What happened to Cortana?

Cortana…thinking of the Microsoft A.I system makes something stir in your brain, doesn’t it?
When you think of home automation, your mind naturally jumps first to Amazon Alexa, then Google Assistant as the market leaders, but whatever happened to the Microsoft alternative? Of course, if you’re a windows user, you’ll undoubtedly have Cortana on hand on your PC, but she’s hardly a leading contender in the home automation market, especially in Australia as we still can’t buy the Harmon Kardon speaker (with Cortana) over here. This narrow market is one of Microsoft’s main problems, as they’re heavily reliant on PC users for their Cortana audience in markets other than the US. But for PC users, it also speaks volumes that one of the top relevant searches on google is: how can I turn Cortana off?

Yet, Microsoft is a household name, which means potential audiences have trust in them. They’re also making gains with software updates, adding IFTTT (if this then that) capability only slightly later than Google and Amazon, and a recent update allows Cortana to integrate with outlook, meaning we can listen to and respond to our emails by speaking. A lot of people were also excited about Microsoft working with Amazon to integrate their respective devices, yet this has been pushed back way past the original date of the end of 2017. It seems like Cortana still has some major gains to make, especially as it’s not even an option for us in Australia yet, before it can be anything more than an underdog against Amazon and Google. Although, perhaps with new boss Javier Soltero and the opening of the Cortana Intelligence Institute, Microsoft are ready to make up for lost time?

Google Assist expanded routines

‘Google, I’m home.’ Only, our home’s in the wrong place.
Google have rolled out 6 routines, which users of Google Home to modify to their needs. The catch is it’s not actually available in Australia yet. It’s not just us that have update envy for once, in fact the new routines are only available in the U.S at the moment, leaving anyone who’s home is in a different place out of the updates. Since the announcement from Google at the end of last year that they’d be rolling out routines, we’ve been pretty excited. A set of pre-programmed actions that are activated by just a phrase? Sign us up! The six routines available include, Good Morning, I’m Home, or Bedtime, in which you can program your lights to turn off, turn your phone on silent and manage your thermostat if you so choose to. Google’s official line is that other countries can use ‘My Day’ in the time being, hearing our calendar, news briefing and weather report. For us poor Aussies, this feels a bit lacklustre, especially considering we can use routines on the rival Amazon Echo already. So, what’s the holdup, Google? Let’s hope they bring routines to our home automation down under soon!

NBN Co CEO resigns

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NBN Co CEO Bill Morrow has announced that come the end of 2018, he will be stepping down in his role, 2 years before the project is currently due to be completed. This latest high profile resignation follows chief corporate affairs officer Karina Keisler’s announcement that she’ll be leaving in the summer. Despite high praise for Malcom Turnbull, who said Morrow ‘turned the project around’, whilst the PM used the opportunity to take a dig at his political rivals, Morris leaves in a period of continuous turmoil for the company. Many customers have been disappointed at the speeds of their NBN, as they were much slower than advertised by partners like Telstra and Optus, the former of which already offered compensation to their customers at the end of last year. More recently the company have delayed the HFC cable rollout due to connection issues on the network, claiming to be focusing on a better quality for the customer, but it’s little consolation to see the new timetable delayed by months. Morrow himself has stated that customers are being left behind in the rollout and despite a positive outlook from the government, a 3rd CEO change in 4 years, coupled with ever altering plans from NBNCo, only adds to the lack of confidence from Australian consumers.

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Google Assistant integrates with GPAY

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So you’re at lunch, your friend pays and you hop onto your online banking, as usual, to transfer them the money. But instead of tapping away for a few minutes, you can now just say ‘Hey Google, pay Jenny $20 for lunch today…’ and Google Assistant will do the rest for you. Google has merged Google Wallet/Android Pay to create their competitor to Apple Pay, so users in the US are now able to use Google Pay to pay others directly, without the need to log in and out of online banking apps constantly. Got that one friend who never remembers to pay? You’re in luck because Google is taking the awkwardness out of asking them for the repayment, as you can also use voice-activated technology to request money. While this feature is on your phones, you’ll still be asked for a fingerprint or password confirmation when you pay someone, so it’s pretty secure, and Google won’t be paying out anything without you knowing about it. On top of this, Google has announced plans to add Google Pay to speakers such as Google Home, although as yet any extra security beyond voice recognition hasn’t been announced for this future update. 

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Amazon is in it for the long haul

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Amazon are on a hiring spree for Alexa, taking on not only more than Google are for their home automation department but more than google is hiring for….well, everything. Amazon are really going hard at the moment and are on the lookout for developers, engineers and analysts amongst others and they currently have job listings for more than 1000 potential workers. So what does this mean? For Amazon, it obviously shows that they’re committed to the growth and success of Alexa, which isn’t surprising given the popularity of the Amazon Echo. It also perhaps demonstrates that they’re continuing to be aggressive in competing with Google Assistant. As most of the positions open are technical ones, Amazon is clearly pushing forward to make Alexa even more advanced in the near future. Of course, this doesn’t discount Google, as Amazon’s workforce as a whole is still comparatively smaller than Google’s, by about 200,000 people. It’s also important to remember that Google has always been a technology company, and many of the resources of the overall company are used towards Google Assistant, whereas Amazon had to create a whole technology department essentially from scratch. So that doesn’t mean that Google are scrimping on their Assistant by not hiring as many people: they already have the numbers.

Of course, with this well publicised move, Amazon are making their position clear: they’re betting big on Alexa.

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Alice Towndrow
Article Author

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Home Automation Set To Add Value To Real Estate

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When choosing to buy and install smart, automated systems into our houses we usually have a reason: it’s going to make our lives easier or our home more secure. Our lives more liveable. But, can they also be treated as an investment into our homes? More importantly, is it a GOOD investment?

