usage in the home through it's smart speakers, but Apple and Google have an inherent advantage in the smartphone space, since their digital helpers are integrated into the world's most popular mobile devices at the operating system level.

Making the smart home 'easier for everybody'

Amazon has been gradually introducing new features to make manipulating smart home gadgets with your voice much easier.

In September, for example, it introduced a new program called "certified for humans," which is designed to help smart appliance makers cut down on the number of steps it takes for customers to connect their gadgets to Amazon's Alexa.

But perhaps the most unexpected way in which Amazon hopes to reduce the complications surrounding smart home technology is by partnering with its rivals. In December, Amazon, Apple, Google, and the ZigBee Alliance announced that they would collaborate to help develop one common connectivity standard to increase compatibility among smart home devices. Doing so should make it easier for customers to purchase connected home devices, like a smart lock or home security camera, without worrying about whether or not it will work with their Amazon Echo or Google Home.

"That just makes it easier for everybody," says Limp. "It makes it easier for the manufacturer of those devices, it makes it easier for us to build the software to integrate them. And it gives customers more choice."

It's 'great' that Apple has an Echo rival

The cooperation between Amazon, Apple, and Google is yet another sign that the ways in which these companies are approaching voice assistants and the smart home market is vastly different than their respective strategies for the smartphone industry, where tech firms have traditionally competed to convince customers to choose one siloed platform over another.

The crux of what makes voice assistants and smart home devices appealing, comparatively, is the notion that they should work seamlessly and naturally across devices, whether you're an iPhone or Android loyalist.

As such, making the smart home work effortlessly may require companies like Amazon to rethink how it views its relationships with firms that offer competing products and services. Limp tells me, for example, about the recent launch of Apple services like Apple TV Plus and Apple Music on Amazon's own platforms, despite the fact that they're competitors. He also said it's "great" that Apple sells its own smart speaker that directly competes with the Echo.

"We brought Apple Music and most recently, Apple Podcasts, to Alexa, and that's been very successful," he said. "And even though Amazon has its own music service, that's fine. We give customers choice, and we want to do that. And we try to do that as many times as we can."

Alexa's reach is growing as privacy concerns continue

But Amazon, and other large tech firms like Google, have much more to worry about than just the competition and simplifying the experience of using their connected home products. Amazon and its rivals are expanding the capabilities of their smart home devices and voice assistants as concerns over privacy and security are higher than ever.

Amazon's Ring lineup in particular has been at the center of privacy-related controversies. Most recently, the camera security startup that Amazon acquired in 2018 came under scrutiny after hackers remotely accessed its cameras, enabling intruders to, in some cases, spy on children. Separately, the company has also been criticized for its partnerships with law enforcement.

When asked about whether Amazon has ramped up its investment in security and privacy, Limp said it's increased resources "across the board."

"For you to come back and shop at Amazon, you have to believe that Amazon is going to do the right thing by you as a customer," Limp said. "There's no reason you couldn't shop somewhere else tomorrow. And so we have to earn [your] trust every day."

Down the line, Amazon has ambitions to make Alexa significantly smarter than it is today. The company envisions a scenario in which Alexa could anticipate your needs before you even ask, such as offering to book an Uber ride or dinner table after you ask it about movie times, Miriam Daniel, Amazon's vice president of Echo and Alexa devices, previously told Business Insider.

In the meantime, Amazon certainly seems focused on putting Alexa in more corners of your home and the rest of your life, including the car. But for Amazon, developing new Alexa-enabled products comes down to one important factor: whether the company feels like it can meaningfully improve the user experience. That's a large part of why Amazon hasn't launched an Alexa-powered smartwatch even though it's released smart earbuds with its voice-enabled helper built-in, according to Limp.

"We'll make mistakes, you know, we have in the past, we certainly will in the future," said Limp. "But our job is to have a high quality filter on what we actually give out to the public. And hopefully most of them succeed."