Last September, Marcus, a 31-year-old resident of Springfield, Missouri, discovered a flaw with Apple’s HomeKit, the iPhone maker’s program for hooking up smart home gadgets in iOS. Marcus had outfitted his entire house with an array of HomeKit-approved lights, thermostats and door lock. The setup was all controllable with an iPad sitting in his living room that he could talk to using Apple’s voice assistant, Siri.
Everything was going great until one Friday morning in September, his neighbor walked up to his front door right in front of him and yelled, “Hey Siri, unlock the front door,” and surprise, surprise: the door unlocked. Marcus was enjoying life with the smart lock, which was made by San Francisco-based startup August Home, but found the incident unsettling and took the device off his door. Soon after — starting with the iOS 10.1 update in October — Apple simply doesn’t allow users to unlock smart locks without the user unlocking their iPhone or iPad first.
Amazon hopes to not make the same mistake. On Thursday, August Home is announcing Amazon’s intelligence voice assistant, Alexa, will be able to unlock its Bluetooth-equipped door lock. Alexa powers devices like Amazon’s popular smart speaker, the Echo, as well as a growing number of third-party hardware, such as TVs, lamps, refrigerators, smoke detectors and even cars.
To try to make things secure, Alexa will require users to say out loud a passcode before they can unlock the door with their voice. After a user issues the command, “Alexa, ask August to unlock my door,” Alexa will ask the user for the passcode. Users choose the passcode — ranging from 4 to 12 digits — when they link their August and Alexa accounts together.
August first established an integration with Alexa in July, but that was only for locking the door and checking on the status of the door. This is the first time Alexa will be able to unlock a door. Being able to unlock the door with voice introduces a lot more potential risk.
The risk may be worth it for August: That first July integration proved successful for the startup. Immediately after the announcement, the company saw a spike in sales for its smart lock — 10,000 sold in a week. Echo users seemed to just be excited about the idea of controlling their locks with voice. In 2016, August went on to tripling its sales over the previous year.
But when the Echo first launched in 2014, Amazon approached August to work together and the smart lock startup wasn’t interested. August cofounder and CEO Jason Johnson said he didn’t think Amazon would be successful at the time. Soon, however, reports emerged that the speaker was actually selling pretty well — Morgan Stanley recently estimated that Amazon has sold more than 11 million Echo speakers — and Johnson started realizing the device was tapping into something bigger.
“I thought maybe we should take this seriously,” Johnson said. “This is consumers responding to app fatigue. Having to go into the phone and load up apps to control systems in the house is getting a bit tiresome. Maybe people want to use their voice.”
Amazon has turned Alexa into a major smart home platform. It can control not just door locks, but also things like lights, thermostats and fans. Smart home developers find Amazon easy to work with and much more open than Apple, which requires companies to install an authentication chip into their device and go through extensive testing.
August will also soon also integrate with Google’s own version of the Echo, called Home, which is powered by the Google Assistant.
“I really believe that voice control is going to become very pervasive in the home,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it can be overstated.”