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Five years ago, intelligent personal assistants (IPA) sounded like something out of the 2002 futurist action-thriller, “Minority Report.” Today, IPA software agents such as Amazon Alexa and Apple Siri have become essential tools for millions of tech users. This number is expected to grow significantly in the coming years as more voice-powered smart home products arrive on the market.
In this article, you’ll learn more about Amazon Alexa and the products behind it. You’ll also see how Apple Siri integrates with HomeKit, Apple’s protocol that allows software developers to make applications that work with home automation products. Finally, you’ll see a comparison between both products. You can decide for yourself which one is better.
Need to Know
Before digging into a comparison, it’s important to recognize how both companies view overall integration in the smart home industry. Amazon makes it possible for any product with a speaker and microphone to work with Alexa. Conversely, Alexa can conceivably communicate with any smart home device that has Wi-Fi.
Apple’s approach is vastly different. Only Apple products have Siri installed. For Siri to interact, smart home products must be HomeKit-compatible.
Pros and cons exist for both systems, as you’ll see below.
Amazon Alexa and Its Products
Amazon’s voice assistant first arrived on the scene in late 2014 in the form of the Amazon Echo, a 9-inch-tall cylinder speaker that performs various tasks, all controlled by voice. Since that time, the number of products using Alexa has grown steadily.
The Amazon Fire TV and Amazon Fire HD 8 both feature Alexa, as does the Amazon Tap and Amazon Dot. Third-parties have also introduced Alexa-supported products, including the Pebble Core, Nucleus Anywhere Intercom, and Invoxia Triby.
Alexa knows a lot about music, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given that it first launched on the Echo. Today, Alexa provides hands-free voice control for many of the most popular music streaming services, including Amazon Music, Prime Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn. These integrations vary by hardware.
More Than Music
Alexa’s popularity isn’t necessarily because of music. That honor goes to Alexa Skills, which are the apps that work with hardware to give you a more personalized experience. To date, there are over 3,000 Alexa Skills and counting, courtesy of the open source Alexa Skills Kit (ASK).
As we previously mentioned, one important aspect of Alexa Skills is the Smart Home Skill API. With this tool, manufacturers can have Alexa communicate with their smart appliances. As a result, you can talk to an Alexa-based speaker to control lights, door locks, thermostats, fans, and more.
Siri Meets Apple HomeKit
Apple Siri became an integral part of iOS devices beginning with the iPhone 4s in 2011. Since then, the software has arrived on other products, including the Apple TV, CarPlay, Apple Watch, and, as of 2016, macOS.
Like Alexa, Siri likes listening to music. Beginning with iOS 10, Siri also works with third-party iOS apps. Siri’s biggest challenge to date relates to Apple HomeKit, an initiative first announced in 2014.
HomeKit allows software developers and hardware manufacturers to work hand-in-hand to create voice-controlled home appliances. You control these products either by using Siri on your Apple device or by using the Apple Home app, which arrived with iOS 10 earlier this year.
The Current Landscape
Intelligent personal assistants represent an emerging technology with a lot of unknowns. As such, you can expect these products to change significantly over the next few years, both in what they can do and what products they support.
Choice of Hardware
In a perfect world, Apple would want every smart home product on the planet to integrate with HomeKit. Siri is another matter, however.
Historically, Apple hasn’t allowed third-party hardware to use its proprietary software. Therefore, Siri is only available on Apple hardware.
With the Alexa Voice Service API, any manufacturer can add Alexa to products that include a microphone and speaker. Once integrated, these products can access built-in capabilities of Alexa, like music playback, timers and alarms, package tracking, and more.
Winner — If you believe every smart home product with a speaker and microphone should be voice-powered, Alexa wins hands down.
About That Integration
Alexa currently integrates with more products than HomeKit because Alexa Skills is entirely software-based and open source. These products include Samsung SmartThings Hub, Wink Hub, Nest, Haiku Home, and many more.
By contrast, Apple’s HomeKit requires that hardware manufacturers install a special chip in their products. Only when that happens can Siri communicate with these devices. Among the products that work with both systems are Philips Hue, LIFX, ecobee, and select Honeywell devices.
Winner — A clear win for Amazon? Not exactly, at least in the long-run.
Apple’s hardware chip requirement means it takes longer for HomeKit-compatible products to reach the market. However, open source applications like Alexa Skills are more prone to security attacks, which is something to consider. Because of this, consider this a draw.
What About the Apps?
To use your voice to control a smart home product with Alexa, you must first install its Alexa Skills in the Alexa app. You also need to learn which commands work with each product. It’s been my experience that finding these commands is sometimes a complicated process and requires a lot of trial and error.
Don’t want to use your voice to control a device? You’ll also need to download the product’s official app from the App Store or Google Play.
To setup HomeKit-compatible products, you must first scan the unique HomeKit barcode found on each product. You do so by using the Home app for iOS. Once you do, you should be able to control the device both by using your voice with Siri and through the Home app.
In practice, I have found that HomeKit integration doesn’t always work and sometimes requires reboots, both to the smart home appliance and Apple device.
Winner — Steady improvements with HomeKit should make Apple the winner here. Honestly, however, there are currently problems with both systems.
It’s still too early to declare a winner in the battle between Amazon Alexa and Apple HomeKit. Alexa has certainly gotten an excellent head start. However, one should never count out Apple.
If you don’t own Apple products, the choice is straightforward. Otherwise, look for a smart device that works with both Amazon Alexa and Apple HomeKit. That way, you’re covered regardless of where the industry goes.
Which smart home devices do you use or are most interested in buying? Let us know in the comments below.