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."
Amazon didn't respond to a request for comment about its Experience Center homes. But Lennar's Burrill said the homebuilder trusts Amazon to handle and ensure the security of the systems. Customers still have the final say about whether or not to use all of the Amazon-enabled options in their homes.
"In reality, it's just like anything else and people can turn it all off," Burrill said.
Including Alexa and other Amazon technologies – Echo speakers, Prime video, home security service – in someone's home from the moment they move in may also lock a consumer into the Amazon tech universe. People typically like to stay with the systems they know rather than go through the rigmarole of switching and learning how to operate something new, so whatever company is providing the in-home technology will get an automatic leg up on its competitors.
"The concept is viable, but my concern is that this locks you into a single digital assistant and ecosystem. And not everyone buying a home from Lennar will want to have their home connected to just Amazon base assistants," said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, a San Jose-based tech research firm.
Amazon also monetizes customers' information through targeted ads. Although it brings in a much smaller share of digital advertising dollars than Google or Facebook, some experts say its data-gathering technologies – including Alexa, inside millions of Echo devices already sold into U.S. homes – could help it gain on them over time.
"As you ask Alexa for things, you're kind of telling Amazon what your habits are, how many people you have in your household, what your interests are," Forrester Research analyst Samantha Merlivat told this news organization in December.
A television plays a children's show in a model home on Mare Island in Vallejo, Calif., on Thursday, May 10, 2018. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)
A television plays a children's show in a model home on Mare Island in Vallejo, Calif., on Thursday, May 10, 2018. Homebuilder Lennar has teamed up with Amazon to offer homes with Alexa technology included. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)
Amazon acknowledges on its website how it uses customers' information.
"Amazon displays interest-based advertising using information you make available to us when you interact with our sites, content, or services," the company says. "Interest-based ads, also sometimes referred to as personalized or targeted ads, are displayed to you based on information from activities such as purchasing on our sites, visiting sites that contain Amazon content or ads, interacting with Amazon tools, or using our payment services, like Checkout by Amazon."
But the combination of tech products installed in the home – and the ease they offer – may be too much for many Amazon customers to pass up.
"The do-it-yourself approach that we've largely been using up until now puts too much of a burden on the user who must install, support, and then learn how to use what is often an unmanageable mess," said Rob Enderle, director of tech consultancy the Enderle Group. "By approaching this through the builder, and as an option, the homeowner gets a functioning interface, Alexa, they likely know and aren't afraid of. The result is not only a happier user, but a system that will likely be used rather than randomly cursed at."
(Reporter Ethan Baron contributed to this article.)