This week a group of the heaviest hitters in the smart home market including Amazon, Apple, Google, and Zigbee Alliance, announced the formation of a working group called Project Connected Home over IP. The group’s stated goal: to simplify development for device manufacturers and increase compatibility for consumers. Assuming the group achieves that goal, it could be the key to sustained category growth and eventual mainstream adoption of smart home products.
Cooperation is Key
The fact that Amazon, Apple, Google, and the Zigbee Alliance have agreed to work together in the working group is both notably impressive and reflective of the fact that if the smart home market to truly take off, cooperation is imperative. According to Apple’s press release, the working group expects to “take an open-source approach for the development and implementation of a new, unified connectivity protocol.” In an FAQ on the group’s website, it notes that “many Smart Home devices use proprietary protocols today, requiring them to be tethered to a home network using dedicated proxies and translators. By building upon IP, some of these devices may instead be able to connect directly with standardized networking equipment.”
The fact of the matter is, most smart home consumers today have pieced together smart home systems from different vendors, requiring those proprietary network devices. Three years ago, when we moved into a new house, I began experimenting with a wide range of smart home products. As a result, I currently have numerous hubs connected to my router and many apps running on my phone. It’s a hot mess, but I made it work, but that’s because I like being on the bleeding edge. Most consumers aren’t interested in that level of tinkering, and so the hope is that this working group will eventually make such machinations unnecessary
Beyond the Big Three
Everyone knows who Amazon, Apple, and Google are, but unless you follow the smart home market, Zigbee is probably a relative unknown. Zigbee is important because it represents one of the industry’s first attempts to coalesce around a standard protocol. The Zigbee Alliance brands its existing protocol as “the full-stack solution for a majority of large smart home ecosystem providers.” In addition to driving that protocol, the Alliance also certifies products for interoperability. Key Zigbee alliance board members include IKEA, Legrand, NXP Semiconductors, Resideo, Samsung SmartThings, Schneider Electric, Signify (formerly Philips Lighting), Silicon Labs, Somfy, and Wulian. All have agreed to join the working group.
The importance of having these companies, and others, sign up for the working group can’t be understated. While Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, and Apple’s Siri are the smart assistants through which most consumers interface with the connected devices, it’s the multitude of products from these other vendors that make a home truly smart. From security cameras to thermostats, lightbulbs to garage door openers, weather stations to irrigation systems and more, each of these devices becomes a key cog in the gears of a connected home. Unfortunately, at present, they don’t always mesh correctly, and that’s been a key inhibitor to the category moving from one focused on early adopters to one that caters to more mainstream buyers.
Current and Future Goals
According to the FAQ, the group expects to leverage development work and protocols from existing systems including Amazon’s Alexa Smart Home, Apple’s HomeKit, Google’s Weave, and Zigbee’s Dotdot. The group expects to bring its first draft specification, along with a preliminary reference open-source implementation, in late 2020. One item of note; The group will focus on new products. In other words, there’s no guarantee that existing smart home products will necessarily support the future standard. Such is the price of progress (and the life of an early adopter). That said, it’s important to note that existing products won’t stop working if a new standard emerges.
Another interesting, if not unexpected, tidbit from the Website notes that the working group does not intend to standardize smart home user interfaces. In other words, there will still be plenty of opportunities for both the platform players and potentially the hardware vendors to innovate and differentiate in the area of interfaces. How these different interfaces eventually evolve to interact with each other is, as they say, a discussion for another day.
All told, this announcement and the details so far are very encouraging. Without such an effort, the long-term growth of the market would be significantly harder to achieve. That said, I expect there to be more than a few bumps along the way, as there always are with working groups comprised of large, opinionated companies with significant investments in their existing technologies. If the group is successful in delivering its first draft specification by the end of next year, an admirably aggressive goal, that will be a very good sign for the industry.