Smart Home Situation Likely To Get Worse Before It Gets Better

on January 13, 2015

One of the many big themes that came out of this year’s CES show was the idea of the smart (aka “connected”) home. Of course, it’s not really a new concept. People have been talking about smart homes for several years, and the success of products like the Nest thermostat have started to provide concrete evidence of real-world progress in the category.

At this year’s show, there was a huge focus on smart homes, with an entire section of the show floor dedicated to the segment, as well as many other companies participating in things like the Pepcom press event. Companies displaying their wares ranged from behemoths like Lowe’s, who is bringing its own proprietary set of solutions to the market, to smaller firms like Wink, who is bravely battling the mountain of incompatible radio, platform, and protocol standards in order to get smart home devices to talk to each other.

Smart homes were also a key part of the larger IOT (Internet of Things) theme that was prominent throughout CES and at events like Samsung’s rather over-the-top keynote on the eve of the show. At their keynote, Samsung attempted to paint a rather glorious picture of how everything, and everyone, was going to be connected thanks to IOT, but they were painfully light on details of how exactly they were going to do it.

Unfortunately, this is exactly the problem with IOT overall and the smart home in particular. Because so many people view it as one of the next big opportunities, lots of big players are making lots of big bets to establish a foothold in the smart home platform wars. Not surprisingly, though, many are looking to do so in a proprietary way. Even companies like Samsung, who made a big deal about pressing for open standards, is really only open to a point. For example, they provide access to a very limited set of features on their smart appliances to outsiders, and only provide complete control if you’re using a Samsung device.

Similarly, Nest and parent Google have been reluctant to share their means of communication between devices, forcing some vendors to reverse engineer (i.e., “hack”) their way in. On top of that, Apple hasn’t even released all the official details of HomeKit and, in typical Apple fashion, will likely keep devices that run HomeKit as part of a walled garden.

Unlike other big themes at CES, smart homes have been around in some form for quite some time and actually have “legacy” connections. In fact, a company like Insteon—who announced a deal with Microsoft but is also working with Apple on HomeKit—traces its roots back to the early days of X10 and other simple DIY protocols. Today, the company has over 200 different SKUs—from smart outlets and lighting products, to hubs and much more, all leveraging a proprietary radio technology that’s different from ZigBee, ZWave, Bluetooth, WiFi and other proprietary options, such as those used by lighting company Lutron and door lock vendor Schlage.

Through a number of in-depth conversations with high-level executives at many of these companies during CES, it became apparent that the challenges facing the smart home market from just a connectivity perspective are enormous. The inconspicuous looking Wink hub device, for example, apparently includes six different radios in order to be able to communicate with a wide range of potential devices. On top of that, vendors need to support multiple protocols (some of which are still being defined) as well as multiple operating systems on the devices running home control apps.

If you multiply all the possibilities, you end up with a staggering array of combinations just to be able to send intelligible data back and forth. Throw in the need to organize it into an intuitive, consumer-friendly way, and you get an inkling of the challenge.

While some people may choose to sidestep the complexity by staying in one closed ecosystem, I think that could prove to be much more challenging in a market as diverse as home automation. In addition, when people buy home improvement-style products, they often expect devices to last for decades, not just years, and it’s not clear any smart home vendor has really tackled that challenge.

I am looking forward to truly integrated smart homes some day, but I’m not holding my breath.