What will happen to the smart home hub?

Last week’s acquisition of UK-based smart home platform provider AlertMe capped off a smart-home acquisition spree that includes Nest picking up Revolv in October and Samsung taking out SmartThings in August. If the last six months have shown the market anything, it’s that a number of leading consumer IT giants, including Google, Samsung, and Apple, plus a utility here and there, feel they need a connected-home platform to stay competitive.

The reasons for this are complex. For hardware providers like Apple, which should launch HomeKit this spring, the reasons relate to needing to keep users’ interaction with the home within the iOS ecosystem in order to maintain competitiveness in mobile. For utilities like British Gas, which picked up AlertMe, there’s an opportunity to engage customers in ways never possible before, which could be important in deregulated and competitive utility markets. And for a hardware design leader like Nest, there’s value in having some of the best home-networking engineers in-house since the company intends to use the Nest thermostat as a springboard on which to build a full platform that plays well with third-party devices.

Just a year ago the smart home market was still a startup, venture-financed one. Now it looks like a market full of players with deep pockets, global sales channels and major brands.

When I caught up with AlertMe’s CEO Mary Turner the evening of the acquisition announcement, she commented that she felt the timing of the deal was right. “It was starting to get quite noisy and there were some very large players with deep pockets entering the fray. The vision [for AlertMe] was to not service one or two million homes but tens of millions of homes globally. To effectively deliver that vision, we felt we needed the firepower to get us into the next stage of development. This is no longer a market for tiny small startups.”

The question going forward is, What happens to the physical hardware hubs in the home? The answer to that question indicates how users will control the smart home. When Nest bought Revolv, it immediately discontinued the attached hardware hub Revolv had built with its seven radios. And AlertMe has always argued that the value of its service is in its software platform, which also powers the Lowe’s Iris hub.

Turner and I looked to a future in which the hardware hub disappears and the “hub stack” is absorbed by another piece of hardware in the home, like a wireless router or a set-top box. Currently the smart home market isn’t big enough to warrant putting additional radios into a router or set top box, but that picture may well be different in two years. There is no shortage of Apple fans, for example, that believe the Apple TV is ripe to absorb the hub stack, and along with HomeKit, act as a control center for the home.

If consolidation of communications protocols follows the absorbing of the hub stack into a more mass-market device that’s in most homes, building out the connected home will get easier and will push the connected home toward the mass market.

Whether it’s Apple, Samsung, or even a utility like British Gas, there’s value in being in control of the software that will control that home. Which may well explain how almost every major hub maker with a solid software platform atop which big IT players could build services got acquired in just six months.

Smart locks: the next smart-home winner?

Nest paved the way for the smart home, showing investors that consumers would pay $249 for a next-generation thermostat. Now many are wondering what other connected-home products could become breakout success stories. In 2015, smart locks, and security related products in general, are the most promising.

For a smart-home device to succeed in the consumer market it must be as easy to use compared to its non-connected version and there must be a return for the consumer in terms of cash/energy savings or convenience. If connectivity merely adds complexity, a product’s in trouble.

Connected thermostats have proved a winner based on these criteria. The lock is a technology that has stood the test of time since metal keys and locks first appeared about 900 AD. If we’re truly ready to move beyond their elegant simplicity, we’ll need some clear benefits. Smart locks must make our lives easier.

A number of startups have risen to the challenge, including August, Kevo, Lockitron, Danalock, and Goji, which all have smart locks for sale in the $179 to $299 price range. Jason Johnson, who co-founded August along with designer Yves Behar, noted to me, “We wanted to wait until we felt there was a real problem to solve and not just make another gadget for the home that was kind of cool but you used it for a few months. We wanted to make something that would last for many years. It’s not easy to do. It’s not easy to find a product to do that in the home.”

As I discuss in more depth in my recent Gigaom Research report, smart locks offer attractive benefits: Being able to grant a house guest or a repairman short term access to your home via a smart phone, going for a run without taking your keys, and being able to use a friend’s phone to open your house in case you do the smart lock equivalent of “losing your keys.”

