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There are many paths to a smart home. And that’s the problem.

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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.

Service providers

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?


The August lock.
The August lock.

For the DIY set, Kickstarter, Indiegogo or pre-order platforms are a constant source of connected home gadgetry. Locks from August or Goji are available next to light bulbs from LIFX or hubs from SmartThings and Revolv. One could even count the Nest thermostat in this category until Google(s goog) bought it. Depending on the device and stage, you can expect your experience to be awesome or one of a constantly updating beta customer.

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.

Home builders

Image (1) construction.jpg for post 76138
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.

Tech giants

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.

7 Responses to “There are many paths to a smart home. And that’s the problem.”

  1. Gary Doan

    Networking markets can’t get to the mass adoption stage without universal standards. It shouldn’t matter what system you use to manage basic devices. Smart devices should have their own interface and an API available to third parties. The number of supported devices, uniqueness of the platform, specialize devices and security are issues that may differentiate vendors.

  2. Agreed with thoughts above, Issue for end consumer, is which one will prevail, and lots of fragmentation in offerings, no clear compelling use case, expect for existing Home security, thermostat may be.

  3. Everything is going to depend on secure communication in the future. My guess is that a goal will be to bring the ad-based monetization of social media into the home. If a fridge can keep track of what you buy, then, it can also send you ads and maybe even order your groceries for you. Perhaps, even detecting what types of clothes you own and pitching similar types to you. Danger is, as always, if someone gets into your network, they can mess with your life pretty badly. Worse still, someone might actually be able to hack into your phone and PC through your dishwasher…

    I guess, our only contribution at this time to try to make IoT more secure is that we have taken sensor data and made it into a base for data encryption for secure communication:

    This way, at least the communication between the devices and the outside world can be protected.

  4. Hildy J

    I love technology. I had remote controlled lighting 20 years ago (via X10 boxes) and gave it up when I moved from an apartment to a house because it was easier to use a switch than find a remote. It still is.

    I have a programmable thermostat with 4 daypart/7 day/normal & vacation/heat & cool programming. It would be nice if it had a touch screen to program it but its functionality is sufficient, there’s no monthly charge, and it doesn’t need an Internet connection. I don’t need an IoT replacement.

    At this point, my problems with everyday life are mechanical, not electronic. Give me a robot that can take my clothes out of the washer and hang them up.

  5. IoT will suck until vendors start to “get” that they don’t own the data. Devices *must* talk first to the device owner and have the ability to work locally without an Internet connection. The house *must* *not* blue-screen because some idiot with a backhoe severs the network cable out by the road.

    Case in point is the light bulb and switch. These have been so standard for so long, “smart” device manufacturers completely forgot they were components of a system. So “smart” switch manufacturers require a dumb bulb. And “smart” bulb manufacturers require you to duct-tape the wall switch in the “on” position to get their bulb to work. Then if you have guests, they must install an app just to get the lights to work. Gaaaahhhhhh… What nonsense!

    “Smart” devices must first work like the functionality they are replacing. When my grandmother walks into a model home, that switch on the wall had better be recognizable as a switch or she isn’t buying the house. IoT vendors need to start designing for the “grandma” market if they want this to really take off.

    • +1 T.Rob!

      We are just living out the intellectual fallout of Apple’s AppStore/iTunes model. It established the incredible power (and therefore money) that comes from a monolithic, controlled ecosystem. This is ‘the new black’ and all the big IoT players are rushing to copy it. We need a new model, something *just* as radical as the original AppStore but in the direction of user rights and data ownership. The problem, of course, is that this type of model is far more open and, to be honest, open models are very hard to get right. They tend to be more standards based and while we all love them, they tend to be what you do AFTER the crazy proprietary innovation happens.

      One way of thinking about it is to have an open source solution that fast follows the current proprietary trends, lagging the early leaders by 6 months but making sure the right principles are put into place. Something like this is certainly possible but it will likely only attract the early adopters/makers at first, but that’s ok. We need to think like terraformers and not stock option flippers. This is a critical problem that needs careful critical thinking. Let’s beat the crazy VC-types at their own game by just thinking towards a further horizon.