How many companies does it take to connect a light bulb?
Why connect the light when you can connect the switch? Or outlet? Or socket?
How many companies does it take to turn on a connected light?
One to make the light and 40 or 50 to access the API.
Okay, these aren’t funny jokes. But they offer an essential truth about the connected home situation we’re faced with at the moment — and right now I can’t tell if this is the awesomeness I was hoping for, or a big mistake that will condemn connected homes as the playthings for the tech savvy and inspired.
So far this summer we’ve seen a giant expansion from huge players in the tech and retail worlds with regard to the smart home. Apple(s aapl) launched HomeKit, a program to get devices to work together via an iOS device. Nest launched its developer program. Quirky spun off Wink and said it would offer a hub and in-store products at Home Depot. Staples expanded its Connect program to include more devices and support more radios. Microsoft(s msft) joined the AllSeen Alliance and created a partnership with Insteon. Google and Samsung teamed up to create a new radio protocol called Thread.
And more is coming. I expect Best Buy(s bby) to launch its connected home platform that will be supported by iControl and include a hub and devices. Meanwhile Amazon(s amzn) is also investigating products that will tie its interests to the smart home. Faced with this plethora of platforms what’s a consumer to do? And more importantly, where can he or she shop? I’ve broken it out by the current distribution channels with a bit about the pros and cons of each.
The bottom line is that it’s complicated, but it’s likely to get less so if the smart home is your thing.
Big consumer brands
GE(s ge)and LG both have connected kitchen appliances. Philips has a connected coffee machine while Whirlpool has a connected washer and dryer combination that it recently integrated with Nest so if a consumer participates in a power-saving program and has a Nest, their wash may wait to start until energy is cheaper/more abundant.
The challenges associated with buying from a big consumer brand are many, yet it’s the most likely entry point for most consumers into the smart home. One challenge is that most people don’t buy all-Samsung or all-GE when they purchase big appliances or devices. I don’t think that will change. Another challenge that is linked to the many brands is that the lifecycle of some connected devices is pretty long, so the consumer is likely to have a mix of products with different brands but also different Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Thread or Bluetooth specs.
The same company that offers you cable TV and the internet also wants to offer you home security and automation in many cases. In several instances such as Comcast’s(s cmsca) Xfinity home and Time Warner Cable’s(s twc) intelligent home service, the back-end software and integration effort is done by iControl. However AT&T(s t), Deutsch Telekom and others have built their own services.
The pros of this approach are that someone installs and troubleshoots your environment, but the downside is monthly fees and fewer devices to choose from. I’m also curious about lock in. If you switch your service provider, do you have to rip out your thermostats?
Because these devices can vary so much in terms of quality and the end-user experience it’s tough to generalize. But like gadgets from big name brands, it’s a crapshoot on whether your device will ever become part of a whole home platform, or specifically, the whole-home platform you’ve chosen. But if you like the device enough, hopefully that won’t matter. Do make sure you like the product or can use it for something even if its maker goes out of business.
Big box retailers
While Home Depot is putting its muscle behind the Wink platform it also sells individual devices and hubs made by a startup. Other retailers seem to be more focused with both Lowe’s and Staples designing their own platforms and hubs to entice customers. Today, with the market in its early stages and people needing a lot of education, the single-platform approach makes sense.
Letting customers have a selection of devices and even professional installation options seems like a reasonable way to get interested parties on boardwho don’t want to be complete do-it-yourselfers. However, as the big players like Apple and Google start building out platforms in the home, having a variety of devices that will also work with their gear will keep retailers relevant and customers who want to touch the products happy.
Here in Texas entire neighborhoods of planned communities spring up seemingly overnight. And many of the builders behind these communities are eyeing home automation as the granite countertop of the current decade. Some are eyeing big name brands such as iControl or Zonoff to start adding security, energy management and home automation packages built into the home, while others aren’t sure how this will evolve.
If you are building a new home then this is a great way to get those connected products installed without risking electrocution as you replace switches and outlets, but it also will be limiting in terms of the platform. Most of the home providers are talking to the established brands and have little incentive to move to a more innovative or novel service.
Here’s where Apple, Google and perhaps Microsoft come into the picture. While Google is buying Dropcam, has purchased Nest and so seems very clear about selling connected products as part of it’s platform strategy, Apple has committed to a certification program built around its iPhones and iPads. But expectations are high that Apple will do more as it gets a better understanding of what consumers are after.
As for Microsoft, I can’t imagine it will just cede this market to rivals because it didn’t want to do more than a partnership with Insteon. However, for consumers, the risks of embracing the tech giants run the gamut from losing control of your data (or having your information turned into the product sold to advertisers or even researchers) to perpetuating the same fragmented, dual-OS world we currently live in with our phones. Rather than needing an OS or platform, my hope is we can get some common protocols that let all devices talk to each other and share information.
Otherwise it will matter where you buy your smart home from. And that’s not really a world we’ll enjoy living in.