The trick in the smart home, of course, is always moving beyond the early adopter crowd. Right now, products are being developed that include everything from a connected water monitor for your fish tank to a connected toaster. Getting the broader market to pay for connected products is a different story.

I am optimistic about smart locks, partially because it is a very promising market not just in the residential sector but also in hospitality. Consider an Airbnb host who only wants to grant access to her apartment for specific periods of time and who doesn’t want to have to go meet her guest. Now she can just authenticate the guest’s smart phone for a set number of days. Business travelers are another opportunity. Instead of showing up at a conference and seeing a line of 20 people waiting at reception, your phone can check you in and serve as your hotel room key. I could see big chains like Marriott or Hilton integrating this functionality into their apps.

The risks? Like any newish technology there are imperfections. One reviewer complained that if he entered through the garage and walked by the front door, where his August smart lock was installed, it unlocked even though he was inside the house. One of the reasons the Kevo smart lock requires a simple touch sensor to unlock is that its designers felt intent to unlock was important in preventing situations like this. Others have noted that with features that automatically lock the door after it closes, stepping outside without a phone means being locked out of your house. (Of course, this feature can be turned off and, anyway, plenty of traditional locks work this way too.). Still, I think consumers will move past all of these minor glitches as they get accustomed to how the technology works. The technology is also likely to get better as data collected from a couple years of consumer use produces quicker product cycles and improved functionality.

Smart locks have a lot of benefits for consumers, and, longer term, businesses interested in maximizing customer experiences will see value in them. I suspect that will be enough to move smart locks out of the early adopter set.

Image courtesy of Maxiphotoa/iStock.

Is security the next piece of the smart-home puzzle?

After the success of connected thermostats in the home, many are wondering what the next major point application success could be. I’ve looked at everything from connected water heaters to connected lighting to connected refrigerators. But the application that looks most promising right now is security. Has the smart door lock finally arrived?

In October the Yves Behar designed smart lock named August went on sale and the Kevo smart lock from Kwikset and Lockitron have been on the market for the past year or two.

My measure for all smart home products is twofold:

  1. Is it easier than what we have now?
  2. Is there a return for the consumer, either monetary, convenience, or in improved user experience?

As the number of connected devices in the home and elsewhere proliferates, many products are likely to just add complexity to people’s lives. These will entertain early adopters but struggle in the mass market.

In terms of security, the age old lock and key is very simple and, in many respects, elegant. So any smart lock must bring value for the consumer.

Some of that value comes from cost avoidance: never having to call a locksmith again because the key essentially exists in the cloud and the equivalent of losing your key is losing your phone. Never having to carry an actual key in your pocket is appealing in the way that Apple Pay makes the wallet one less thing to carry. And being able to easily give others access to one’s home with an electronic key for a set period of time has a major convenience payoff (think the babysitter, the repairman or even an Airbnb guest — the hospitality industry is a big potential market for smart locks).

The number one question surrounding smart locks is, What happens if your phone dies? The good news is that smart locks still accommodate traditional keys. They just add wireless- and sensor-based unlocking capabilities. Additionally, one can always access the respective company’s app on another’s phone log in and unlock that way. Asking to borrow your neighbor’s phone if you’re locked out is much easier and more convenient than calling a locksmith.

The other major public perception sticking point relates to software security on the phone and vulnerability to hacking. I spoke recently with Phil Dumas, the President of Unikey, which makes the Kevo along with partner Kwikset. Looking at the market, he noted, “We realize that the smart lock market is so new and sensitive that if there would be any security compromises, that it would set the whole industry back so we erred on the side of caution. It’s way more secure than your bank account. We’re very confident in the security model we put together.” Unikey’s vision is total elimination of the keychain, and the company has met with the hospitality industry as well as the automotive industry to examine other markets aside from the home.

So If 2013 was the year that Nest showed that thermostats would be an integral part of the smart home vision, could 2015 be the year that a small group of smart lock makers show that getting rid of your physical keychain might just work?

I’m cautiously optimistic here. Great technology is technology you don’t notice. And with some of the better smart locks out there, we’re dealing with a completely passive system, meaning you don’t have to take out your phone to unlock the door — the lock simply anticipate your needs. And the appeal of, say, being able to leave one’s home and go for a run without taking your key, has value.

