They're all remarkably similar, aren't they, those smart speakers? The Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod have their differences – features, ecosystems, emphasis on sound quality – but it's all the same basic proposition.
A cylindrical, connected speaker, of varying proportions and designs, that is always listening out for voice commands, built by one of the biggest companies in the world.
They're wildly popular and the fact that all the big names are heading in this direction, and in Amazon and Google's case allowing everyone else to do the same, suggests that a huge number of smart home controllers for the foreseeable future will look like this.
Read this: The best Stringify Flows for your home
Alongside apps and platforms like IFTTT, Stringify and Yonomi, though, we've seen a rise in new hubs and controllers over the past 12 months. On crowdfunding sites, from accessory makers, startups and elsewhere, we're seeing new forms and new ways of interacting with the home. You might not have heard of them but they all have something interesting to offer.
Mycroft: the privacy focused speaker
Okay, okay, Mycroft's Mark II does in fact follow the exact same blueprint we just outlined above – $129 smart speaker, far-field mics, 4-inch touchscreen, but with a few key differences. It uses open source voice technology and deletes your voice recordings "as they come in" unless you choose to share your data. And in a very David vs Goliath move, the Kansas City startup's business model isn't based on selling your data so it doesn't do that either.
It's a crowdfund campaign (open until 24 February) so delivery wise, you'll be waiting till December 2018. But you can download Mycroft AI for Android, Linux and Raspberry Pi now, with Windows and Mac coming soon.
Mozilla Project Things: the DIY project
If you're inclined to tinker and you're looking for a completely open smart home hub and controller, Mozilla's Project Things might be for you. The setup uses a Raspberry Pi as the gateway, IFTTT style rules and a web based interface – which gives URLs to all your devices – for controlling all your kit.
Mozilla is billing this as a way of building a "private" smart home. You can add Zigbee and Z-Wave dongles to increase the number of smart home devices Project Things can talk to and it's already confirmed as working with Philips Hue, Ikea and TP-Link smart bulbs; plus some GE, TP-Link and SmartThings smart plugs as well as other switches and sensors.
Read the full list of compatible hardware here before you get started.
Momo: the sensing security lamp
Not just a gesture controlled smart lamp, Momo also acts as a security camera with facial recognition and a voice controlled smart home hub that can talk to Nest, Philips Hue and yes, also Alexa and Google Assistant.
The startup behind it is Italian company Morpheos, which ran two successful crowdfund campaigns in mid 2017. Originally due to ship in October, Morpheos is now looking at a May 2018 delivery. The eventual retail price of Momo will be around $699, though the crowdfund price was just $329, putting it in the ballpark with the mainstream smart speakers.
What else do you get for your money? Every part of the device is made useful so the base includes sensors which measure temperature, humidity and CO2 levels. Later in the year, Morpheos plans to release more accessories and compatible devices.
"Although it does have voice activation, it is limited to functional in-home tasks," says Roberta Consoli, Morpheos' public relations manager. "We would like to allow users to stand back from interacting and managing their technology so our AI approach is dedicated to learning the user's home experience – how they set up their home based on their habits. Over time it will require little or no interaction."
Then there's privacy, an area ripe for smaller startups with no advertising or e-commerce business models (like Amazon and Google) to take advantage of. "The giants all offer cloud based services whereas ours is all onboard (internal processor and encrypted memory)," she says. "This also addresses users' concerns about data privacy. You can even physically disconnect the camera and microphone simply by turning the lamp shade while it continues to function as a hub."
Brilliant Control: the handy hub on the wall
Alexa has been popping up in all sorts of devices, including this $199 smart home controller that's designed to replace your light switch/panel on the wall. It's named Brilliant Control, the startup behind it is simply Brilliant, and sales will re-open after it has shipped pre-orders this February.
If the Amazon Echo Show doesn't take your fancy, this could be worth a look. It has a 5-inch HD touchscreen which you can prod and slide to control smart lights, thermostats and speakers. As well as both Alexa, Google Assistant and Brilliant's own AI to chat to, there's a camera that can connect to a Ring Doorbell or act as an intercom.
"It has a screen and touch options along with voice, and we are finding that 84% of usage still uses the screen because it's easier," Scott Dunlap, Brilliant's chief product officer, told us.
"Voice assistants don't suit everyone but it's incredible how anyone aged three to 103 find uses for them. I think you'll see even more virtual assistants appear that are specialists in one area, much like how Brilliant's voice solution is much better at home commands, but can't answer who signed the Magna Carta."
Duo AI: the sci-fi smart mirror
Solomon Lee, co-founder at New York startup Duo AI, sees a niche in the smart home controller space that his smart mirror can fill. "The heavy incumbents, such as Amazon, Google, and Apple, are focusing most of their resources on voice-only devices," he explains. "They are being slow to adopt the most intuitive way of taking in information, visually, and have – thus far – failed to make an all-in-one device, which is exactly what Duo is developing."
The Duo smart mirror looks pretty damn awesome, though as with many of these products the proof will be in the shipping. It is a 27-inch, 1080p display, 1.9mm thick and will run on its own custom HomeOS which can show you news, weather, videos, smart home and music controls plus apps and games. Understandably this is more of an outlay than an Echo or Echo Show – the early bird price is $399, the final retail price will be around $599.
Read this: Let's talk about the smart mirror
"Duo is an AI-powered personal dashboard," says Lee. "Tech giants – generally speaking – lack flexibility and speed. By prioritising developers and providing a truly open platform, we seek to become the de-facto personal dashboard across all of forms of devices. Already, we are encountering massive interest from consumers, developers and Fortune 500 companies attempting to enter the playing field."
Wink – the works with everything hub
The Wink Hub might not seem as sexy or futuristic as some of the other smart home hubs, but it's got the right idea when it comes to the invisible in-home communications you need to achieve any power nerd dreams.
With Alexa, Assistant and HomeKit compatibility expanding, you'll find that most of the extra devices you want to buy will be onboard with these main ecosystems – but with something like Wink, you don't need to worry about choosing whether to live in an Apple, Google or Amazon home.
As Matt McGovren, Wink's VP of marketing and partnerships, tells us: "Wink has 2.4 million products from nearly 40 brands connected to our backend. The Wink Hub supports more smart home protocols than any other hub on the market: Bluetooth LE, Wi-Fi, Zigbee, Z-Wave, Kidde and Lutron ClearConnect.
"We believe we're uniquely positioned to succeed because of our commitment to being an agnostic platform. We work just as closely with Honeywell as we do Nest."
Wink reckons there's still plenty of life in controlling your smart home from your smartphone, which is how you interact with the hub, even with the ascendance of voice. And that the big tech companies do ultimately favour closed ecosystems – worth considering if that's not for you.