Microsoft Cortana can control your smart home on iOS and Android

In our recent video chat discussing smart speakers, we talked about Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri. Who’s missing? Cortana!

That will change soon, however. Harmon Kardon previously announced its Invoke smart speaker (shown above) powered by Microsoft’s digital assistant. The Invoke is expected to cost $ 199.95 when it becomes available this month: It will answer your queries, allow you to set reminders and also control your smart home devices. But you can also use your PC or your phone to do these things, and I’m not talking about Windows Phone, which is semi-officially a dead platform.

Last week, Windows Central reported that Microsoft added a Connected Home function for Cortana in Windows 10. On a hunch, I wondered if the same feature was added to Microsoft’s Cortana mobile app and sure enough, it’s there for both iOS and Android.

I downloaded Cortana for iOS on my iPhone and navigated to Cortana’s Notebook. This is where Microsoft’s digital assistant learns about your interests and also where you can link external data sources such as Skills. That’s where I found the Connected Home option.

It’s a bit limited right now, only allowing Cortana users to connect the app to Wink, Insteon, Nest, SmartThings and Philips Hue. I went through the connection process with Wink and Nest, which is similar to how it works with other apps. With Wink, for example, Cortana asks you to sign in to your Wink account and then authorize Wink to work with the app.

Once I set these up, I spoke to Cortana to control connected devices in my house and she acquiesced. Well, most of the time. Like my Google Home, Cortana can’t “see” the Z-Wave front door lock paired with my Wink. And for some reason, even though I have my Nest account connected, I can’t get Cortana to do anything with my Nest Cam yet.

But for lighting control — including for rooms or groups and for dimming — she’s up to the task. You may have better luck if you use SmartThings, Insteon or Philips Hue. There’s no audio in the above screen recording from one of my tests, but it will give you a quick idea of what types of smart home commands work and what other information Cortana can provide.

The Connected Home section of the Notebook is pretty bare bones in Cortana too. For example, if I open the Home Control settings of the Google Home app, I can see a list of all my connected devices.

Cortana doesn’t show actual devices yet: She just displays the five supported connected home services and says “Connected”. Hopefully Microsoft expands this in the near future to actually show what devices are connected and controllable. Note that after I used Cortana for iOS, I installed it on my Galaxy S8+ and saw a nifty feature: Because I had already connected my Wink and Nest accounts to Cortana on iOS, they were already connected on Android. Thank Microsoft’s cloud sync for that simplicity. And on Android, you can set Cortana to be the default digital assistant app; not so on iOS because…. Apple.

As a general digital assistant, I prefer Cortana over Siri for the same reason I lean towards Google Assistant over Alexa: I get better information when asking about different things. Chalk that up to Cortana having what I think is a better knowledge graph than Siri or Alexa. And of course, if you’re in Microsoft’s ecosystem, Cortana is excellent at getting your next appointment, sending messages and more.

But as more people work to make their home smart, Microsoft has more to do. One semi-expensive Cortana powered speaker isn’t going to cut it. Part of the reason Amazon has got Alexa in so many homes is because it offers a range of devices for different budgets. I’m willing to bet that Amazon has sold more Echo Dots than the more expensive, full sized Amazon Echo that’s more than three times the price of Dot. Put another way: If you want to have multiple rooms in your home for smart device control, why spend $ 180 or more per room when you can have that for much less?

Still, this is a positive step for Microsoft. Getting smart home smarts in Cortana on a Windows 10 computer makes sense due to how many people use PCs.  But that solution only works when someone is at the PC and the PC is powered on, so it’s limited. Adding Cortana to potentially hundreds of millions of smartphones is a better play until Microsoft can get more partners to build Cortana-powered speakers in a range of price points.

Even so, for now Cortana smart home control on iOS and Android seems a bit limited when compared to Alexa, Google Assistant and even Siri. So I won’t be using this as a full time voice interface for my home just yet. At this point, Microsoft needs Cortana more than I do.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

Man, my old smart speakers now look pretty dumb.

