In my last blog post, I discussed how enhanced network routers could be the solution to smart home IoT fragmentation. The concept of a converged, easy to use network hardware hub offers significant benefits to both consumer and developers. Tomorrow’s Wi-Fi router could take center stage in the battle over who wins in the connected home.
Today, we’ll take a brief look at the history of IoT convergence and investigate how an emerging wave of smart devices, capable of fostering a mainstream developer community, look set to dramatically accelerate IoT adoption in the home. What does this convergence mean for developers looking to exploit the smart home space, or for associated developer programs looking to bring new developers to their platform?
Smart Home Excitement Dulled By Complexity and Confusion
While there has been huge excitement around the potential for the smart home over the last few years, the technology has yet to cross the chasm between early and mainstream adoption. Fragmented, competing ecosystems and networking protocols have required consumers to invest in multiple hardware hubs and download various mobile apps to control smart home devices.
While device integration can be assisted by cloud service platforms such as IFTTT, building a simple and seamless smart home remains a complex task, for developers and consumers alike.
A recent Gartner survey of 10,000 respondents in the USA, UK and Australia showed that the majority of consumers would prefer the convenience of a single app, integrating connected home devices and services. Furthermore, 58 percent rated highly the importance of hardware and services being certified by a specific brand.
“Messaging needs to be focused on the real value proposition that the complete connected home ecosystem provides, encompassing devices, service and experience,” said Jessica Ekholm, research director at Gartner. “The emphasis needs to be on how the connected home can help solve daily tasks rather than just being a novelty collection of devices and apps.”
Clearly, consolidation is the way forward for the connected home. The drive for converged hardware, with a single controller app or better still, voice control, will accelerate smart home adoption. Developers and Program Managers should be preparing now to take advantage of the benefits of convergence.
A Brief History of IoT Convergence
One of the first attempts to consolidate smart home control came in 2014, with Revolv. It was a small, wireless hub that could connect to devices from multiple brands across multiple radio standards – from ZigBee and Z-Wave through Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
The Revolv hub kick-started the journey to a simpler smart home.
Quickly snapped up by Nest Labs (which had been previously gobbled up by Google), Revolv was shut down, with the underlying technology appearing the following year in the Google OnHub wireless router (and most recently, Google Wi-Fi).
Google OnHub is equipped with thirteen antennas, supporting a range of network protocols such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Thread and Weave.
These “second wave devices”, including the so-far unreleased TP-Link SR20, were designed to replace your router and, in theory, would be able to communicate seamlessly with most smart home devices. However, while Google enabled partial support for controlling Philips Hue – over Wi-Fi – they’re yet to switch on the smart home radios. Instead, the company switched its focus to voice control, releasing the Google Home smart speaker.
The beautifully designed Google Home smart speaker.
Like the competing Amazon Echo, Google Home is supported with APIs that allow developers to integrate smart home controls and online services through the creation of skills and actions. Small, intelligent, beautifully crafted hardware is designed to woo consumers with the promise of smart home control combined with a killer app – multi-room music streaming. This year, we’ll see Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant pop up in third-party devices, from speakers through to car entertainment systems.
With hundreds, if not thousands of developers now working on integrations for Alexa and Google Assistant, these latest devices have been a breakthrough, driving wider consumption of smart home electronics. But, as they lack the protocol support necessary to communicate with many IoT devices, they don’t resolve the hardware fragmentation problem. Indeed, you could argue that introducing another standalone controller simply exacerbates the issue.
Next Generation IoT Convergence Is On the Way
The next wave of IoT consolidation will bring together home networking devices with voice-activated smart home control. The forthcoming Samsung Connect Home Smart Wi-Fi System combines the latest whole-home Wi-Fi mesh networking technology with an integrated SmartThings hub so it can communicate with devices over Bluetooth 4.1, Wi-Fi, Zigbee or Z-wave protocols. That proposition may sound familiar to Google OnHub/Wifi owners, but Samsung may well be the ones to realize the promise.
Along with their new voice assistant, Bixby, the SmartThings announcement is also significant for developers working in the connected home space, who will be speculating over the next steps for both. It’s not hard to imagine Bixby and SmartThings connecting somewhere down the line, although this may have to be activated via a smartphone or other microphone-enabled device.
SmartThings is one of the longest established smart home platforms around, with a dedicated community of third party developers. This ecosystem is prime territory for developing voice assistant apps which can connect to a wide range of things, in addition to digital services.
There are also whispers of Google preparing a converged Google Home/Google Wi-Fi system that would combine home networking, smart home control and voice activation in a single device. Such a device addresses a major consumer pain point – the need for ubiquitous, high-speed home Wi-Fi coverage – while tackling two major barriers to smart home device adoption: hardware fragmentation and confusing device control.
In these next generation devices, we’ll see true consolidation: multi-protocol networking, smart home integration, natural user interface plus a software and services wrapper that’s cheaper and easier for developers to leverage.
Importantly, these hubs will address consumer needs without the inherent complexity associated with today’s connected home, building on an existing (albeit long-term) hardware replacement cycle. But with strong education and consistent messaging from hardware manufacturers, retailers and ISPs targeting enhanced monthly service revenues, the adoption chasm will finally be crossed.
“As a result, for connected-home products to achieve mass-market adoption, continued efforts are needed to integrate providers and apps. The industry is moving toward further integration with the API ecosystem, and there are a growing number of connected home cloud hubs that help users enjoy a more seamless experience at home.”, Ekholm concludes.
Consolidating IoT device control.
Prepare for Tomorrow Today
These converged, next generation devices are a little way off, but the direction is clear. As efforts consolidate around a smaller assortment of better-integrated platforms, developers will benefit from more powerful APIs, enhanced support and reduced costs that will accelerate development time, simplify deployment and ensure apps and services reach a far wider global audience.
Network hardware manufacturers can accelerate the router replacement cycle while differentiating their product portfolio by entering the smart home IoT space. But to ensure success, they must learn from Google’s OnHub experience and support their hardware with an open and thriving third party developer program that builds engagement, technical knowhow and support for the vast array of connected devices flooding the market.
IoT vendors have a great opportunity to target their solutions at a greatly expanded global user base that has already installed much of the communications infrastructure required for seamless operation. Integrated application controls will ensure quicker, easier adoption without today’s consumer education and support costs. Again, the creation and sustained management of a collaborative third-party developer program will ensure rapid engagement and adoption of your technologies, supporting new possibilities that build on converged, next generation hubs.
Service providers, such as home monitoring businesses and ISPs, will have the perfect platform on which to build new consumer and B2B smart home services, with reduced need for in-home installation and ongoing support expenditure. Embracing open, third-party development can support generation of a rich innovation pipeline, building a roadmap of service propositions, driving enhanced, long-term subscription revenues.
Existing developer program managers should evaluate the opportunity to refocus, optimize and potentially relaunch their proposition to capitalize on the benefits of IoT convergence. As momentum builds and a swathe of new developer opportunities open up, it’s vital keep your brand and platform front of mind, exciting, educating and supporting your audience with these new possibilities.
In the next post, we’ll take a closer look at how IoT smart home companies are defining partner programs and which third party software/hardware providers they’re integrating with. In the meantime, if you’re as excited about next-generation IoT convergence as we are and want to find out more about how we can help, be sure to get in touch.