Commentary Smart Home

The key to a happy smart home? A stew of virtual assistants

Google and Amazon are wrestling to be your smart home assistant, and companies like Apple and Microsoft aren't far behind. But you shouldn't commit to just one company.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The Google Home (right) and the Amazon Echo both want to be your one-and-only smart home hub.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

It's appropriate that the CNET Smart Home is located in Louisville, Kentucky -- the concept of the home is a bit like a Kentucky dish called burgoo. This stew is a medley of whatever meat you have on hand (be it beef, pork, chicken, mutton, rabbit or a combination) and some mixture of tomatoes, corn, potatoes, onions and lima beans. You throw your ingredients together in a pot, cook it for hours and boom, there's dinner.

Smart home technology might be flashier than a catch-all country stew, but the idea is the same. Companies large and small have rushed to create products that take ordinary household items and connect them to the internet and one another. The sheer quantity of products available means that a smart home isn't much more than a burgoo of plugs, lights, switches, cameras and whatever else you want to buy to piece together a system that works for you.

Companies like Google and Amazon have made a case for bringing some order to the smart home mishmash with help from their virtual-assistant-powered smart speakers. The Google Home and Amazon Echo can each be a unifying device that ties together all of these internet-connected devices. They can control smart home devices like thermostats or light bulbs directly, or through other families of products like Wink and SmartThings as well as automation programs like IFTTT. Google and Amazon's approach encourages monogamy in your smart home. Pick a smart home speaker, then outfit the rest of your home based on what devices are compatible to your smart speaker's AI. Turn a smart-home burgoo into bisque.

This is the wrong approach, at least right now.

Google is rumored to be expanding the use cases for its Google Assistant, the digital helper that's the brains behind the Google Home smart speaker, at tomorrow's I/O annual developers conference. Google Assistant competes against Amazon's Alexa voice assistant, Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana. Each assistant represents just a sliver of what's possible when you combine artificial intelligence, voice commands and internet-connected devices. But you'd be happier if you used more than one manufacturer's AI and products for your smart home.

Yes, it would be great to have a centralized smart home system in which you'd only have to interact with one main device, such as a smart speaker, or a unified interface, like Apple's HomeKit. And there are products that have attempted to be that whole-home solution, such as the custom, expensive Control4 luxury home automation system.

But we're still a ways away from the Disney movie fantasy of a smart home that predicts our every move and automatically operates every component of the house. As we've seen at the CNET Smart Home, there isn't a universal system that connects every product to the smart speaker or smart assistant of your choice. We ask Siri to open the shades, Alexa to start a sous-vide water bath and Google Home to walk us through recipes. Though we're seeing more products that work with more than one assistant (just take a look at iDevices), some integrations just work better than others. And there is some freedom in being able to pick and choose the assistant that works best for you and your devices.

It can be a headache to have to choose from so many assistants and speakers and platforms. But there's beauty in this stew. The tech giants are scrambling to outdo one another's AI, which means their platforms will keep improving. In the past couple of weeks, Amazon has announced two new iterations of its Echo line of speakers (the Echo Look and the Echo Show) and a Echo-to-Echo call feature. Google has recently added a recipe feature to its Google Assistant, and we expect the company to announce more updates to the AI tomorrow. We still haven't seen the smart speaker that will house Cortana, and a Siri-powered smart speaker is rumored to debut this year. You can pick products that work for you, and bounce from assistant to assistant to get the best use out of them.

It would be silly to tie yourself down to just one system when there are updates and new products coming out so frequently. This variety of products will let you build an a-la-carte smart home experience that's more personalized than you would get if you stuck with just one AI. It's OK if you prefer to use Siri to turn the lights on, but you want to tell Google Assistant to play Marvin Gaye through your Google Home. Now is the time to build and embrace your own smart-home burgoo.