By Dwight Gilbert Jones – Poort Design

I am one of those people who utilize music in the home like furniture – it’s there all the time, low key and unobtrusive. Over the years I have developed a strong affection for a French Canada radio station, despite the fact that I don’t really speak the language. The station is a CBC affiliate, there are no ads or traffic updates, and much of the music I haven’t heard before. As an older adult, I couldn’t bear to listen to the Top 40 from the 80’s ever again, and the fact that I don’t understand their infrequent bantering means I don’t have to pay attention – it’s just music, and that works for me.

With time I have gradually picked up what I call “travel French” by slow osmosis, becoming almost comfortable with it, and if you have kids at home, it may be a way to give them a leg up on a large and accomplished musical culture. Try as Web radio, the French have especially high standards of musicianship.

When I recently moved to a smaller city, I could no longer get the station signal over the air and had to resort to the Web, using my old iPad, but music is not what the iPad does well. So I wondered if I might prevail upon my Amazon Echo speaker to help me out via Bluetooth, and sure enough, a sample French-African favorite Ca Chante came though loud and clear. Say what you will about the HomePod, but an Echo is more than capable of taking care of kitchen music to just about anyone’s satisfaction, and the kitchen is where the smart home battles will be fought, won, and lost.

Continuity & Usability

iPad and Alexa

Click for Video

But I wondered if Alexa would cut out the Bluetooth feed if I interrupted things with a query, as the toggling back and forth with Bluetooth would soon become tiresome. Nope, she answered knowledge questions as an overlay on top of the music, which impressed me mightily, and true to her bargain, was still my Bluetooth buddy the next day. She only cashed out when you ask her to load 3rd party feeds like news summaries, which is fair enough. Turns out you just have to say Alexa, connect/disconnect to my iPad and she follows through to continue.

As a network designer I believe this level of connectivity will have profound implications for the smart home industry. Poort makes an enclosure for any 9.7″ iPad that mounts it over kitchen outlets, hiding all the cables and the outlet itself. If there is an Echo in that kitchen as well, you can assemble a root network that unites the iPad’s video streaming, independent Web browser, and file system with everything Alexa can do – with strong audio – a superset of functions that neither device can achieve on its own.

Scaling & Cost

The scale also seems to be ideal – the iPad’s 9.7″ screen sizes perfectly with the speaker and the area around the stove. Siri too stands ready to answer queries, and is always listening at short range when plugged in. The hard surfaces in the kitchen and short distances to listeners combine to present video and sound in a proportional context that need not impinge on the rest of the house .

The cost in my case would be $99 for the Echo, $39 for the Poort kit with a legacy iPad Air or later. I also have a 9.7 iPad Pro but don’t see much benefit in dedicating that one, unless it’s as an industrial controller – a fixed iPad is an intriguing instrument with its ultimate uses still being explored. I can imagine linking it to a Google Max speaker if wealth overtakes me, and I feel a need to fry an egg on a speaker.

In the meantime, I am most grateful to Alexa for her hybrid support of my old ‘Pad – the two look like they’ll be teaching me French for some years to come, while I do some home cookin’.