What really happens in the cloud when an Alexa-connected device stops functioning?





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Image: Leviton

In some ways I think my father had it easier than me. If my mother told him that the light in the bedroom wasn’t working, there were only two options: the lamp had burned out or the power had gone out. It was simple.

But this is 2022 and nothing is easy. Suppose your wife tells you, as my wife did, that the bedroom lights are not working. What could be the problem? Could it be the lamp? Could it be the connection of the lamp to the hub? Could it be the smart light switch? Could it be the WiFi connection between the smart light switch and the router?

Could the router’s 2.4 Ghz connection have failed? Could the 5 Ghz connection have somehow tried to connect to the switch, which only talks to the 2.4 Ghz band? Could our broadband connection be down? Could the Alexa services be unavailable? Can the cloud service at the lamp seller not work? Can’t work cloud service at smart light switch supplier?

Maybe the phone app that talks to the smart switch is outdated? Can the connection of my iPhone with … oh, to cry out loud! It’s just a light!

Go ahead… just say it. smart home† Could there be two more words to scoff at modern life?

True story

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Our bedroom lighting has recently stopped working. The problem turned out to be an Alexa skill. When opening the skill in the Alexa app, this message was displayed: “The link between accounts has expired. To continue using My Leviton with Alexa, click Enable to use and link your accounts again.”

We have an old non-smart floor lamp in the bedroom that has three non-smart dimmable LED bulbs. We control it with a Leviton DW3HL-1BW Decora smart plug. This plug is different from most smart plugs because it has a dimmer. Most smart plugs only support on and off. But with the Leviton plug you can set any brightness you want. At about $40, it’s more expensive than most smart plugs, but the dimming feature makes it worth it.

Here’s how these things work. An app on the phone talks to the smart switch. This is an app provided by Leviton. To get Alexa to control that switch, there is a skill that launches in the Alexa app. Think of the skill as the glue that connects the switch to the Alexa network. To verify that Alexa is allowed to control the Switch, the skill talks to the cloud-based component of the app and verifies our account.

So you have the local Alexa and the local switch. You also have the Alexa cloud and the switch supplier cloud. All these things have to shake hands and work together. As the post showed, that link has expired.

Also: Best Smart Plug: Put the App in Devices

But here’s the thing. You don’t want your light switch to expire. You want to set it up once and just use your light switch. If we have to reset all our IoT devices every three months, or whatever, the whole smart home idea is going to be crazy.

Something was clearly going on. I wanted to know exactly what and why. I wanted to know the story behind the scenes.

Leviton, founded in 1906

Let’s be clear. Leviton is not one of these new smart start-ups that may or may not have stamina. Leviton is royalty for home wiring. The company has been around for over 100 years. It was started by Isidor Leviton, who designed a screw-in lamp housing for Thomas Edison’s first commercial lamp. Do you remember the pendant lamp holder your grandmother had? That was designed by Leviton. Not the company, the man.

Fast forward to 2022 and my account link error message. I wanted to know what happens to the seller when something like this happens. Was it a cybersecurity or account issue? Does this happen regularly? Is there a regular best before date or period? Does Leviton think that adding IoT control, and in particular linking it to smart assistants, increases the challenges in delivering smart devices to customers? Inquiring minds and all.

So I contacted Greg Rhoades, Director of Marketing at Leviton, who was kind enough to provide a detailed answer.

This is what he told me:

At Leviton, we take great pride in our dedicated product, app and cloud engineering teams, as well as our technical support and customer service team members – all of whom work tirelessly to ensure Leviton customers get the experience they have come to expect from our company and our Products. Of course, we are disappointed to hear that this expectation has not been met, and we are devoting our time and resources to resolve any issues and improve our products and experiences in the future.

Regarding the situation you described where a Decora Smart Voice Dimmer stopped responding to voice commands, we found that this is neither a cybersecurity issue nor a product specific issue. In our experience, this is an Alexa cloud issue that we have seen at times affecting a limited number of user accounts and then the devices they may have associated with the account. The vast majority of our skill users do not experience this issue.

