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Locked in: Amazon, Alexa and the connected home of tomorrow

Rex Crum, The Mercury News on

Published in Home and Consumer News

VALLEJO, Calif. -- From the outside, homebuilder Lennar's model home in Vallejo could be any other house in a new suburban development. But that's where the similarities end and the future begins, courtesy of a new smart-home partnership with Amazon.

This week, Amazon and Lennar began showing off what they are calling the Amazon Experience Center, a pre-wired, voice-activated smart home at a North Bay Lennar housing development, along with similar model homes in seven other locations across the country.

Lennar -- one of the nation's largest homebuilders -- plans to build Amazon's Alexa voice-assistant technology into the design when constructing all of its houses nationwide from now on. Because of the partnership with Amazon, this technology package will come standard and will not add anything to the base cost of the home. Alexa will be able to handle many of the mundane, everyday tasks that those who buy the developer's homes currently do on their own.

Talk to Alexa and, thanks to the Amazon Echo devices that are standard with the house, you can close your shades, find a movie to watch via Amazon Prime -- and the Amazon Fire TV that comes with the home -- schedule automatic orders of household goods, or order those things directly by using the Amazon Dash buttons that also come standard with the home. Finally, you can lock your doors and set your thermostat as you turn in for the night.

Technology that handles such chores isn't new; Amazon, Google and Apple have offered voice-command assistant technology for years. But a home built from the ground up with a full suite of one company's home-control technology takes the concept to another level. And while Alexa -- or any other kind of voice-command platform -- offers convenience, the Lennar-Amazon connected-home model presents a slate of questions about just how much control one company can and should have over an individual's daily routines, habits and privacy.

"This definitely takes the 'everything store' to another level, delivering not just products, but nearly every service one could need in a given day," said Gene Munster, partner with tech research firm Loup Ventures. "A wholesale upgrade to a fully smart home gives Amazon a lot of power over whoever lives there. Each incremental smart device you control with Alexa is another touch point for the Amazon brand and makes Prime a little more difficult to leave."

During a tour of the Amazon Experience Center home in Vallejo, Tom Burrill, Lennar's Bay Area division president, said that for some, facing such new technologies in the home "can be intimidating," but that seeing the devices in a home setting can alleviate worries about how everything works together.

"It (the Amazon technology home) lets you come experience it," Burrill said. "Amazon looked at Lennar, saw that we've got thousands of model homes around the country, and they said, 'Why don't we show what we can do?'"

Some see Amazon as a good steward of the personal data its devices gather in consumers' homes.

"Are they always listening? Are they recording our activity? They clearly have the potential to do so," said Michael Pachter, an analyst who covers Amazon for Wedbush Securities. "But I think Amazon values its customer relationships and will take whatever steps necessary to ensure that privacy is maintained."

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