After Google and Sonos both announced smarter connected speakers last week, and adding in the 6 new Amazon Echo devices from last week, you might feel some sympathy for the early adopters who now have a confusing mess of hardware that has different skill sets. Kevin Tofel and I were so stymied by what to do, we got online and talked it out. So that you guys might benefit from our thought process, we recorded it. Check it out and let us know what you’re going to do with your old Echoes or what you plan to buy. Also let us know if you’d like to see more unscripted conversations in the future.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

News of the Week for Oct. 6, 2017

Eero’s data on smart devices shows Austin Eero users have the most. I blame me.

Want to know what tech nerds are buying? Surprise, there’s a whole lot of Apple! Eero, the maker of mesh Wi-Fi routers, has released data from the homes of its customers showing what devices are most popular. Keep in mind though, that 79% of the homes that have Eero’s routers have seven or fewer devices. Most of the connected things are variations on phones and computers, but Nest thermostats, Sonos speakers and the Amazon Echo are all popular as well. Click on through to see the list. While you’re there, perhaps ponder how much Eero knows about you if it can say that 42% of its users check their phones within 10 minutes of waking up in the morning.  (Eero)

Check out this effort to build a policy framework for token sales: The sale of tokens built on some kind of distributed ledger (blockchain) is reaching fever pitch. Outside of some of these token sales being outright scams brought on by the Bitcoin hype (Bitcoin is a blockchain based cryptocurrency), the legal framework is evolving. Even people trying to create a legitimate security face questions about legitimacy and practices. These papers seek to develop a legal framework for blockchain based token sales and could help legitimize the tech. And before you scoff, blockchain-based ledgers are important for IoT because it’s a scalable way to build accountability into a distributed system…and the IoT will need accountability. (SAFT Project)

What’s up with Z-Wave? One of the bigger takeaways from the slew of Amazon hardware that came out last week was the realization that the Amazon Echo Plus, which combines Alexa with a home hub, doesn’t have a Z-Wave radio. What was once an essential home security standard is starting to feel a bit like an also-ran. Ring is using Z-Wave in its home security system, but Nest is not. One challenge with Z-Wave is that not all hubs support all the functionality of Z-Wave sensors. For example, Wink or SmartThings might recognize a basic input like on/off but miss out on other functions. This need to integrate more deeply to capture all of a device’s functionality can be frustrating for buyers and vendors, as this story shows. (Automated Home)

Connected desks change how WeWork does business: MasterCard is working with WeWork to charge for its desks only when they are used. This is another example of how connectivity can enable metered transactions across an entirely new class of services. For some this will be a yay, while others will certainly end up paying more. (Point of Sale)

Emerson creates a consulting group for the industrial IoT: Connecting stuff is tough. And when that stuff is critical to you operations it can be hard to trust a startup or even a known IT brand that might not understand the challenges associated with making physical products. This week, Emerson decided it would take its hard-won knowledge from connecting plants and share that experience through a consulting group. (Industry Week)

The Canary in the IoT business model coal mine: Canary, the maker of a connected home security unit that is far more forward-looking than many of the me-too security solutions on the market, screwed up. The company launched its device in 2013 with a price tag of $ 199. That may have covered the cost of the device, but there’s no way it could cover the cost of sending all the video that Canary devices send to and store in the cloud. Later it launched a subscription plan that acted like AAA does for drivers, except this one was for people whose homes were burgled. But it seems that it couldn’t match its business to its costs because last week it sent out an email rolling back some of its services and causing massive angst among its customers. More proof that picking the right business model matters for a connected device. I suspect we’re going to see moves like this, fire sales, or outright closures in the coming months.

