A Smart House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand

At the WindyCityThings conference this year, the Vice President of Grid Connect, Adam Justice, spoke on the current standards in the Internet of Things (IoT) world. The amount IoT devices are estimated to increase to 25 billion by the year 2020. In the smart home space, there really needs to be some sort of established standard in order for that growth to happen and to have integration between devices. There has been rapid growth and expansion for these types of standards within the past couple of years. This isn’t only an issue at the consumer level, it is an issue for the industrial IoT as well.

In terms of IoT standards, the IoT is moving extremely quickly. So things that are discussion now will be totally different than the things in discussion a couple months from now. The issue is that every manufacturer is doing their own thing and moving along too quickly. Initially the solution for the smart home seemed to be through proprietary companies. This is essentially one company trying to do it all, such as Nest or SmartThings, but in reality it is very difficult for one company to do everything and have a hub at the center of the IoT.

Standards are extremely important for the IoT because it really allows us to have interoperability, and with interoperability comes adoption and increased functionality of the smart home. In addition to this, there would be an improved experience for consumers. At this point in time, the IoT operates with an app for every different product, so consumers need to have a folder or page on their phone with an assortment of apps that all do different things. Having a system like this isn’t really a better solution to the standard devices we have today. People often wonder “how is this any easier than just turning on the lights myself?” This is because sorting through pages of apps and finding individual devices can be a cumbersome task. In order for there to be widespread adoption, there needs to be better standards in place to help improve the user experience.

Another important thing to consider is that no individual company knows how to do everything well. The companies with hub solutions often fail because they are trying to do too many things at once. So even though they have a lot of the features people are looking for, each individual aspect isn’t up to par, thus reducing the overall user experience. Instead of using this method, there needs to be different companies that have expertise in their field, contributing something to a broader system. A great example of this would be a company like Chamberlain that knows garages. There is no reason that another smart home company should go out and try to make a new and better garage door opener because Chamberlain already knows how to do that well. So they can contribute with their MyQ system to the broader smart home ecosystem.

As far as standards go, there seems to be new organizations and standards created regularly. Standards are being adopted through all different layers of technology. There is an application layer, a networking layer, and plenty of other layers along these lines. With these layers, come standards such as security layer standards and cloud standards; there are plenty of opportunities for different standards in different areas. However, the one we will primarily focus on are the application layer standards.

One of the standards that has been around for a while now is one that is called Alljoyn, which was established by the AllSeen Alliance. AllJoyn is an application layer protocol dedicated to enabling the interoperability of IoT devices. It is supposed to make it easier for devices to communicate, getting deeper into the networking layer, focusing on applications. This standard is primarily supported by Qualcomm, the Linux Foundation, Cisco, Microsoft, LG, and HTC. Some of the big pros for this is that its open source and internet access is not necessarily needed. It was created by Qualcomm and they seem to be heavily “driving the ship” and not really letting a lot of others contribute to it. This has been a standard that has been out for a while, but when examining the market, there aren’t really a lot of consumer products adopting it. So even if this is the best standard out there, if it doesn’t get adopted, it doesn’t do too much to help the industry.

Another popular standard is the Open Interconnect Consortium (OIC), which was recently rebranded to the Open Connectivity Foundation. This is also an application layer protocol with the goal of interoperability. Major supporters of this are Intel, GE, Qualcomm, Microsoft, Dell, Samsung, and Cisco. A lot of these companies are the same companies that supported the AllJoyn standard. These companies are supporting different standards, hoping that they can be a part of which ever one wins out. This standard is open-source, so there is collaboration between all of its supporters. It’s still very early in development, they released the framework early in 2015. They seem to still be in the process of figuring out their purpose as well as their identity, that’s why there was a name change.

The next big standard can be found in Apple HomeKit; which Grid Connect is very familiar with as we have a product that supports HomeKit. This is a common network protocol that features end-to-end encryption. Similar to devices operating on iOS, security and privacy are at the center of this protocol as it is something that is very important to Apple. A couple key aspects of HomeKit are that it is very easy to set up, Siri voice control is built in, and there is one common app for controlling any and all devices. At Apple’s developer conference, WWDC 2016, they announced the Home app for iOS10 that will be used to control smart devices. They are still leaving it open for third party developers to develop common apps to control devices. This seems to be a great step forwards in terms of interoperability. It will be really important as we head more towards automation of the home. This means going beyond opening an app and just telling the voice assistant to turn on the lights or do something along those lines. Users have the ability to set up “if this then that” functions or even create scenes so that when they leave their home, automation can do something like turn off the lights, adjust the thermostat, and close the garage door. Joining Apples NFI program will provide anyone interested with more details.

Apple’s standard is being developed extremely quickly because they are the only ones working on developing this standard, unlike the previously discussed standards. That being said, this is only a great standard for iOS users. Those using Android and other platforms are essentially cut off from this standard. That being said, it does seem to have the most traction in comparison to other major smart home platforms. There have been a lot of HomeKit products introduced to the market thus far and there are a lot more coming soon.

The next thing to examine is the “Works with Nest” program, which has been around for a long time.  This is essentially reliant upon Nest as the center of home automation. Unlike HomeKit and some of these other standards, which are network layer communication. This is an API level, device to device integration, going towards the cloud. This doesn’t allow for connection between edge devices, internet is required to do anything. It seems to be pretty simple and easy to set up, which is why a lot of people integrate with it. However, those integrations don’t seem to be entirely useful as it’s more of a checkbox people want to checkoff to be in the smart home space. Since the Google acquisition of Nest, things seem to be a bit troublesome. There are some issues with the new CEO and things of that nature. It will be very interesting to see where this platform goes over time.

Another major platform on the Google side is called Brillo and Weave. Weave is Google’s answer to HomeKit. Brillo is essentially a stripped down version of Android, so it is a high horse power, computing intense platform. It doesn’t really belong on end devices as it is more for things like routers or something with a lot of computing power. Weave is a device to device protocol, so it includes cloud services and is very similar to HomeKit. It has one app, easy setup, and device to device integration. It looks as if it will be a really solid solution for Android, but it does appear to be a couple years behind HomeKit. Everyone at Google’s conference this year was waiting to hear more on Brillo/Weave, but the conference passed and there was no mention of it. So it appears to be in somewhat of a building mode, but they should not be counted out. One of the major ways people are going to choose their smart home ecosystem is going to based off of what they have in their pocket and what will work with that. Android has a huge market share and that is something that needs to be addressed, especially in comparison to what Apple is doing.