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.

This week’s podcast unravels the secrets of Thread and HomeKit

 

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For those of you who love talking about radio protocols listen all the way through for our guest on this week’s podcast because Sujata Neidig, of the Thread Group and Freescale Semiconductor, doesn’t disappoint. She digs into the hardcore details about how the Thread protocol works after making a case for why the world needs another radio standard for connected devices. I learned a lot about the protocol and I imagine you will too.

Before that, more casual listeners may learn something as Kevin Tofel and I run down what we know and what has been reported on Apple’s HomeKit framework so far. I also lay out my cardinal rule of buying connected gadgets, which will come as no surprise to listeners but does mean that I won’t be buying some of the HomeKit-only devices out there. There’s a passing discussion of connected kitchen scales and robot snow plows, so enjoy the podcast, especially to our listeners stuck in the snow-packed wasteland of the Northeast.

Hosts: Stacey Higginbotham and Kevin Tofel
Guests: Sujata Neidig, VP of marketing for Thread Group and business development manager at Freescale Semiconductor

  • HomeKit, what we know, what we don’t and what we think.
  • A connected scale for novice bakers and Stacey’s cardinal rule for buying connected devices
  • Why we need a mesh, IP-connected radio protocol like Thread
  • Thread’s architecture in the home includes nodes, routers and border routers

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Ditch the hub and check out some software apps for the smart home

A growing number of people have a connected device or three in their home, but don’t really want to trouble themselves with a home automation hub or sensors or programming a smart home. That kind of effort and expense is way too much when they just want to adjust their Nest from an app or play with their Philips Hue lights while listening to their Sonos sound system.

These casually connected people are the target of a new breed of software from companies like Yonomi or Reach. The idea behind these firms and others is that customers can download an app and then control their devices from a single interface, maybe getting a little bit more from each gadget when you pull them together under that single app. I tried Yonomi, a company that is based in Austin, Texas and in Boulder, Colorado since it’s actually out of beta and available for Android (it’s not available for iOS yet).

Discovery

The free app downloaded quickly and after a brief sign up process and clicking through a license agreement that basically said they didn’t want to keep my data (but that they did share it with partners), I was in. The app started looking for devices on my Wi-Fi network and it quickly found my Nest thermostat, six Sonoses, my Hue lights and a Wemo outlet. I connected my Nest and Hue accounts and then I was done. The first time I realized anything new was going on was after a phone call when I saw a notification that Yonomi was running the Phone Call routine.

When I clicked the notification, I saw that the routine consisted of the app muting all my Sonos speakers for the call and then unmuting them when it was over. Nothing was playing, but I thought it was pretty cool. Other routines that were automatically populated on the app for me included a Welcome Home and Good Night routine. We’ll talk about Welcome Home, since it comes into play a bit later. That routine turns on the Wemo, which in my house has a lamp plugged into it and all my Sonoses say “Welcome home, Stacey,” and then they play whatever is in my Sonos favorite list at that time.

RoutineView

It’s pretty cool, and its made cooler by the fact that I don’t have to do anything to program these. However, it was less cool at 12:30am on Saturday night when my phone apparently dropped offline for a bit and then hopped back on and triggered the Welcome Home sequence. It woke my husband and me up and we raced to turn of the music that was playing throughout the house, including in our daughter’s room, before she woke up.

As you might expect, my husband was unimpressed. He has already called the Sonos greetings and good nights, “gimmicky,” and this was his breaking point.

He asked me to delete the app. I didn’t, but I did go in, and take the Sonos in my daughter’s room out of rotation for any routines. That allowed me to do something I should have done earlier: I went in and edited my routines to make the Welcome Home routine only happen between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. at night to avoid waking people up. I also took all the voice greetings off the Sonos in our master bedroom and bathroom so my husband wouldn’t be as irritated.

In talking to Kent Dickson, the CEO of Yonomi, on this week’s podcast, we discussed the Wake Up glitch and how the company is fixing it, and how users can ensure that they don’t get a 12:30am Welcome Home wakeup call if they don’t want it. Setting parameters are one way, but on the Yonomi side, they are working on improving how the phone geo-fences to eliminate false positives.

Dickson believes that the app should be as accessible as possible to people, so he doesn’t want to charge for it, and plans to consider revenue-generating options later. He wouldn’t disclose the number of users the app has after its six weeks of availability, although it has somewhere in the 1,000 download range per the Google Play store tracker. An iOS version will be out later, he said.

