In the previous post in this series, we looked at the history of smart home development, and discussed how new connected hubs could pave the way for mass-market adoption. IoT convergence is simplifying the smart home user experience, creating new opportunities for developers, hardware manufacturers and platform owners. In this post, we explore how companies like Google and Amazon leverage developer and partner programs to ensure long term success.
In such a fast-moving market, it’s tough for any business to succeed on their own. It’s why, in these early days of the Internet of Things, we’ve seen an explosion in smart home partner programs. Open interfaces and collaborative support between device, application and platform owners at launch is essential in the short term.
But leaders in the field are already building sustainable, third-party developer programs that will drive continued interest and profitable innovation in their products and services, targeting long-term success.
Let’s take a look at how IoT smart home companies are defining these programs and identify the best practices that you can adopt in your own relationship strategy.
Google: Building Pervasive, Device-Agnostic Platforms
The smart home market is moving fast. Technology leaders are racing to build progressive, open but robust platforms that developers can leverage for IoT applications and services.
At the moment, much of the buzz surrounds voice-activated digital assistants, which are popping up in an increasing array of scenarios. The short-term goal is somewhat of a land grab: to ensure these assistants support as many devices, platforms and services as possible, finding new ways to engage users and guaranteeing large addressable audiences for partners.
At Google I/O ‘17, the search giant announced the launch of Google Assistant on iOS devices. It’s a bold attempt to unify their experience across mobile platforms alongside the company’s extended array of first-party devices and services. Let’s not forget a growing portfolio of third-party partnerships either, all of whom benefit from enhanced integration with the Apple ecosystem.
Google has a broad offering for IoT developers, and their goal is bigger than having developers create solutions tailored to a particular Google hub. While Google Home supports more than 70 smart home device makers, last week’s announcement of the Google Assistant SDK will accelerate integration across a multitude of IoT devices and services.
It’s clear that Google have been thinking deeply about the full IoT stack for some time. While it has taken time for their strategy to evolve, we’re now seeing how the company’s underlying technologies are underpinning a push for pervasive access, driving developer, partner and consumer adoption. “Enhance your devices with the power of Google”, the company says.
Their IoT communications platform, Weave, is an alternative to common smart home protocols like Zigbee, Z-Wave and Bluetooth. The Android Things OS, formerly known as Brillo, brings together a stripped-down version of Android with familiar tools, frameworks and API that allow developers to more easily build IoT devices.
The Android Things platform.
With work continuing across the business to integrate Google Assistant into an extended array of devices, including Chromecast, extend language support and push Google Home into new territories, it’s clear that Google is placing a big bet on the smart home.
But it’s equally clear that their strategy relies on driving developer, partner and consumer adoption through a pervasive platform with supporting programs that’s simple to adopt and use.
Of course, they’re not alone.
Amazon and Microsoft: Refining Tools While Experimenting With New Form Factors
Since the writing of the previous post, both Amazon and Microsoft have launched initiatives that see both companies continue to evolve their IoT strategies. Microsoft has launched a preview of their Cortana Skills Kit, supporting Windows 10, Android and iOS applications, alongside standalone devices based on the Cortana Devices SDK. The recent launch of the Windows 10 Creators Update sees deeper integration for Redmond’s digital assistant on the PC, while Cortana is also now present on Xbox One in the living room.
A partnership with Harmon Kardon provides an obligatory take on the Amazon Echo/Home smart speaker, while rumours continue to circulate about enhanced Microsoft Home Hub integrated desktop software and potential for standalone devices.
The Cortana-infused Harmon Kardon Invoke Smart Speaker
Talking of Amazon, the retail giant this month added three new devices to its Echo product line. Echo Show converges a display and video calling solution with the Alexa personal assistant. Meanwhile the Echo Look “style assistant” is a camera array with Alexa integration, designed to see what you’re wearing and suggest recommendations to improve your wardrobe.
Less esoteric are the first Amazon Fire TVs announced last week, supporting the company’s media distribution platform and Alexa personal assistant.
All three devices show that, despite a clear commercial head start with Alexa, Amazon are still experimenting with a range of use cases and first-party host devices for Alexa, which is in danger of confusing partners and consumers alike. Indeed, Echo Show is a direct competitor to Nucelus, the first Alexa-powered touch-screen device on the market that Amazon themselves invested in last year,
“Certainly, it hurts when your closest partner becomes your biggest competitor,” said Jonathan Frankel, CEO of Nucelus, only eight months after Amazon led his $5.6 million Series A round last September.
While potentially harming partner trust, for Amazon, it’s a simple case of pushing Alexa (and Amazon shopping facilities) into more rooms of the house. Echo Show, Look and Fire TVs likewise. To that end, Amazon are partnering with a number of companies to proliferate the interface into new verticals and physical locations – voice interface as a service, used to access more services.
Without an operating system play, and the need to continually support the greater Amazon retail business, Amazon will continue to rely on first and third-party device and platform integrations to grow the Alexa user base. There will undoubtedly be challenges ahead in creating a consistent, contextually-aware experience in homes with multiple Alexa-enabled devices.
Perhaps Amazon Web Services will be the glue that unifies the Alexa ecosystem, but maintaining strong, trusted partner relations will be essential for Amazon to continue on their early success.
Apple and Samsung: Potential Yet to Be Fulfilled
Apple’s HomeKit framework, as we mentioned in the previous post, feels like a precursor to hardware that has yet to arrive. Unlike other platforms, Apple’s hardware licensing requires manufacturers to include a dedicated security co-processor in their products. Not only is that a barrier to entry for developers, it’s also increases the cost of hardware and potentially requires consumers to replace existing smart home controllers.
This closed system can also lead to compatibility issues – if a device is missing the requisite hardware, encryption keys, and Apple certification then it simply can’t connect to HomeKit hardware.
Support for Apple HomeKit required Philips to develop a new hardware bridge for their Hue lighting system. (Source: takealot.com)
It’s these types of barriers that have led to stalled adoption of Apple HomeKit and Cupertino falling behind in the smart home race. We’ll look forward to the WWDC17 developer conference in June to understand Apple’s next steps.
Samsung are arguably in a stronger position, following their acquisition of SmartThings, but we’re yet to see how well the company can integrate the technology across the rest of its huge product portfolio. The forthcoming Samsung Connect Home Smart Wi-Fi System, which combines a SmartThings Hub with a mesh networking system, will certainly strengthen Samsung’s position in the smart home, but the company’s voice-activated assistant, Bixby, is more of an unknown – particularly as it will compete directly with Google Assistant on Android devices.
The SmartThings developer programme supports device makers, service providers and third-party application developers.
However, the SmartThings team has already built up considerable support among developers and IoT hardware vendors, courtesy of a comprehensive partner programme. As a result, any new Samsung products that support SmartThings features will benefit from an established ecosystem of connected smart home devices and services.
In the next post, we’ll outline the best practices smart home leaders are adopting to build comprehensive developer and partner programs. As we’ll see, launching smart home devices that play well with other devices as services is critical. But long term success can only be achieved through sustained engagement and support for third development.