A major turning point for smart homes was the launch of the Amazon Echo in 2014. Before this, devices like lights, small appliances, and thermostats could be controlled by launching a particular app on a smartphone. But not having your phone handy, or having a phone that loaded slowly, could undermine the convenience a smart home is meant to bring.
With the rise of the Amazon Echo, always-accessible voice input became easily accessible for smart devices. This was not simply another device, but one that fundamentally changed how we interact with our homes. I think of smart homes in three levels of complexity:
Devices are the foundation of smart homes, and they can generally be controlled manually either from the device itself or from a smartphone. The next level of control — voice activation — enables easy control without the need to touch anything. The most sophisticated smart homes use automations to minimize the need for human input to begin with (e.g. lights that turn on with motion, alarms that disarm/arm when residents come and go, doors that lock themselves if you forget).
The Amazon Echo was the first device that made this second level of control easily accessible, and it had a huge impact on the prevalence of smart home devices.
Today, the Amazon Echo and Google Home are the dominant voice input devices, and with the added features they bring on their own (e.g. music, shopping lists, answering questions), either can be a great entry point into smart homes or a solid way to augment an existing system.