A demo version of the Reach app shown off at Structure Connect.

A demo version of the Reach app shown off at Structure Connect.

Dickson isn’t alone in his goals. Last Fall at our Structure Connect event I saw an app called Reach that used the Android lock screen to control a variety of connected devices including the Nest, Hue lights, Sonos, Roku and more. I liked it because it’s always a bit of a pain to drill down into a connected home app to get to the device you want to control. It’s especially galling if you’re clicking through three or four screens to turn on a light that’s four or five feet away.

The plan is to launch the Reach app in beta soon for Android. I’d like to see what options the iOS development community has in store outside of HomeKit, which will let people control individual devices from their notification screen, but may not offer ways to tie multiple devices together. Either way, it seems that we’re seeing some really interesting options out there for people who don’t want to buy a hub, but do want to control their connected devices and maybe even see if they can make them work together.

Works with Nest is the best UI for the smart home right now

I spent my CES looking for the solution to the growing complexity in the smart home and didn’t really find it. Instead, I came to the conclusion that the best option out there for a regular person trying to create an easy-to-use smart home automation system is the Works with Nest program. Not the not-even-ready-for-prime-time HomeKit, not SmartThings, not Wink or Insteon or any one of a dozen still-to-be-launched hub and sensor packages that are still coming to the market in 2015.

Now, when it comes to ease of use, the Works with Nest program won’t let users do anything beyond link their devices and select whether they want to turn a feature on or not, but its options are becoming more useful and powerful every update. And at CES, several partners announced updates, making it much more likely that most Nest owners can now experience a product that will tie into their Nest thermostat or Protect.

A screenshot of Haiku with SenseME's app that suggests higher Ne

For example, Philips announced a Works with Nest tie in that lets your light bulbs slowly dim when your thermostats move to the away setting. If it stays in Away for more than a day, the light bulbs then start randomly turning on and off to simulate you being home. It took me three screens to link my Nest and Hue accounts and turn that feature on. Presumably now I’m saving energy and have improved security whereas before when I’ve gone away I’ve set my Nest and manually programmed my lights. There is a SmartThings app that allows for the lights to randomly turn on and off, but I’ve literally never found it.

So while the Works with Nest program isn’t for someone like me who came back from CES pumped to try to create an IFTTT recipe that will make it possible to turn on my Hue bulbs in the morning in my closet and have them glow a different color based on whether or not the temperature is higher or lower than 40 degrees so I know how to dress for my dog walk (yes, I could just do an IFTTT recipe so my Sonos just tells me the weather via SmartThings) it is for people who don’t want to spend time troubleshooting or thinking about their homes.

Zonoff, the company behind the Staples Connect software, also is trying to make its programming a little less programmatic by letting people answer a few questions when they install a new device. As Mike Harris, the CEO of Zonoff explained in an interview at CES, “When people install a new smoke detector, there is a limited number of things they are likely going to want to do with it, so we ask them if they want to do them.”

So it may ask if you want to have your lights blink when your smoke alarm goes off and your doors to unlock automatically. You click yes, and the software sets it up. Unlike with the Nest, the Staples Connect hub still leaves you with the ability to program all the other scenarios you’d like, but it is trying to offer the same trend of limiting the customer’s options and need for interaction with the devices in order to get some functionality.

In many ways this is disappointing. I already knew I wasn’t going to find the one platform or a unifying standard at the show, and indeed saw the big platforms grow stronger, but I was hoping for some more intelligent and contextual user interfaces. I saw sparks on the horizon, with learning light bulbs from Stack lighting (also a Works with Nest partner) or the integrations that app-maker Muzzley is building.

But the path to the truly intuitive home appears to be paved with limitations and perhaps a few false starts. If you’re going to buy into the smart home today, then I suggest you invest into one ecosystem such as Insteon, Wink or a known quantity. Or, if you decide to just go with the point devices you need, start with a Nest.

And believe me, I wasn’t a huge Nest fan starting out. But for the lay person, it’s not a bad place to end up.

As HomeKit arrives, will smart home devices still love Android?

Like the U.S. during the Civil War, mine is a house divided.

I have a second generation Motorola X handset while my husband recently upgraded to an iPhone 6 running iOS. As such I was curious what it would mean for my home automation schemes as Apple’s HomeKit devices started to arrive. The good news is I shouldn’t find myself unable to control devices in our home, but the bad news, even for homes running all-Apple products, is that you may have to upgrade a device or two to get the features you crave.