Leviton is constantly improving and working to continuously develop and refine our products and services based on customer feedback and industry best practices. We’re proud to retain our smart home development teams from our Leviton Innovation Center in New Orleans — including our dedicated app and cloud engineering teams — rather than outsourcing this work. We also have our own “Works With” team and close relationships with technical partners at Amazon, Google, Apple, Samsung and more to support the array of smart home features in our portfolio.

Leviton has been in the home automation field for decades and offers smart lighting solutions. As with any business there are always challenges, but overall we don’t see any significant product issues associated with linking the three voice assistants we support and have regular face-to-face meetings with those teams to continually improve our connectivity.

Rhoades later contacted me with additional clarification:

To clarify, we’re not saying there’s a problem with the Amazon Alexa service. The issue we are encountering is an issue in the cloud where My Leviton accounts are linked to Amazon. When accounts are not linked, Amazon Alexa cannot communicate with the Decora Smart device to control the lights. We’re working with Amazon to resolve this issue. We have only seen this impact on a limited number of users. The vast majority of our skill users do not experience this issue.

You should know that my next stop will be Amazon.

Also: Best smart hub: control your smart home

Questions to the Alexa teams

I shared the Skill error and Rhoades’ answer with the folks at Amazon. I asked them the same series of questions about cybersecurity, authentication, account maintenance, and the like.

Samantha VanHoef, an Amazon spokesperson, chimed in on this for me. She even researched this for me, in the middle of a move, so thank you so much to Samantha for adding my little research homework to her already challenging schedule. After speaking with Amazon’s smart home and skills team, she shared this:

The experience you had is related to the expiration of an account linking token, which links the customer’s account with a third-party vendor to the customer’s Alexa account. This expiration is not unique to smarthome devices or Alexa, but is the industry standard for linked accounts. An account linking token can expire for various reasons, such as if the customer does not use an account for a certain period of time (set by the third-party vendor) or if their account credentials change.

When this token expires, the customer’s account with the third-party vendor will be unlinked from the customer’s Alexa account. The notification you saw on the skill detail page is Alexa’s mechanism for informing customers what to do next and helping them relink their accounts. Let me know if you’d like me to dig deeper with the team for more technical information on the Alexa side, but there isn’t much more we know as the details of each token are determined by the third-party vendors themselves.

Final Thoughts

I left it here partly because we (me, Leviton and Amazon) had already exchanged 33 messages (not counting the internal emails at Leviton and Amazon) to find out. Essentially, the problem arose from some level of authentication rot, as the connection between the systems was getting old.

Also: The best home automation system

This issue may highlight an interesting authentication challenge that companies like Amazon and Leviton should look into. Take, for example, Samantha’s sentence, “if the customer does not use an account for a certain period of time.” That’s interesting because we use the bedroom light on a daily basis, but it’s probably been a good year or more since we logged into the Leviton app to set it up.

From our perspective, we use the product on a daily basis. From an authentication handshake point of view, the last authorization request was over a year old. But even if IoT authentication tokens are outdated, companies like Leviton and Amazon won’t be able to require re-authentication by default. What if this hadn’t been my bedroom lamp, but a lamp belonging to an elderly relative? How many of us techies set up smart home devices for our friends and families, then leave them to their own devices (pun intended)?

While skills and apps are relatively easy to set up, the various links are mind boggling to non-techies. It’s hard enough to get these things set up correctly, but when they fail, many users are left with useless devices (at least until they can convince someone with tech skills to come over, grab a freshly baked cookie and fix the problem). to solve). I can’t speak for all techies, but “will work for freshly baked goods” has been a successful policy for me for many years. My biggest score was a homemade apple crumble pie.

Serious. Leviton and Amazon products — and by extension all smart home devices — are great when they work. But usage patterns (like account authentication) that work in the IT world don’t translate logically to the home automation space. Hopefully in the coming years we will see the friction disappear from these systems.

In the meantime, we’d like to say a big thank you to the folks at Leviton and Amazon for giving us a behind-the-scenes look and taking the time to explain what really happens if the lights don’t come on in 2022.

How many panicked calls have you received from family members when their smart homes aren’t getting so smart? How many smart devices do you have at home? Let us know in the comments below.


You can follow my daily project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @DavidGewirtzon Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.




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