Taming the Smart Home

Christmas 2018 has been a bit of an eventful period for Smart Home owners.  An Amazon Alexa outage over the Christmas break due to the number of new devices being connected, leaving users with red ringed devices, unanswered questions, and lights stuck in on or off.

Philips Hue also suffered an outage during the holiday break, with their service going down for multiple days.

These outages are interesting because they affect people in different ways depending on what devices they own and how they are choosing to interact with those devices. But what are the alternatives for turning the lights on and off when Alexa can’t do it for us? Let’s take a look.

Defining the Smart Home device

Before we go any further, let’s set the scene a little and divide up the Smart Home devices into two categories so we can see how bad these outages really are. This may help users who have just bought a Smart Speaker or installed a smart bulb and are wondering what the next step is.

Appliances

Appliances are devices that you place around your house that perform a real life function. Lights, Sensors,  Heating, Sockets. Appliances are divided into their own brand ecosystem.

While ecosystems allow interoperability with different brand’s ecosystems, each brand will generally have devices that will only operate within their own ecosystems (i.e: Philips Hue motion sensor that only works with Hue bulbs – the sensor cannot be used via a service such as IFTTT to control other actions throughout the house).

Examples: Philips Hue, Hive Active Heating, Nest Hello Doorbell, Ring Video Doorbell.

Appliances will general communicate exclusively within their own ecosystem using some kind of local system. Let’s look at controlling a Hue Light This is done with commands issued on the Philips Hue app or a Philips Hue light switch. These commands are sent to the Hue Bridge which then communicates directly with the bulbs. If your internet connection was to go down, or the Hue servers suddenly stop working, then you would still be able to use the app or switch to control your bulbs.

Some Appliances such as Hive will offer the ability to interact, or pair with, other ecosystems, allowing them to interop with another platform (such as the Hue Bulbs).

Note that there are ‘some’ appliances that require the cloud to operate. Smart Home cameras are a very good example of this, as they generally lack local storage and communicate exclusively through the internet.

Interfaces

Interfaces are your Voice Assistant enabled Smart Speakers and your apps or products that control multiple brands of devices. These do not offer a service beyond that of interactive content (be it voice or visual), and are generally best paired in conjunction with some kind of appliance to get the most out of it. As these devices require internet it is quite common for them to be completely useless without an internet connection. Try turning off your internet and using Alexa if you don’t believe me. this is because most of, if not all of their processing is done in the cloud.

Examples: Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Logitech Harmony, IFTTT.

 

Interfaces communicate with Appliances using API’s (Application Programming Interface). These are provided by the manufacturers of the Appliances and allow for Interface programmers to control Appliances and present common methods of accessing it’s features (i.e: Hey Google, turn off the lights). These features require the internet as commands are sent from the interface to internet servers, and then back down to the Appliance.

Amazon Alexa outages

As we’ve defined Alexa as merely an Interface, we can already see that the impact of an Alexa outage will be minimal. It will only affect Alexa devices, and yes you may not be able to cheat on your math homework, turn some lights on/off, or play some music, the rest of your house will generally function without issue providing you know how to.

Let’s take the example of wanting to turn a Hue Bulb off, but the Amazon Alexa service is down. You can simply go to the Philips Hue app and turn off the bulb from in there.  The thing to remember is that there is almost always a backup method to achieve what you want.

Philips Hue outages

Now let’s look at an outage which affects an Appliance. Philips Hue is probably one of the oldest and best established Smart Home product out there. That said, their servers can still go wrong leaving users with seemingly no control over their smart home. But the impact can be a lot smaller than you think,

Asking Alexa or Google Assistant to turn off the lights will generally result in the smart speaker reporting that the Hue Hub cannot be reached. This is because Amazon and Google have programmed their voice assistants to send commands up via the internet to the Philips Hue API, located on the Philips Hue servers. which will send a command back down through your internet to your Hue Hub, which in turn controls your bulb. In this instance you can (as long as you’re on your house WiFi) use the Philips Hue app to turn the control the light. At no point does the app have to communicate with the internet or the Philips servers. The processing is done locally on the Hue Bridge. In contrast, talking to Alexa requires cloud processing to determined what you said, what the response will be, and the action to take.

This is generally true ‘most’ of the time, although should your internet connection be down or the manufacturers servers be offline, you may find that certain features (i.e: Hue Away from Home) may be unavailable. Services like IFTTT or interoperability from other deices will also not function, as they too require internet and the servers to be able to communicate with your appliance.

Next Outage – Don’t Panic!

So next time you hear about a Smart Home service going down, or you find your Smart Home Interface device not functioning, just remember that there are still (smart) alternatives that will allow you to control your devices without leaving the comfort of your couch. Try the app for that particular device.

Of course if your WiFi is down then you’re probably out of luck, but you could just get up and turn out the light. Seems like a lot of effort to me though… Think I’ll just sit here in the dark and wait it out until they fix it.

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