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When Amazon first introduced the Echo back in 2014, it was pitched primarily as a smart speaker, promising a way to control your music with your voice and little else.
But then, the Alexa virtual agent that powers the Echo got more and more capable — evolving from a novelty into the de facto standard for controlling smart home appliances with your voice. Thermostats, humidifiers, Ikea lightbulbs, and even salt shakers are all controllable with Alexa.
“Alexa established first mover advantage and has built barriers to entry by now, with over 12,000 products having Alexa skills,” says Gartner Research Director Werner Goertz.
And even Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has hinted that the company is investing more heavily in Alexa as a smart home hub than as a way to shop its store.
This week, Amazon kept that momentum going with the launch of the appliance categories API, a way for developers to “tell” Alexa what their devices actually are. It opens the door to, say “turn on every single light at 6pm” or maybe even “open every blind, turn off every light, and start the coffee maker.” It reflects Amazon’s push to minimize complexity with Alexa, even as that dizzying array of compatible gadgetry only grows.
Alexa’s transition from music-playing gadget to smart home hub even took some Amazon employees by surprise. Dave Isbitski, the chief developer evangelist for Echo and Alexa, says he never really gave much thought to the smart home until the device hit the market.
Smart home appliances had been around long before Amazon came onto the scene. It’s just that there had been no good way to control them — asking users to pull out a remote or even a smartphone app just to turn their lights on and off was too frustrating for many, says Isbitski.
Manufacturers were looking for the “one thing, that one unifying device,” he says, that would actually get people to use their products. So Isbitski started getting calls from smart home manufacturers, asking him to keynote their conferences.
They were willing to make a…