Comcast gets a lot of things right with its Xfinity connected home products

Comcast's Mitch Bowling

When Comcast isn’t imposing data caps, it can do some pretty amazing things. Case in point is its Xfinity Home products — which are the cable giant’s foray into the internet of things. After viewing the products in Houston on Monday I think that most people in the U.S. are likely to get their first connected home through their ISP — provided their ISP gets the basics right.

As for Comcast, it seems to be doing just that. The plan is to make the system interoperable and open to a variety of devices and offers users a rules engine that lets them program new functions between their devices with a minimum of fuss. The user interface is a dedicated tablet used inside the home as well as iOS and Android apps.

The Xfinity Home products

Comcast

There are two different Xfinity products for the smart home — Security and Control. The security product is aimed at the demographic of people who want a professional security system plus some fun home automation features. It’s professionally installed and monitored 24-7. The other product, launched in June, is Xfinity Home Control, which is a cheaper system that doesn’t have the monitoring and is focused on home automation as opposed to security.

It also offers a bit more flexibility in playing with the sensors and settings. For example, on the secure products, someone wanting to change a setting on a door sensor has to get the pros to do it, since that’s a security-related sensor.

The security product requires a professional to come out an install the system, or (and this is a big plus) cannibalize what it can from your existing security system. As part of either package the homeowner gets a variety of hardware (the packages range in cost from $15 to $50 per month) from motion detectors and cameras to thermostats and light switches. There are connected locks as well.

In a conversation with Mitch Bowling, SVP and general manager of Xfinity Home, he stressed that the system will be open to more and more devices over time. For example the company supports a variety of sensors, switches, Sylvania light switches and soon, Yale locks. According to Bowling, “We think that the only way for this to be successful is for it to be open. We want to see many devices and use cases. the most exciting ones probably haven’t been developed yet.”

The Comcast Xfinity Home camera. There's motion detector capability too, but it's not turned on yet.

The Comcast Xfinity Home camera. There’s motion detector capability too, but it’s not turned on yet.

The common denominator is the ZigBee protocol, which is what the Comcast system uses. This means that eventually one could add any ZigBee-based product to the system, although Comcast is using a whitelist strategy for now, and may for quite some time. But based on my conversation with Bowling, he wants to help people bring in as many devices as possible, because that’s the kind of platform that will get people to sign up for Xfinity Home in the first place.

What else is out there?

Canary-Device-and-App
Which brings us to the competition. Unfortunately, Xfinity isn’t available outside the Comcast footprint, because it doesn’t have the installers in other markets. But for those who have the option here’s how it stacks up with other products on the market.

There are a wide variety of home security systems from ADT to new-fangled security products like those from Scout, Alertly or Canary, but I think the closest competitor is likely Alarm.com, which is actually more of a platform and integrator of other’s technology. In service areas where the two overlap AT&T’s Digital Life products would also compete.

Traditional security players are slow to offer the connected home features the Comcast product has, while the newer products like Canary that might work with other connected home systems don’t yet have 24-7 support or window and door sensors. However, those who are looking at Canary or Scout might be interested in Comcast’s lower-priced Home Control offerings that offer similar cameras that can text you if they sense movement when you are away.

On the smart home front, products from SmartThings, Iris (from Lowes), Revolv and other platforms would be the obvious alternatives. The benefit of these are that people who already have a bunch of connected devices that don’t use ZigBee can still use those products. Some of these platforms also currently offer more types of devices for the person who is interested in building out their own connected home with products Comcast doesn’t currently offer.

ISPs are the pusher for the connected home

Throughout the demonstration, Bowling kept emphasizing that he and I were early adopters of this technology as we shared IFTTT recipes and discussed how one could monitor their children using unobtrusive sensors. As he pointed out, most consumers aren’t going to want to geek out over protocols or install sensors in their liquor cabinets — they want someone else to take care of that.

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He’s right. Even as I tally the expense of creating my own smart home by buying new devices or retrofitting old ones (plus counting the cost of various review gear), the total has surpassed $2,000. My utility provider just sent me a $85 check for my thermostat, but other than that, it’s been an expensive and time-consuming hobby. While friends may think it’s neat, they aren’t going to spend that, nor spend the time setting it up.

So shelling out a $99 installation fee at the low end or $349 at the high end and paying a monthly contract might not be too onerous. Especially if you think you will eventually be able to add more devices on your own. Plus, the higher-end security service will attract folks like my mother-in-law even if the home automation stuff doesn’t. Of course, once she turns off the front porch light with her smartphone while she’s upstairs, or presses a single button to enable an away mode that sets the alarm, the thermostat and the lights, she’ll like the automation options as well.

So after my visit to Houston I’m left wondering when ADT will buy SmartThings or Revolv and when other ISPs will step on board with an open platform for the connected home. I’m also wondering how long Comcast customers will have to wait until they can bring their own ZigBee-compatible devices, but I am confident it will happen.

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