Sooner or later the keychain is likely to go away just as the wallet eventually will merge with the one item people always seem to take with them: their smartphone. Projections have one third of the world using smartphones within the next 24 months. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when. The market will begin slowly. But I think we’re nearing a point where it truly becomes easier and more convenient to use your phone for entry rather than lugging around that old keychain.

Not so handy? There’s a connected device for you, too

I love the idea of the internet of things, I really do. But as a renter I don’t want to buy a Nest or any other device that I would need to wire into the wall. Plus, my building is really, really old. I have a feeling it would be an arduous process.

That’s at odds with the internet of things’ big promise: simplicity. Connected devices are supposed to streamline our lives, but that doesn’t matter if we can’t figure out how to integrate them into our homes.

“Those are huge friction points,” said David Genet, co-founder of connected peephole maker Building 10. “If you can’t install it without calling tech support, you’re not going to buy it.”

Peeple attaches into existing peepholes.

Peeple attaches to existing peepholes.

I spent Tuesday morning at the third biannual Highway1 demo day and noticed something unusual: a group of connected devices that don’t require any rewiring at all. There was Lagoon, which straps onto homes’ main water lines to track usage. Peeple, a connected peephole that snaps a picture when someone knocks, fits into the existing hole in your door. Switchmate snaps over any light switch. Oh, and Fishbit, the connected water monitor, just drops into your fish tank.

No wires calls for a battery

So, why were we wiring devices into our homes in the first place? One reason is power. Those cords carry sweet, sweet electricity to the electronics, meaning they never have to be charged. All of the devices at the demo day need to be charged every 6 to 12 months.

If 6 to 12 months sounds like a long time, that’s because it is. Only recently did it become possible to build battery-powered products that can collect data and communicate it without frequent charging.

The Lagoon water monitor wraps around existing water meters with a strap.

The Lagoon water monitor wraps around existing water meters with a strap.

The Highway1 startups started with very little physical movement. There are no motors or moving parts to suck battery life. Then they added low-energy communication: Peeple uses Wi-Fi, Switchmate relies on Bluetooth Low Energy, Fishbit is compatible with both Bluetooth Low Energy and Wi-Fi, and Lagoon’s device comes with an unnamed radio technology. As my colleague Stacey Higginbotham has outlined extensively, this will be more and more common.

The future needs to be wired (or something totally different)

OK, so, you have your connected peephole. Now imagine a few years from now, when you also have connected light switches, water monitors, appliances and so on. That’s a lot of charging.

The Switchmate device sits on top of traditional light switches.

The Switchmate device sits on top of traditional light switches.

Switchmate CEO Robert Romano acknowledged that would be annoying, but added that most people are not yet connecting their entire homes. In these early days, people might adopt two or three devices for areas of their home that are especially important to them. That’s not such a big commitment.

When we do start connecting a larger portion of our homes, we might have to suck it up and do those often difficult installs. Or we might have some totally new ways of providing power. Romano suggested solar. Or, even better, we could skip ahead to wirelessly charging everything in our homes.

Until then, I’ll embrace the battery-powered connected devices trickling into the market. I know my landlord will thank me.

Jibo the robot raises $1.75M on Indiegogo

Home robot Jibo‘s Indiegogo campaign was scheduled to close over the weekend, but after raising more than $1.75 million the robot’s creators have decided to keep the campaign open through September 14. If the campaign hits $2 million, Jibo will allow users to remotely access their robot’s camera and peer around the room. The robot will also be able to send alerts when there is suspicious movement or sound. Jibo is scheduled to start shipping in late 2015.

Now you can control your Hue lights with a tap

Good news for the people who have Hue lights and are sick of opening an app to turn them on. The Hue tap remote control that lets you press a button to control your Hue lights, hit the Apple store a bit ahead of schedule. The device costs $59.95 and I’m eager to try it out to see if it helps me keep my phone in my pocket. The tap is powered by pressing any one of the four buttons, which let you program four different scenes.