Google’s Nest takeover could put the squeeze on Alexa and other smart home devices – CNET

Google’s Nest takeover could put the squeeze on Alexa and other smart home devices – CNET
15 May
2:05
nest-and-amazon-echo.jpg

These old friends are in danger of a breakup. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

The Amazon Echo and the Nest Learning Thermostat are two of the biggest hit products of the smart home. They've also worked together for years. You can ask Alexa, the voice assistant built into the Echo smart speaker, to change the temperature on your Nest thermostat. After Google I/O, this important smart home connection looks in danger of being cut.

Google and Nest have been technically part of the same team since last year, but last week at Google I/O, Nest and the Google smart home team joined into a single brand called Google Nest. In addition to a new product — the Nest Hub Max — and a few price cuts, the joined brand also means Google will encourage current Nest customers to merge their previously siloed Nest accounts with Google.

You'll still be able to keep your Nest account, but it will be relegated to a “maintenance mode” and it will only receive security updates. New features will all be designated for Google accounts. If you already center your home around Google's smart home products — such as the Google Home smart speaker — this shift isn't likely to have a big effect on you. In fact, more functionality is likely to be rolled into the Google Home app to help encourage customers to move away from the separate Nest app.

If you primarily use Nest products and automated recipes involving third-party gadgets, your current smart home set up could turn dumb as soon as Aug. 31, 2019. On that date, Google is shutting down the Works with Nest program, which allowed third-party developers, including Amazon, to control Nest gadgets.

Developers can join the Works with Google Assistant program instead, and many of the major brands that work with Nest already work with Google, but the two programs have a few fundamental differences that could sever the connections you have set up at home.

One-way commands

Works with Nest allowed third-party gadgets to both give and receive info from Nest products like the Nest Learning Thermostat. Works with Google Assistant debuted to replace Works with Nest, but Google Assistant has thus far only given the commands to third-party products, not the other way around.

Abode is a good example of a smart home company that currently works with both systems. Abode makes one of our favorite DIY security systems. Different Abode kits include a variety of sensors, sirens, cameras, and even gadgets like switches, lights and dimmers.

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Some Abode features depend on Works with Nest. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

If you integrate Abode with Google Assistant, you can control Abode's lights, switches and dimmers with a voice command to a nearby Google Home (or any other gadget with Google Assistant built-in). If you integrate Abode with Nest, you can tell your Nest Cam to start recording if an Abode motion sensor causes an alarm. You can turn the Nest Thermostat to away mode automatically when you arm your Abode system. The integrations are more robust because Nest can both give and receive information from Abode.

“We've always believed the smart home experience is made better for customers through interoperability and companies working together to give consumers choice,” said Chris Carney, CEO and co-founder of Abode. “While Google's choice to shut down the ‘Works with Nest' program is contrary to our belief and against the direction we think the smart home needs to move, it is consumers who will be impacted the most.”

Right now, Nest products can control Abode products, and Abode products can control Nest products. With Google Assistant, Nest products could be forced onto a one way street.

If Works with Google Assistant doesn't allow input from thirdparty devices by Aug. 31, the effect on the smart home will be widespread. For Abode that would mean you would no longer be able to trigger an action from one device based on the behavior of another one. In other words, that Nest Thermostat away mode automation when you arm your Abode system would no longer work. 

This disconnect will be most widely felt by Nest device owners that use Alexa as their voice assistant. A Google representative offered some reassurance on this front, “We're working with Amazon to migrate the Nest skill on Amazon Alexa to ensure a smooth transition for Nest customers prior to winding down the Works With Nest program”

If Google adds the necessary code to Works with Google Assistant that will let Amazon control Nest devices, that code could theoretically allow other affected manufacturers to keep their current functionality as well.

“Abode will do everything we can to make this as painless as possible for our customers and have already begun working on enhancing our existing Google Assistant integration and will be adding additional features as they become available to us,” said Carney.

An Amazon representative put the onus for the change on Google, “I would defer you to the device manufacturer for questions about their products.”

Triggering change

Works with Nest and the Nest app are capable of a few other features that Google will need to add by September if they don't want customers to feel any interruption in service. The Nest app allows you to assign levels of access to members of your home, the Google Home app doesn't. If you add someone to your home through Google, they have access to all of your devices and can even remove you from the home.

