Many years ago, I embarked on a home automation hobby that has drained my budget. Home automation is a horrifically expensive hobby (like most of them). There’s a lot of trial and error. You’ll almost always buy stuff that doesn’t work or integrate well. It’ll be expensive. You’ll want to replace it because it’s not perfect.
I started off with the center of my universe on Amazon Alexa (like most people). I am also an Apple-holic, so I often employed hacks to make third-party gadgets work in the HomeKit space. Homebridge has been quite successful at filling in the gaps where necessary - the glue to the Alexa and HomeKit ecosystems. Alexa was my “home’s personality” according to family and visitors and for the most part, that was ok.
It’s started to become a real pain to integrate Alexa. Anytime you add a new gadget or whatnot, you’ll find yourself installing a “skill” that someone wrote to glue the third-party gadget to the Alexa ecosystem. Usually these skills are written by the vendors themselves. Sometimes the better ones are written by geeks/nerds/whatever. Eventually, you’ll end up with a rather large and bloated Alexa ecosystem. It’s a pool filled with dirty water. The leaves, bugs and twigs fall into the pool and clutter up your filter. Alexa works fine for a while, but then you start to think… what exactly have I gotten myself into?
Amazon has been in trouble for privacy problems over the Alexa ecosystem. That hasn’t helped those who have fears over Amazon’s control and lack of privacy. When you start adding in all of the pool gunk with Alexa skills, it should start to worry you. You’re adding chunks of code that… if you don’t know much about it… could further compromise your privacy. You start authorizing credentials to a bunch of different third party services and servers. All of those things could be compromised by hackers or, worse yet, handled poorly by the company or code crafter themselves.
I had an ecosystem of 58 skills. All of these skills controlled some part of my home automation or just taught Alexa how to fart in 100+ different ways. Super entertaining. But I started to worry about the privacy and security of all these skills because… Alexa started to get worse.
I’m not sure how or why, but the skills started to override each other. Sometimes I’d ask her to do something that worked a thousand times before but it would parse it as something else. It started to make me wonder how many times these skills were intercepting audio clips that weren’t meant for them… and what was it doing with these clips?
Couple the privacy concerns with an ecosystem that actually seems to be getting worse and my attention started wandering elsewhere.
There was no way in hell I was going to invest in Google. Not just because I don’t trust Google’s privacy practices but because Google has a seriously bad ADHD habit. They often kill things that are super useful just because they lose interest… or maybe because it doesn’t collect enough data. Who knows? Owell
I had already invested a lot of time into my HomeKit setup so that I could have a single window for managing devices. It was the graphical view of controlling my devices where Alexa was my voice method for controlling the same devices.
Then Apple dropped the HomePod Mini.
I bought one. I put it in the master bedroom and I started playing with it. It led me to invest more time into Shortcuts, the stealthy and super useful iOS app that has been out for a while. I had often integrated things with IFTTT or Alexa, but this was the Apple way.
I rather quickly replicated all of the important Alexa functionality with Shortcuts. But during the experimentation and creativity, I had a revelation that I think reviewers of Siri are completely missing.
Apple has encouraged app developers to add Siri/Shortcuts hooks for a while now and many of them have done just that. If you have been good at choosing your important apps, you can implement even more functionality than Alexa… infinitely more. It’s not just adding a few toys here and there, it’s workflows and digital assistants that you actually care about.
For instance, the app “Hours” has hooks to let you start timers with your voice. WhatsApp added the capability to send/receive messages and start video chats. HomeKit Secure Video lets you set triggers to all kinds of things with motion detection. This thing is not just super useful, but a genius implementation. The apps you install are superior implementations of Alexa skills. They make Siri much smarter and more useful.
One of the best examples of this is replicating Alexa’s “Where’s my stuff?” query. Alexa will answer this with a rundown of your Amazon packages and when they should arrive. This is cool if you only buy things from Amazon. But what if you buy things from other places? You’ll have to integrate a skill for an individual store or some separate app to track those things. As soon as you integrate the skill, you’re giving your credentials away to the provider of that skill. Sure, they’re likely encrypted or using JWT or something to be a little more secure, but it’s still icky.
I successfully replicated Alexa’s “Where’s my stuff?” Functionality with Shortcuts. I installed the app “Deliveries” and set it up to capture the tracking information of shipments I care about. Now I can see these deliveries visually on my iPhone or iPad. I can also turn on the Siri functionality in the app, which will automatically teach Siri the same tracking feature. I fixed up the Shortcut to respond to “Where’s my stuff?” In the same way that Alexa would. But this time, it’s tracking all of my shipments, not just the Amazon shipments. It won’t push notifications to the HomePod about when the shipments arrive but that’s ok with me. That has been irritating on Alexa anyway. I get the relevant push notifications visually on my iPhone and iPad. This is actually a much better implementation for me than what Alexa provided and a much more secure implementation than what Alexa or Google would provide.
The only non-intuitive thing about this implementation is that it really ties back to your iCloud account and iPhone. That becomes the center of your universe. Often, I’d find myself fixing things on my iPhone that pertained to the Siri voice assistant on the HomePod. That wasn’t immediately clear to me, but makes complete sense. Siri is relying on your iPhone to do much of the heavy lifting - especially when you’re integrating app Shortcuts. Make sure your iPhone and iCloud accounts are healthy. Believe me, they can go unhealthy - as I had to reformat my iPhone with a fresh iOS 14.2.1 install to unclog an apparent leftover iCloud issue that was screwing up my iPhone more than I thought. Restoring from backup wasn’t good enough. Something was seriously broken and installing a fresh load of iOS fixed it. Since iCloud syncs everything, this is pretty easy to do and I will probably start to refresh my iOS install from the ground up every other version from now on.
Back to the point at hand… reviewers often ding Siri for being “less smart.” I think that’s complete bullshit. Siri is actually much smarter than Alexa and Google, and it handles these things in a way that doesn’t compromise your privacy at all. That’s a true Apple implementation - they took the time to do it right and protect your privacy in the process.
There’s one negative to it. My mother is living with me right now because she’s not doing well health wise and I am afraid “Hey Siri” won’t pass the grandma test. I haven’t really tried, but that’s simply because I am afraid it’s going to be a painful experience to break her habit of speaking to Alexa. We’ll see. For now, Alexa has been relegated to manipulating lights… and that’s about it. I’ve been slowly decommissioning my Echo devices and really enjoying the Siri experience.
Well done, Apple. As usual.