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Smart Home

Alexa can now disappear into an iDevices smart light switch

The company is making a big bet that you'll pay $100 to put Alexa in your walls.

The iDevices Instinct Switch, first seen back in January of 2018.

Chris Monroe/CNET

iDevices is a Connecticut-based smart home company best known for making Wi-Fi-connected light switches. The newest of these, the iDevices Instinct, features an invisible, built-in Alexa speaker, complete with a tiny microphone array that lets you ask anything of Amazon's artificially intelligent assistant right from your wall.

Available starting today -- nineteen months after the initial product announcement at CES 2018 -- the Instinct costs $100 a piece. That's about twice as much as competing smart switches from names that include GE and WeMo. With the market for smart lighting continuing to trend towards less expensive options like those, the window to sell a smart switch at such a steep premium is probably as narrow as it's ever been.  

That makes the Instinct something of a high-stakes gamble for iDevices as the company's first major product release since it was acquired by the multi-billion dollar lighting manufacturer Hubbell in 2017.

Flipping the switch

iDevices is banking on the built-in Alexa speaker to serve as the difference maker. iDevices founder and president Christopher Allen notes that the $100 price tag reflects the cost of the combined benefits of a smart switch and smart speaker, along with the convenience of decluttering your countertop or nightstand by eliminating the need for small smart speakers.

"There are things that will be enabled through voice that we are only just beginning to understand," adds Meghan Petchel, an iDevices spokesperson. "We're lucky that we do have that backing with Hubbell and the manufacturing expertise, that we can make those kind of things happen."

But then there's Ecobee, a smart thermostat manufacturer that's had an Alexa smart switch of its own on the market for over a year. With its own built-in speaker and sensors for motion, temperature and ambient light, it's similar to the Instinct, and you can already find it discounted to less than $50 at multiple retailers.

When asked about Ecobee, Allen was quick to puff up his chest against a potential rival.

"This is our focus," Allen says. "Ecobee is really a thermostat company that got into switches. Switches are what we own."

As for recent, budget-oriented smart home startups like Wyze, which sells a well-reviewed $8 smart bulb, Allen is dismissive, and predicts that many of them won't make it in the long run.

"I have no desire to chase anybody to the bottom, down the toilet bowl," he tells me. "Making a dollar a unit and then trying to support that unit for the next eight to 10 years that it sits in someone's house is a very expensive proposition."

Allen's free-speaking style actually forced iDevices to change its plans at the eleventh hour and launch the Instinct three days earlier than expected. A consumer named Grant Ritzwoller, interested in outfitting his home with Instincts, began reaching out directly to Allen over the summer to inquire about the product's availability. This week, Allen sent Ritzwoller the following email:

"Instinct launches Monday and you will be able to purchase it Monday! Thanks for waiting and enjoy the evolution 👍"

Ritzwoller forwarded the emails to CNET. Shortly thereafter, iDevices confirmed the imminent release to us, as inadvertently leaked by the president of the company himself. Allen was less than thrilled, and apparently made an angry phone call to Ritzwoller once he realized his mistake.

"You know, shame on me for having answered an email," Allen says. "I think, unfortunately, this will lead to me having less interactions with the consumer, which is a shame, because I enjoy those interactions."

A passionate personality is one thing, but in this case it cost Allen a customer. Ritzwoller tells CNET he'll be taking his business elsewhere.

Sales pitch sticking points

iDevices faces three other potential hurdles. First, the Instinct is a single-pole, on/off switch that won't dim the lights, and the motion and ambient light sensors inside of the switch will be dormant at launch, and inaccessible to users until an over-the-air software update arrives later this year

And, while it puts Alexa front and center, it won't support Siri or the Google Assistant at launch. That's a departure for iDevices, which has traditionally made a point of remaining platform agnostic by offering integrations with all three of the major voice platforms. The company hopes to get there with the Instinct eventually, but at launch, it's Alexa or bust.

That said, iDevices has a good track record in our product tests at the CNET Smart Home, and an IoT pedigree that goes all the way back to the iGrill Mini, a popular Bluetooth meat thermometer that sat atop all sorts of CNET buying guides and smart home best lists from years past. The iGrill was ultimately good enough to sell to Weber, the grill manufacturer, in 2016. iDevice's other smart plugssmart outlet, and smart light switches all performed well when we tried them out for ourselves, too.  

Allen also thinks that people will be surprised by the Instinct's sound quality, especially given that the speaker isn't even visible -- a key differentiator from Ecobee.

"We aren't competing with Sonos, don't get me wrong," he says, describing the capabilities of the switch's Soen-powered audio, "but we are competing with the Echo Dot."

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i(ngrained)Devices 

One recent change for iDevices worth paying attention to: A push to partner with home builders. The goal? Get iDevices hardware into homes before anyone even moves in.

It's a growing trend spurred on by recent studies, including surveys from John Burns Real Estate and Coldwell Banker, which partnered with CNET in 2016 to study the impact of smart home tech on real estate sales. Turns out, studies like those show that a majority of buyers are willing to spend more for living spaces that come with smart home tech preinstalled.

"As we were acquired, we really studied the return on investment and the margins that are available in some of those spaces, and we made the conscious decision to step out of a few of those channels and go more towards the home builders," Allen says. He adds that iDevices has thus far partnered with eight of the top 30 home builders in the US, largely bolstered by new resources and connections from the new parent company, Hubbell. 

"That's the reason we did the acquisition, by and large. We didn't want to have to build out that sales team."

And it's not just homes -- iDevices sees potential in places like hotels, too. Amazon already offers "Alexa for Hospitality," a customized voice interface designed specifically for hotels that are willing to outfit rooms with Echo smart speakers. Many hotels have done exactly that -- so why not smarten up the light switch, instead?

"We think there's a lot of opportunity there to really build in the technology and make it invisible," Allen says.

Whether or not that means you end up talking to your light switches anytime soon remains to be seen, but those ready to buy in for themselves can find the Instinct on the iDevices website.