Apple’s HomeKit is a developer framework launched last summer at its developer event, designed to help connected devices around the smart home work with the iPhone and iPad. Information about the framework has slowly trickled out, such as it will use the Made for iPhone/iPod/iPad certification program to ensure compatibility and that the Apple TV will act as some sort of hub if your iPhone isn’t at home to be the “brains” of any of your home automation rules.

But the big questions that most people have been asking have been around the features. For example, the expectation is that we’ll see voice activation commands given to Siri. I’ve seen “Scenes” that can be set and notifications that pop up on your iPhone when events are triggered that let you then elect to set your lights on or raise the temperature on your thermostat from your phone easily if you’d like.

But in a divided home, all of the HomeKit benefits will pass Android users by unless you choose a hub that supports both HomeKit and the Android ecosystem. And even if you do elect to go that route, Android users may get a fundamentally different user experience from your Apple-using partner while they enjoy Siri commands and “scenes” and you fiddle around with “Robots” or “recipes.” Possibly more worrisome will be a small sub-segment of HomeKit certified devices that will only support iOS products, leaving Android users out in the cold, much like some apps do today.

Joe Dada, CEO of Insteon.

Joe Dada, CEO of Insteon.

While I don’t expect those gadgets to be mass market, you might be in (relative) danger if you see something cool at the Apple store and don’t look closely at the box to ensure it supports Android. And even iOS users aren’t going to get off scot-free in this transition to HomeKit. Some device makers will need to bring out new versions of their hardware to support. For example, Insteon CEO Joe Dada told me at CES that he plans on bringing out a new version of the Insteon hub to support the MFI program although he couldn’t tell me when that would be.

Most vendors were similarly constrained on the record, able to vaguely discuss their products and plans, but unable to address specifics. For example, when I asked Philips about if I would need to replace my hardware in order to get HomeKit supports I was told they are proud that people who bought Hue on day one are still able to use the system and its features and they are committed to keeping it that way. Chamberlain, another Apple HomeKit partner confirmed officially that buyers won’t need to replace their old gear.

So, while I did hear and see a lot of HomeKit at CES, I didn’t get the clarity I was hoping for. It seems that vendors wanted very much to offer me that clarity but couldn’t. Which makes me wonder, as Apple moves into an ecosystem with a far greater number of partners how much longer its vaunted system of secrecy and control could possibly last.

Chamberlain goes from the garage to the front door with Notifi

Chamberlain, a company that’s long been known for garage door openers and is the maker of one of my favorite connected products (the Chamberlain MyQ connected garage door opener) will launch two new products at CES this year. The first is a garage door opener that is like the MyQ but does away with the hub that comes with that product to build the Wi-Fi network and connected components directly into a garage door openers that will be available this Spring and sell for between $235 and $250 depending on the power of the garage door opener.

The second product is something that I’m way more excited about: it’s a way to get video from your front door. The device is called Notifi and consists of an LED light and a video camera that is attached to the light via a cord. You screw the light bulb into your porch light by your front door and the socket provides power for the video camera, which you then clip to the light’s fixture.

The idea is when motion triggers the camera as someone approaches the door, you get an alert and a picture on your smart phone. If you want video, you click a button on the app and it starts transmitting. The Notifi uses Wi-Fi to transmit the video, which can lead to a wonky experience in some of the other products that try to deliver two-way or even one-way video to a mobile phone via a Wi-Fi connection from a doorbell or front-door camera.

Cory Sorice, VP of Marketing for Connected Products and eCommerce at Chamberlain, said that by sending a picture first instead of video and prepping the video while the user looks at the picture helps give the system time to start the transmission without leading to excessive buffering or packet loss. The other problem is a bit more prosaic: installation and power can be a bit of struggle for the average homeowner.

Many connected doorbells or peephole cameras that are wireless require a battery change every six months or so, which can get aggravating as we add more and more connected devices. But those that are connected to the existing electric line for the doorbell intimidate some folks, who then take a pass on the device. So while the Notifi is pricey at $199 and won’t come out until the third quarter, the fact that the light socket provides power and an easy installation (plus light for the camera) makes it attractive.

If it can overcome the video transmission challenges, I’m eager to I’m eager to add the Notifi to my collection of smart home gadgets, especially as Chamberlain adds more and more integration partners including Apple’s HomeKit and Nest.

ces-2015-3

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