A fight is brewing over control of the smart home and APIs are the weapon of choice.

In the land rush to get their connected devices into consumer homes, device makers are pushing design, convenience and new features for their point products like locks, thermostats and cameras while home hub companies are on building one app to control everything. This is causing some tension between players, and may even end up frustrating consumers.
Last week SmartThings said it had integrated the Dropcam IP camera into its home hub setup. This allows people who have SmartThings hubs to control their Dropcam and view footage from the SmartThings app. It also lets certain events from SmartThings sensors trigger the camera. For folks who want to tweak their home setups and who have many connected devices, such a hack is convenient.
But Greg Duffy, the CEO of Dropcam, said it’s not secure. He said he can’t do anything to stop SmartThings from letting folks tie their Dropcam account to SmartThings, but he worries that it’s not secure.
“They are storing Dropcam users’ user names and passwords,” Duffy said. “I can’t vouch for that.” A SmartThings spokeswoman said that all passwords stored by SmartThings are encrypted using 256-bit AES encryption, and that the company takes security very seriously.

Greg Duffy DropCam Mobilize 2013

Greg Duffy, CEO, DropCam Mobilize 2013 (c) 2013 Pinar Ozger [email protected]

Dropcam does have a closed API, which means it doesn’t let other companies integrate Dropcam into their products without building some unsupported workaround, be it SmartThings, Revolv, services like IFTTT or others. This is in part because camera data is sensitive and Dropcam wants to protect consumer data and privacy, Duffy explained, but it’s also because he doesn’t think there is a huge demand from a wide swath of the consumer market for integration with smart home hubs. He said the problem of having to open multiple apps just to control your home is not a real one for most people, who still seem content to get their camera feeds from Dropcam, control their speakers with Sonos and set their thermostats via Nest.
And when the consumer seems more ready, Duffy confessed that Dropcam has some ideas about connected products that could integrate with its cameras in a way the average consumer would likely buy into. In the meantime, he’s not advertising the SmartThings integration to Dropcam customers.

Hacked support is just what the customer ordered?

Dropcam isn’t the only company facing this issue. Nest, as the most visible connected product success, has seen companies from Revolv to Insteon offer to control of the Nest thermostat through their home hubs. Ha Thai, who handles communications for Nest’s developer program, confirmed, for example, that Insteon’s recent support for the Nest thermostat isn’t official. Nest intends to “make APIs available to developers shortly, which will be the tested and documented way for third parties like Insteon to access Nest products and services,” Thai wrote in an email.

Moderated by: Om Malik — Founder, Gigaom Speaker: Tony Fadell — Founder and CEO, Nest Labs

Moderated by:
Om Malik — Founder, Gigaom
Tony Fadell — Founder and CEO, Nest Labs

Back in September Nest announced plans to release that API in early 2014, but the $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest by Google has presumably held up the release of the Nest APIs. However, whenever I have asked (in February and again on Monday) I have gotten the same response: “We are still planning to release Nest APIs,” with an offer to follow up when Google/Nest has more information to share.
That isn’t enough for Insteon. When asked about its decision to hack together a way to offer Nest control absent official support, an Insteon spokesman said via email:

We felt that offering basic integration would allow our customers to buy a Nest thermostat and control it through Insteon while enabling current Nest users to expand their connected home experience.Then when the API comes out, we’ll fully integrate it. With the lack of an API, this was the only alternative to offer Insteon users today.

What’s the big deal?

For consumers, the risk in these illicit integrations is probably minor. Nest, for example, could change its features, and then those without official support might face a break in their ability to control the Nest through their hubs until the engineering team at the hub company tweaked its integration. For the most part it would result in delayed features or glitches, but it could mean something important like a security or an essential safety notice doesn’t make it through (I assume a patch could still be delivered to the device over the network, so the biggest danger is you don’t see the official notice in the official app).

My living room with red Hue lights.

My living room with red Hue lights.

And as someone who has been playing with smart hubs for almost a year, I will say the experience is not one the average consumer will embrace. It’s time consuming, glitchy and tough to implement, with a payoff that’s fun but doesn’t add copious amounts of convenience. I think one day it will, but we are not there yet.
So while I enjoy toiling on my own home network, I tend to think that the mass market might not want to spend hours trying to figure out why a connected light bulb that’s supposed to turn red when a certain person enters a home network only does what it is supposed to at certain times of day. Those normal people are probably wondering why anyone would want a light to blink red when her husband turns onto the street. (It’s so I can run down to wash the day’s dishes I left in the sink before he gets in.)
So these integration fights are probably less about making the consumer’s life difficult and more about an attempt to carve out fiefdoms in the nascent smart home automation market. Meanwhile, I’ve got a light bulb I need to troubleshoot.
This post was updated April 30 to change the title of Ha Thai.