Let’s take a look at medical device privacy rules! The Norwegian Consumer Council hired researchers to evaluate 10 connected home health devices to see how they used and secured a person’s health data. The results were grim. Most devices had poor device security and worse terms of services. Download the report to find a good framework for thinking about digital device privacy and security. (The Norwegian Consumer Council)

Speaking of privacy (and medical device security) … Did you know your Bluetooth connected sex toy could be activated by someone with the right skills without your consent? This hacker shows how the lack of BLE security in connected devices, plus an ability to access their code, means someone within Bluetooth range could activate someone’s connected vibrator or butt plug. In fact, he discovered he was within range of the latter on a public street in Germany. I’m relieved he didn’t test control of the device, but he points out that this holds true for a lot of products like my beloved hearables, which have Bluetooth Low Energy and don’t have a physical keyboard for entering a PIN to authenticate. Ugh. (Pen Test Partners)

Integration matters in the internet of things: One of the earliest stories I wrote as a chip reporter was about Broadcom combining FM radios, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on the same chip. This was a biggish deal because it cut costs, took less space inside a smaller form factor and helped with power consumption. This was a long time ago, but as devices get smaller and we rely on them for all-day use on a single charge, integration has only become more important. That’s why these two stories caught my eye. In the Reuters story on Europe’s future licensing models, the issue is what integration may cost in devices like fridges or home medical equipment that don’t have a high price tag (like that of a smart phone). The PE Hub story is about Dialog, a chip company that makes terribly dull components buying Silego to try to integrate other fairly dull (but essential) elements onto chips for IoT devices. Again, chips predict our future, so it’s always good to keep an eye on how they are doing. (ReutersPE Hub)

Hilton is planning smart hotel rooms: Not much else to say here, other than anything that can help me find the light switches in my hotel room is welcome. (Digital Trends)

Phones are a relic: My podcasting colleague Kevin Tofel bought an Apple Watch and now he’s living in a world where voice calls don’t require a phone. Yes, people whose jobs require them to spend a lot of time talking to others will still need a handset, but thanks to tech, we can use any number of other devices from watches to Google Homes to make quick calls. (StaceyonIoT)

Bluetooth gets some industrial cred with Ayla: The IoT platform provider Ayla Networks now lets companies use phones as an intermediary to get data from Bluetooth sensors to Ayla’s cloud-based IoT platform. This is a big deal for bringing Bluetooth sensors into the industrial space, something that several executives at plants and in enterprises seem keen to do. The idea is that Bluetooth’s limited range will be more secure, although they may want to read the story above about insecure sex toys. Another company to watch in this space is Cassia, which makes an enterprise-grade Bluetooth hub. (Ayla)

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

Internet of Things Podcast: Ring’s new security systems and more

Home security from Ring

On this week’s Internet of Things Podcast, Stacey Higginbotham and Kevin Tofel discuss Ring’s new security system, ADT pairing up with SmartThings and why home security is hot right now. They also talk about a new lighting startup, a new car data and security startup and some neat software for watching what you eat.

For the Internet of Things Podcast Listener hotline, Stacey and Kevin answer a question about HomeKit.

The guest this week offers a practical perspective on building out large-scale sensor networks. Yodit Stanton, founder and CEO of OpenSensors, has deployed thousands of sensors in buildings and shares how companies should think about security, deployment and maintenance. She also talks about how LoRa networks are gaining ground for private IoT networks.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

How voice calls could move beyond smart watches into a range of wearables

Next month will be the third anniversary of Samsung Gear smartwatch, one of the first mass-market wearables with phone capabilities. We’ve since seen two successor devices from Samsung as well as several Android Wear watches with voice capabilities, and most recently, the Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE.

I’ve been using the latter for nearly two weeks, having purchased one. I’ve also tested many of the Samsung and Android Wear devices over the past few years. Throughout all of these experiences, one thing is becoming clear to me: The decoupling of voice calls from actual phones is gaining momentum and it’s quite liberating. I don’t have to worry about carrying (or dropping) an expensive phone when leaving the house to walk the dog or run errands. This connected freedom, combined with technology advances can lead to brand new opportunities for future wearables of every shape, size and budget.

Before looking to the future though, it makes sense to look back in the past. How did we get to where the “Dick Tracy communicator” is essentially now a reality? The short answer: radical evolution in chip, radio, network and other technologies.

Smaller and faster “things” over the past 25 years

For example, the current state of taking phone calls on the wrist couldn’t happen without the gradually disappearing SIM card. You may not remember what SIM cards looked like in the early 1990’s so let me refresh your memory. Take a credit card out of your wallet. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Got it? Good. The first SIM card I had in my mobile phone was exactly the same size as what you have in your hand and had a surface area of 3,512 square millimeters.

