The success of the smart home movement is just a question of time, whereas the winners of the “game” are a question of us, the consumers. If you followed the topic over the past years, what you will have in mind are probably the constant debates about which is the best communication standard and about the vulnerability of the networks. Also you will remember some press releases and statements like the one from Google’s Larry Page after acquiring Nest, who said “We are excited to bring great experiences to more homes in more countries and fulfill their dreams!”. Several months later I think the experience is still limited and I still don’t dream about a Nest thermostat at night. With dropping costs for chips and sensors as well as very capable start ups and companies like Google, Amazon and Samsung – why am I not excited, yet?
Let us take a look at the current situation; there are several things that make the current smart home market less attractive than it could be for the consumers.
In the past many companies tried to claim that the success of the smart home market will be defined through the communication standard, such as ZigBee, Bluetooth or thread. As it is right now, there is no agreement to go with any of those, which makes it hard for developers to build their hardware. For the customer it is bad because it is close to impossible to interconnect all different home devices in a clean and easy-to-use way. With dropping prices for the chips it might get possible for the hardware designers to build in more than just one communication standard in a device – for the consumer it just gets more and more irritating. The problem is, that ZigBee, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and so on all have their advantages. In your laptop you want Wi-Fi for fast data rates whereas in your smoke detector you want something like ZigBee which needs just a fraction of power so you don’t have to change the batteries very often. Samsung, Nest etc. now work on their own wireless standard called “thread” which they tell us is going to be the Holy Grail of smart home connectivity. To get to the point, the communication standards are a mess and an agreement seems to be far away.
The second big challenge for smart home developers is the security of the networks. There are tons of reports of people hacking into smart homes and turning them into “haunted houses“. A recent study from HP reveals that a lot of systems in the market are still vulnerable to attacks from outside. This is a major drawback as the result is that third persons might be able to unlock your doors, track your car and let your energy bill go through the roof. The smart home should protect us and make it harder not easier to break in our homes. Until the security issues are solved many people will not trust and therefore not buy smart home devices.
Last but not least, consumers which are not employed in a technology related industry will find it hard to follow all the different companies, start ups and co-operations in the smart home field. Nest has been acquired by Google. Nest now cooperates with Samsung, ARM and more in order to create the communication standard “thread”. Nest is compatible with Mercedes, Dropcam, Lifx and more. Confusing already. But it gets worse, as Revolv, a startup which tried to connect all different smart home devices with one hub and app independent of the communication standard, now also has been acquired by Nest. Does that mean that now the idea of Revolv is limited to Google and Nest devices again? I could use SmartThings instead of Revolv – wait no they just have been bought by Samsung. So maybe let’s go with some other start up working on the same idea, to connect all devices with one hub; but how do I know they won’t get bought by another huge company tomorrow? Also it is not clear, if you should buy expensive devices to set up your smart home by yourself or if you should better choose a service like AT&T’s Digital Life for which you pay on a monthly basis.
Google, Amazon and some very capable start ups have been fighting for shares of the smart home market over the past months but I wasn’t able to identify a real favorite on which I would have placed my bets. But now that has changed: I can finally see light at the end of the tunnel. And that is because of Apple. Don’t get me wrong, Apple might not be the flame of the torch but it is adding a lot of fuel to it. The smart home game is suddenly very exciting again as not just another giant joined but as the Silicon Valley Company has a completely different approach towards the market.
So if I had to place my bet, chances are it’s on Apple. Read my upcoming blog “The Smart Home Game Part II – Apple can still win” to learn why.