Apparently, yes. Having smart home devices in your house when it’s on the market can count for a whole lot more than having the magic colour ‘magnolia’ on your walls (thank god, one of those is definitely more interesting!) A lot of buyers are now, according to the smart home survey, seeking homes with security-based home automation built in, such as a smart doorbell or smart door sensors. A high percentage of people also rate energy efficiency high on the must-have list when looking to buy a home, so installing a smart thermostat, with the ability to have more control over your bills and the amount of energy you use, would be a win for many potential buyers.

It doesn’t come as too much of a surprise though, that the most sought-after automation aren’t widely expensive or high-tech. Instead, buyers are wanting the ‘modern basics’, the things we’ve been looking at when buying a home for decades. We primarily want security, energy efficiency, safety (such as Nest’s smoke and CO detector) and investing in these, of course (as we’ve always known), should be a good investment in your home.

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Voice Assist Is Not ONLY For The Tech Savy

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Smartphone and smart homes: is it inevitable that the older generation gets left behind in the new age of technology? Actually, no. New A.I initiatives are marketing themselves towards the needs of elderly people and increasing numbers are installing home help and home automated systems to help them live a more independent life. At its simplest, you can use A.I such as Lifepod as a ‘virtual caregiver’. It’ll remind your loved one to take their medicine, remember appointments, as well as acting as an emergency response system (more sophisticated than the old emergency button-necklace device). We all know the worries of living away from a potentially vulnerable relative, and so apparently do the makers of A.I, as you can now use Alarm.com’s Wellness system to check on movement patterns, eating habits and even check if they’ve locked the door! Perhaps the most important use of these home automation for elderly people is something we often forget: a cure for loneliness. A vast portion of Australia’s elderly population suffers from loneliness, especially those living alone. Amazon Alexa can connect you by phone to a loved one in an instant, or even serve as someone to talk to herself. As a viable, cheaper, alternative to a hired nurse or nursing home, this might just be a technological advancement to excite and help those outside the ‘tech generation’.

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Alice Towndrow
Article Author

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Apple Hompod & Homekit products

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Apple’s Home Kit has always appeared to be a less viable contender in the smart home market and it’s been noted that the experience with Siri is less sophisticated than with Amazon’s Alexa, for example. While all you need to begin your own smart home is an iPad/iPhone, the Home Kit app and whatever compatible products that you choose, the traditional rigidity of Apple has put off a lot of those that aren’t hardcore Apple followers. Trying to divert attention from the bad press of the delayed Home Pod (many users found that it left marks on wooden tables!), an extensive list of Home Kit compatible products have been released. This includes Safe and Sound, which provides us with a new 2-in-1, operating primarily as a fire alarm and CO sensor. While that doesn’t sound all too exciting (we can see a variant of this on every smart home platform), it also includes a speaker, making for an easy, space-saving integration. Usefully, this can also be used on Amazon Alexa, for those of us not committed to Apple. Most interestingly (especially for visiting guests!), is the Nanoleaf dodecahedron remote with, you guessed it, 12 sides. As you turn the remote, it sets a different scene, and you can even use certain nanoleaf remotes to adjust the brightness in your room. It’s also the most visually pleasing and entrancing remote you may ever see! While it’s fair to say that this is a stride in the right direction for Apple and their Home Kit, it’s worth remembering that these products are also compatible with many other smart homes ‘hubs’, which may be a more flexible choice if you don’t want to be committed to Apple’s rigid software rules.

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Alice Towndrow
Article Author

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Alexa will now allow follow up commands

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In the ever-growing tech ‘arms race’, Amazon are committed to making our lives easier, as well as our jaws less sore. Instead of constantly saying ‘Alexa…Alexa…Alexa…’ (or whatever your start up command is), Amazon have released a new update allowing follow up questions to be asked, meaning Alexa will stay awake for an extra five seconds listening out for another question, without the need for you to say her name (don’t wear it out?) again and again.

For the moment, the questions need to be separate, you can’t combine them, but it will make for a more natural conversation with Alexa, as she will also try and pick out whether you’re talking to her or to someone else, or even if it’s the TV that she can hear. If for some reason you don’t have any more questions or need anything else, a simple ‘thank you’ will send her back off to sleep, which is pretty natural and something probably 90% of us say to our devices anyway (got to be polite)! Of course, it’s definitely in the new stage at the moment, only available in English and can only be used when music is off, but it’s good to know that Amazon understands the little annoyances with these devices and that they’re working towards a more natural interaction with our smart gadgets.

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Alice Towndrow
Article Author

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Google and Amazon going head to head AGAIN

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Alice Towndrow
Article Author

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I guess, in the arena of war, you can’t afford to help the other side. That’s exactly what Amazon decided when they announced that they were to stop listing the new Nest products on their site. The Google-owned smart home system retaliated with a move to pull all of it’s products from the amazon site, leaving ‘commander’ (Amazon CEO), Jeff Bezos, to bet big on Amazon’s own smart devices. It’s not entirely unsurprising that in the battle to lead the smart home market, Amazon would want to use their vast scope, and all their website’s immense popularity, to sell and promote their own product and by Nest’s own admission, its been on the cards for a while.

The Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant have been going head to head for a long time, already, so it’s only natural that Amazon would want to up the stakes and have a ‘sink or swim’ moment with their own website and product. Of course, this kind of competitive spirit has been demonstrated by Apple for years, both with Google (over their maps, remember the dire beginnings of ‘Apple maps’?!) and of course with Amazon itself, who stopped selling Apple TV on their site for a time.As a wise person (nearly) said: all’s fair in the technology war, and with google retaliating by blocking their YouTube app on some Fire TVs, it will remain to be seen who has the upper hand in this battle.

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