It truly was a “card” although only a small part of it had the electrical circuits to store subscriber information and contacts. In 1996, we saw the useless plastic card go away, leaving just the gold circuitry, but even that was big by today’s standards. Seven years later, the micro-SIM appeared, making the module even smaller. Then in 2012, the nano-SIM used in most phones today arrived, but even these take up more space than necessary in a wearable device, so the industry has turned to embedded-SIMs, or e-SIMs for today’s voice-enabled wearable devices. These e-SIMs measure 5 mm x 6 mm, or 30 square millimeters, which is 100x less area than the first SIM cards.

Even as the SIM cards for voice devices got smaller, our mobile broadband networks became faster. Fifteen years ago, I thought the EVDO cellular modem I used was blazing fast. And compared to prior wireless technologies, it was.  At roughly 2 to 3 Mbps. Now, we’re hearing about Gigabit-capable networks — that’s 1,000 Mbps — phones and tablets, or roughly a 500x increase in transfer speeds.

I’m sure I don’t need to illustrate the advances in mobile chips in detail, but for a simple example, Apple’s touts its new A11 Bionic chip in the iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X phones as 70 percent faster than its predecessor, the A10 Fusion. And according to Apple, the 2016 A10 Fusion is 120 times quicker than the chip in the original 2007 iPhone.

Everything we need for voice calls in wearables is here

Add all these developments up and combine them with other recent evolutionary ideas and you have the perfect storm for bringing voice calls to any number of form factors.

For example, moving voice from traditional cellular technology to VoLTE, or Voice over LTE, completes the “voice is just another form of data” transition. And even though many mobile broadband networks are blazing fast (and getting faster) you don’t need much bandwidth, i.e.: throughput speed for VoLTE calls. Using a new codec — capable of HD Voice quality — a call only needs about 49 kbps of bandwidth: 24 kbps for the voice information and the remainder for overhead. Note, that’s not Megabits per second, but kilobits per second.

That reminds of me of the often minimal bandwidth requirements for today’s IoT devices. These don’t send gobs of data through the internet like web pages and video streams on a phone, tablet or connected TV. Instead, small bits of information, often only when there’s actually information to send or receive. Indeed, we have new networks just for the internet of things that use much less bandwidth than our mobile devices. Think CAT-M1, Sigfox and narrowband IoT, or NB-IoT networks. It makes me wonder if we eventually see mobile “slowband” networks just for VoLTE and/or messaging wearables in the future.

Of course, the more devices that can handle phone calls, the more phone numbers we might have, right? Nope, that obstacle is going away too thanks to advanced call forwarding and number linking carrier services. My Apple Watch does have its own unique phone number, but it’s tied to my main T-Mobile phone number. T-Mobile calls their number linking service Digits, while AT&T has NumberSync; other carriers have their own branded solutions.

What are the remaining challenges?

New networks aside, there are still some issues to tackle before we see wearable communicators in various form factors similar to today’s Bluetooth headphones, fashionable connected jewelry and other devices we put on instead of carrying around.

First and foremost is battery life. That’s the one technology that has made the least progress relative to everything else in a voice call wearable.

Currently, using the Apple Watch for voice calls roughly drains the battery by 1 percent per minute in my testing, so there’s more work to be done here. Some of this challenge could be mitigated by application specific processors that are engineered for efficiency of a given task such as voice calls. Frankly, it doesn’t take much processing power to run the basics of a cellular phone these days. Nor would the chip need to be large. The S3 and W2 system on a chip in the Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE isn’t much bigger than the e-SIM, for example.

Then there’s the need for an antenna to stay connected to an LTE network. Apple has wrapped the antenna of the Apple Watch Series 3 around the edge of the display. It works well, but we’ll need smaller amplified antennas if we want smaller wearables with voice capabilities.

Once those two challenges are mitigated however, you might be able to leave your phone behind and simply take calls from a fashionable bracelet, your glasses or some other everyday device similar to today’s headphones that can store music for playback and just leave the phone behind. After all, not everyone wears a watch.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis