We're Losing the War for the Smart Home
Our tech is smarter than ever, so why is the industry so dumb?
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Before Nest, before the Clapper—heck, even before The Jetsons hit TV screens—America got one of its first glimpses of the smart, sexy home of the future in a formulaic romantic comedy.
In 1959's Pillow Talk, Rock Hudson plays a wealthy playboy who seduces young women with the help of his technologically advanced Manhattan bachelor pad.
His girlfriend—played, of course, by Doris Day—discovers his secret when she finds a couple of oddly-placed light switches. She clicks one, and things get strange: The lights dim, music begins playing, and (creepily) the door locks itself. She clicks another switch, and the couch unfurls into a double bed.
Though Hudson and Day’s characters eventually fall in love, a Hollywood ending has yet to arrive for smart home technology. More than 50 years later, we’re still dreaming of a home that can anticipate and react to our needs.
Why, in this age of technological wonders, does the smart-yet-simple home continue to elude us? The answer lies on a battlefield of warring standards—one on which dozens of rival companies continue to pursue their own narrow and conflicting agendas.
Pillow Talk 2.0
Say you want to outfit a high-tech bachelor pad like the one Rock had, using modern technology and, we hope, more appropriate means of persuasion. Well, you’d better get ready for maddening complexity if you hope to use your smart devices right out of the box.
Let’s start with something simple: Getting lights to dim automatically. Good news! All you need is a smartphone and some Philips Hue smart LED bulbs.
But things get more complicated if you want the music to start playing as the lights go down. You could get a Sonos system, but you’d have to hook up a special wireless bridge to your WiFi router. Plus, you’d have to switch out of your Hue app before starting the tunes.
Holding a date against her will is a crime, of course, but let’s at least consider a smart lock. (Maybe Rock lived in a rough neighborhood?) Schlage and Kwikset both make wireless deadbolts, but they don’t play nice with any of the other apps you might have already downloaded.
Each additional component adds its own additional headache, ad infinitum. A and B work with C, but C only works with D under the right circumstances. It’s enough to make you tear your hair out, but unfortunately that’s the state of the modern smart home.
A House Divided Against Itself
Creating a functioning smart home is so complicated, in large part, thanks to the number of competing protocols on the market. They’re designed to make it easy for devices from different manufacturers to communicate, but they only work if all manufacturers are onboard. Otherwise, they actually become a barrier to cooperation.
"Consumers don't know about protocols. They don’t care about protocols. What they care about is that they can get the products that matter to them," said Mike Harris, CEO of Zonoff, which created the Staples Connect smart home platform.
Harris is right. You shouldn't need to know about protocols, but if you want a functioning smart home you really have no choice but to dive into the details to find the one that can bridge the gap between all of your favorite products.
The bad news is, there’s a pretty good chance that none of them can.
"For all the different products to be connected, there's not one magic bullet right now," said Matt McGovren, head of marketing for Wink, a home automation system backed by GE and Quirky. Each protocol has strengths and weaknesses, and each supports a different set of smart home devices.
In the absence of a common protocol, the major tech and appliance companies seem hesitant to commit large-scale resources to smart home development. Indeed, brands like Bosch and GE have admitted as much. It’s a classic catch-22—one that, for the moment, has no obvious solution.
In part, that’s because a VHS vs. Betamax–style standards war has stymied smart home adoption for more than a decade. Back in the early 2000s, the fledgling community of smart home device makers realized that they too needed a wireless standard. But rather than settle on one protocol, they came up with two: ZigBee and Z-Wave.
Today, each standard enjoys wide adoption by developers, manufacturers, and retailers. That makes their mutual exclusion all the more frustrating for end-users. Many of the coolest gadgets on the market have pledged allegiance to one camp or the other, leaving followers of the other team out in the cold.
Other device makers have opted out of the ZigBee vs. Z-Wave turf war entirely, either choosing to work over good old WiFi or creating their own proprietary standards like Insteon.
Aye, There's the Hub
There’s a way around this language barrier: smart home hubs. These gadgets serve as a linguistic bridge between different protocols, letting ZigBee devices talk to Z-Wave tech, and both of them talk to gadgets that run on WiFi or other wireless standards.
If Rock’s bachelor pad were built today, you can bet he’d have one.
But because of the tangle of competing protocols, most smart home hubs are forced to include a hodgepodge of antennas that can interpret them. Supporting all those standards inevitably makes the hubs more complex and more expensive.
The Lowe’s Iris hub, which retails for $99, supports the big three. “We're betting that WiFi, Z-Wave, and ZigBee will cover 95 percent of what you need," said Kevin Meagher, Lowe’s vice president of smart home. Revolv’s $300 hub goes even further, offering seven antennas (though four, including ZigBee, have yet to be activated for users).
Worse still, new protocols are popping up all the time. That means hub-makers will need to either create add-on modules to support them (as Staples plans to do for its Staples Connect hub) or release entirely new versions of their devices, forcing consumers to upgrade if they want to use the latest smart home products.
Case in point: A consortium of companies including Google’s Nest Labs, Samsung, and five other manufacturers recently announced another standard called Thread.
"I don't think any members of the Thread Group wanted to make something new just for the hell of it," said Thread president Chris Boross, who also works for Nest. The group claims it wants to build a new foundation for the smart home, suggesting that incumbents like ZigBee and Z-Wave are relics of another era, created before the rise of the smartphone or the Internet of Things.
Thread isn’t the only outsider option. The AllSeen Alliance is working on its own Internet of Things language called AllJoyn, backed by major players like Electrolux, Bosch, LG, Microsoft, and Qualcomm, to name just a few of its 70+ members. Then there’s the Open Interconnect Consortium, which plans to develop a new protocol and certification program. It includes Dell, Intel, Samsung, and others.
But are these new protocols and alliances really necessary? Lowe’s smart home guru Meagher doesn’t think so. “Creating new wireless standards is likely to create more problems than it solves,” he said.
For the moment, Lowe’s is committed to covering three protocols. But others, like SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson, believe the industry should simply pick one language and be done with it. His company has created one of the largest, most open developer communities around, and its hub currently supports ZigBee, Z-Wave, and WiFi.
But he’s not shy about which side he wants to succeed: "We think it should probably end up being ZigBee that wins, because it’s an open standard."
The Best Interface Will Win the Race
If inventing a better smart home protocol isn’t the way to unify the smart home, what is? Well, the surest way to win the hearts and minds of consumers is to develop a killer interface, and that’s precisely the strategy being exploited by the latest generation of smart home hubs.
Revolv, SmartThings, and Wink have been the most successful of the bunch. Each offers a slick app that allows you to control dozens of integrated smart home devices from a central interface. Wink and Revolv even let you create simple cause-and-effect relationships between otherwise incompatible devices. But none of the platforms is perfect.
Revolv supports the greatest number of wireless standards, but it’s by far the most expensive hub on the market. SmartThings supports the fewest protocols, but has the most certified products. Wink is late to the fray, but it has the considerable backing of GE (for the time being) and The Home Depot.
While The Home Depot has chosen to promote an existing smart home system, other leading retailers are leveraging their storefront presence to peddle their own ecosystems. Prime examples include Lowe’s Iris and Staples Connect.
“Everything we sell at Lowe’s will work together,” said Meagher. It’s a big selling point for the Iris platform: Customers can come into a local store and talk to sales associates who are experts on the platform. That’s something that only Staples and possibly The Home Depot (with Wink) can match. The tradeoff is that Iris has fewer supported products than other major ecosystems.
No matter which hub you buy, none offers across-the-board support from device makers. And even if a device uses the same protocol as a given hub, that doesn’t mean it’s plug and play. Sadly, cooperation between hub-makers and smart home device manufacturers is in short supply.
And then there’s the issue of brand recognition. Revolv, SmartThings, and Wink are all excellent products, but they’re virtually unknown outside of the Silicon Valley tech bubble. Reaching the average homeowner is a challenge.
Of course, there are a few names in tech that already have that kind of reach. So why aren’t they leading the smart home charge?
OK, Google... Build Me a Smart Home
Great apps speak for themselves. They dazzle us because they take something that was previously ugly, complicated, or tedious and make it awesome. They make our lives not just easier, but more enjoyable.
It’s something Google and Apple are incredibly good at, so perhaps it’s no surprise that many in the industry have expected them to simply stroll onto the smart home battlefield and miraculously create order out of chaos.
But it’s not that easy, even for the biggest names in tech. Thus far, neither company has gone all-in on the smart home, but both are kicking the tires. Early this year, Google acquired Nest, maker of the genre-defining smart thermostat, for $3.2 billion. Apple, meanwhile, announced its HomeKit platform in June.
"What's happening with Google and Apple just further supports the notion that this is a market that is here to stay," said Tobin Richardson, Chairman of the ZigBee Alliance. "And it's a very exciting time for that reason."
Nest is taking things slow under Google’s ownership, currently offering just two products: the Nest Learning Thermostat and Nest Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detector. But that doesn’t mean it’s standing still.
Just before the Google I/O Developer Conference in June, the company made two major moves. First, it acquired security camera startup Dropcam for $555 million. Then it launched its “Works with Nest” developer program, partnering with major companies like Mercedes-Benz and Whirlpool to further Nest integration.
Apple is taking a different approach to smart home tech with HomeKit, a set of developer tools designed to let Siri control your home. Soon, you might be able to say, “Siri, I’m going to bed,” and your lights will turn off, your doors will lock, and your thermostat will turn down—or at least that’s what the marketing would have us believe.
At the HomeKit announcement, Apple touted partnerships with heavyweights like Honeywell and Philips. Recently, the company finalized its hardware specifications for HomeKit-compatible devices, and also released a new Apple TV beta that promises to eventually turn the set-top box into a smart home hub.
Hopes are high that Apple can bring its famous “it just works” ethos to the smart home, but with an extremely limited number of compatible products available to consumers, HomeKit is little more than vaporware at this point.
“It’s sort of like talking about a phantom,” said Revolv CEO Tim Enwall.
While the tech world has been waiting for Apple and Google to make a move, Samsung has come out of left field to arguably leapfrog its two biggest rivals. The Korean giant acquired SmartThings this summer for a cool $200 million.
If Samsung can somehow merge its current, lackluster Samsung Smart Home platform with SmartThings’ superior implementation—or simply appropriate it wholesale and integrate it into its own products—Samsung will control the most complete smart home ecosystem yet.
Curiously, none of these are the solutions that you’d usually expect from Google, Apple, or Samsung. No one is jumping to integrate ZigBee, Z-Wave, and the rest into their mobile OS, or to create a new operating system specifically designed for the home.
It's Time for a Cease-Fire
Whether we get there through new protocols, slick interfaces, or the brute force of an industry titan, the time is coming when no home will be built without some kind of smart tech.
"You can't buy a car without climate control, power windows, or power door locks," said Mark Walters, the Chairman of the Z-Wave Alliance. "Pretty soon you’re going to be seeing the same thing for your house."
But even if smart home systems will soon be integrated into a majority of homes, that doesn’t mean they’ll be easy to use, or compatible with your other household technology. In fact, if modern cars and phones are anything to go on, the homes of the future will be far more complicated to work on and more expensive than ever before.
Still, there’s great promise in the smart home. Not only does this technology have the potential to make our lives easier, but it could also provide huge benefits in energy and water efficiency, security, and even accessibility for homeowners with disabilities. The home of the future is tantalizingly close—manufacturers, developers, and standards organizations just need to take the final steps to get us there.
At the end of Pillow Talk, Doris Day turns the tables on Rock Hudson, using his gadgets against him to win his heart. Maybe that’s exactly what needs to happen between consumers and smart home manufacturers. We want our homes to play by our rules, not those of mega-corporations, and none of them will win the war until they give us what we want.