David Pierce from Wired met with Andy Rubin to discuss Essential’s plan to unite the smart home market. There’s a lot of great stuff in the article, but here’s a few notable quotes.
Rubin doesn’t employ human security guards. He doesn’t think he needs them. The 54-year-old tech visionary (who, among other things, coinvented Android) is pretty sure he has the world’s smartest house. The homebrew security net is only the beginning: There’s also a heating and ventilating system that takes excess heat from various rooms and automatically routes it into cooler areas. He has a wireless music system, a Crestron custom-install home automation system, and an automatic cleaner for his pool.
Getting the whole place up and running took Rubin a decade. And don’t even ask him what it cost. There’s an entire room full of things he bought, tried, and shelved, but the part that really drove him crazy was that it didn’t seem like automating his home ought to be this hard. Take the license-plate camera, for instance: Computer-vision software that can read a tag is readily available. Outdoor cameras are cheap and easy to find, as are infrared illuminators that let those cameras see in the dark. Self-opening gates are everywhere. All the pieces were available, but “they were all by different companies,” Rubin says. “And there was no UI. It’s not turnkey.”
This is indeed the problem with the consumer smart home market, as well. There are so many options and not everything works together easily.
If the market continues this way, you’ll be forced to buy all the way into one company’s vision, essentially ripping your house to the studs and replacing everything with Samsung-approved sensors to work with your Galaxy phone, or gadgets from the Apple Store to work with your iPhone. Otherwise, there’s a good chance your lights won’t work with your music system, and the front door and television won’t be on speaking terms. Rubin makes one point over and over throughout our conversations: If the way people interact with their connected home is through smartphone apps, the connected home will never go anywhere. If you have to open an app, log in, and tap around just to open your front door, only to open, log in, and tap around another to turn up the thermostat, nobody will do either.
I’m not sure if buying into one company’s vision is necessarily a bad thing. With it comes the assurance that said system is going to work as it is engineered to, and hypothetically better than a hodgepodge of different technologies forced together. For instance, right now, IFTTT is a popular service for automating systems that don’t inherently talk to each other. It works, but it isn’t perfect, and it requires additional setup.
I agree that using multiple smartphone apps to control your devices is extremely cumbersome. Voice will rule this space when it comes to interface control as Alexa and Siri improve over time, but the real killer app will be automation—when you don’t have to manually control your smart home.
And that’s where Essential’s most important product comes in. Ambient OS—Rubin describes it as “Android, but evolved”—is a universal translator for the smart home, combining all the major smart home products and platforms into a single elegant system and interface. That’s how it will look to users, anyway. Behind the scenes it’s just an elaborate hack. “I plug into SmartThings, I plug into HomeKit, I plug into Thread and Weave, and I get a hundred thousand devices that I can control with my UI,” Rubin says. In the background, Ambient’s job is to strip the barriers between devices so users don’t have to worry about compatibility. They should buy a light bulb, screw it in, and trust that it’ll turn on when it’s told to. And the code that runs the operating system will be publicly available, so outside developers can create new stuff that works with it seamlessly.
On paper, this sounds like a great idea — one device to rule them all. On the other hand, as Pierce says, it’s “an elaborate hack”. Furthermore, while Amazon is happy to license out the Alexa voice service, I wouldn’t imagine Apple being OK with a competing smart speaker hooking into HomeKit, and definitely not Siri.
The team wanted Essential’s first products to be unique, sleek curios that would seem exclusive and exciting in a sea of identical aluminum rectangles, and offered manufacturers a chance to show off their best work at a more achievable scale.
The Essential Phone uses titanium, ceramic, and has an edge-to-edge screen, but it still looks a lot like an aluminum rectangle. Actual reviews are yet to be seen, as it missed its initial July delivery window, but is supposedly coming ‘in a few weeks’.
The Essential Home admittedly looks much more unique than an Echo or Google Home.
In the team’s imagination, once your home has been properly kitted out with connected devices, there’s no controller there at all. You don’t say a wake word or turn on a screen or enter a password. You definitely won’t have to get your phone out just to turn on the lights. You just declare your needs, in whatever way makes sense at the moment—voice command, touchscreen—and they’re taken care of.
I like the idea of not using a wake word one day. Having to preface everything with “Alexa”, “Hey Siri”, or “OK, Google” can get tedious, especially if you need to string a few commands together in succession.
Long-term, Rubin is banking on machine learning to make technology far more useful and intuitive. In many cases, you won’t have to touch or speak to your devices at all. That’s the full promise of ubiquitous computing: Everything just works. It’ll know what you want because it watches you and learns that it should start warming up the car when you’re putting your shoes on, because that’s always the last thing you do in the morning. When you say, “Tell Anna it’s time for dinner,” the system should know who Anna is, which room she’s in, and which speaker to use to alert her. The only way for that to work is if absolutely everything is connected.
And even if it does work eventually, Rubin will need to reassure users that the suite of always-listening devices tracking their every move is not a threat to their privacy. That’s why Essential built the Home to do a lot of its work on the device itself, without sending data to the cloud. Rubin, worryingly but perhaps unsurprisingly for the founder of Android and a longtime Google employee, isn’t terribly concerned about the privacy issue. Mostly, he says, it helps that he’s not selling your data. He doesn’t even want it. He’s selling you products, not ads.
This would be the ultimate smart home utopia, but there are good notes on privacy here. Apple is king of privacy and security in any market they enter. HomeKit offers end-to-end hardware (and software encryption with iOS 11). While many may trust Andy Rubin, Essential has to walk the walk. They have to measurably demonstrate their accountability and be transparent with user data.
Andy’s vision of the smart home future is a grand one, but I’m not so sure we’ll get to the point where everything talks to everything else with ease right out of the box, no matter the manufacturer. It’s like the epitome of this legendary XKCD comic.