Software is eating the world, and it’s finally nibbling it’s way into our homes with Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant ecosystems. Over the holidays, I decided to outfit our home with all the smart things.

We now have Alexa and Google Assistants around the home. There are Echo’s in the bedrooms, a Google Home hub in the living room, and both connected to a number of smart lights and plugs around the house. Also connected is the Nest Thermostat. Still a relatively humble setup but enough to understand how the technology can benefit our home life.

It’s been a mixed experience. There are some highlights, but we’ve got a ways to go before this becomes mainstream behaviour.

First - the setup process is far away from it just works. The pain of connecting my phone to a temporary wifi network, for a hub for two smart lights - and then connect it to my Alexa device - it’s just not worth it. This feels the smart-home version of installing a soundcard in a tower PC. While I was able to make everything work eventually, I don’t imagine most people will have the patience for it. On a positive note - the actual Echo and Google Hub themselves were relatively easy to get going. Integration with Google services was great and the Amazon purchase experience has been pretty good too. Also, once everything was setup, I was pleasantly surprised with the ease of creating routines.

That said - Daily use is still frustrating. Both Alexa and Google have issues with speech recognition at normal volume. We find ourselves yelling across the room, often interrupting conversations if there are multiple people in the houe. We’ve also found consistent issues with both devices understanding female voices. It would come as no surprise that these were trained on a majority of male voices.

I think both ecosystems would benefit from some more intelligent defaults - following convention over configuration. For example, there should be a automatic “night mode” - if it’s past 9pm and you’re talking to a smart device in a bedroom - it should talk back in a lower volume.

Finally - I was disappointed at the distinct lack of mention of privacy concerns in the packaging for Google Assistant and Alexa devices. Sometimes it seems like the industry isn’t learning from it’s mistakes.

While my early experience with the smart home has been underwhelming - I’m still very bullish on how software can help improve our life at home.