To be clear, the Nest app isn't shutting down, but given the way Google is pushing people towards Google accounts and away from Nest accounts, the Google Home app will be the new center of the combined brand.

You still can't set up Nest gadgets using the Google Home app. Nest also uses smart home triggers with a lot of third-party gadgets. With Philips Hue, Lifx, Lutron and other smart lighting companies, you can program your lights to flash red if your Nest Protect senses smoke. You can have them turn on and off at various intervals when your Nest Thermostat knows you're away in order to fool would be intruders.

In these cases, the Nest product is the one sending the info to the third-party gadget and controlling them accordingly. Google might be able to add similar functionality to Works with Google Assistant even if the company doesn't want to receive commands from third-party gadgets, but Google doesn't have similar triggers yet.

You can create grouped commands called routines for Google Assistant. Say “good morning” to your Google Home, and it can turn on the lights, set the temperature of your thermostat and even play your favorite podcast. You can customize a routine to trigger on any command you'd like and can even schedule routines to start at a certain time so you don't need to use a voice command.

Google has also promised that you'll be able to trigger morning routines from your phone's alarm, and the upcoming Nest Hub Max smart display will be able to automatically relay personalized information when it recognizes that you've walked into the room. These are all effectively triggers, which is what Nest uses to flash your lights red, but as of now, Google doesn't let you fully customize triggers.

Now playing: Watch this: The Google Nest Hub Max soups up the smart display


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Routines are limited to voice commands, schedules, and potentially a few extras determined by Google. You can't train one smart gadget to respond to the input of another. When asked for comment, the involved smart home companies have generally said that they're working on it.

“We're working closely with Google to continue to deliver the best possible experience to our customers,” said a representative from Philips Hue. “For now, we recommend they keep an eye on the Nest FAQ and Google's and our social channels for more updates as we approach Aug. 31, 2019.”

A representative from Lifx said that they “are in regular contact with the team there to develop integrations as soon as we hear about any changes to the architecture.”

Matt Swatsky, the vice president of Lutron, said, “We look forward to working with Google on their Works with Google Assistant program to determine the best way to take care of our joint customers and maximize the Lutron user experience.”

Nest has similar triggers that can turn on smart sprinklers from Rachio when the Nest Protect smells smoke. “We're always evolving and upgrading our integrations, so this will be no different,” said Chris Klein, the CEO of Rachio.

One of the reasons Google might not add these triggers is the company's renewed focus on privacy. Along with the new Google Nest brand, Google announced privacy initiatives to keep customers informed about what data their smart home was collecting and how it was being used. If your Nest Thermostat is going to trigger your Philips Hue lights, it needs to share data with Philips.

Lots can happen in the interim

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Ideally, your smart thermostat won't get dumber. 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Three and a half months is a long time in the tech world. A Google representative offered more reassurance over email: “The majority of our most popular Works With Nest partners are already up and running with the Works with the Google Assistant platform and we're actively collaborating with other partners on the transition. We're also working to improve Assistant Routines so people will be able to replicate the top integrations.”

Even in the unlikely worst-case scenario, in which Google doesn't add any of Nest's existing functionality to Google Assistant before shutting down Works with Nest, lots of related smart home integrations will continue to function normally. You'll still be able to control your Nest gadgets with your Google Home. Any integrations you've built around Google Assistant will be unaffected.

Some major Works with Nest brands, like August, are minimizing the impact. August, the makers of the August Smart Lock, is part of the Works with Nest program. You can see the status of your Nest gadgets in the August app and set your thermostat to Home or Away when you lock or unlock your door.

The change should have “a very minimal impact for August customers,” said Jason Johnson, CEO of August. “Our Google Assistant integration doesn't change and that is a far more popular integration.”

Nevertheless, Amazon and Google are certainly capable of letting ongoing battles affect customers, and if Alexa stops being able to control Nest products, that could have a huge and negative impact on a lot of smart home customers.

Google Nest launched with a cool new product, price cuts, and a renewed focus on privacy. The joined brand makes sense given that the two teams were already ostensibly part of the same unit. Still, joining the brands and ending Works with Nest could make a lot of smart homes much dumber, and Google has a lot of work to do before Aug. 31 to make sure that doesn't happen.

Originally published May 14.

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Source: https://www.cnet.com/news/googles-nest-takeover-could-put-the-squeeze-on-alexa-and-other-smart-home-devices/

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