I have been writing a lot about the Internet of Thing (IoT) this week (and here), but I have hedged a little bit on the subject of IoT in the Home. This is one area that will probably look very different from the rest of whatever it is that IoT becomes. All these versions of IoT will be different for each industry vertical, but the stuff for the home is a whole different beast. Crucially, IoT in the home is more likely than any other area to need a complete platform to control everything, which means a very different set of economics.
I think the best source for information about IoT in the home is Stacey Higginbotham. She was a lead writer at Gigaom.com and is currently writing for Fortune. Here is her website. I think Stacey knows more about the ‘Smart Home’ than anyone at this point, probably better than a lot of product managers and IoT strategists.
I was listening to her IoT podcast recently, and she and her co-host Kevin Toefl (also formerly of Gigaom, and no slouch either in tech saavy) touched on the subject of resetting firmware and updating passwords for IoT devices. This touched a nerve with me, because I have been lamenting the sorry state of Wi-Fi networks for a while. For such a ubiquitous standard, it still has a lot of problems. One of the big ones is network management, which is still rooted in the world of the command line interface. Extending the network, troubleshooting disruptions, securing it and managing access are all much harder than they should be. The makers of Wi-Fi access points like Belkin and Netgear have made a lot of improvements over the years, but are still way behind where we need them to be.
So let’s just imagine a situation a when we want to install a whole bunch of smart devices in the home – lights switches, light bulbs, thermostats, alarms, cameras, etc. Everything is installed and configured. Then one day, we decide to change our Wi-Fi access password to make it more secure. Now we have to go back and re-configure all the smart devices, and believe me, inputting a password to a light switch is no fun.
Of course, this is manageable. It is straightforward and simple enough to do. But at what point does the hassle of managing this outweigh the benefits of having a ‘smart home’. Put simply, no one is going to do this except for the IT Crowd.
There is only one way for these systems to win mass consumer adoption – it has to be simple enough that one smartphone app can manage and configure everything. Presumably this is the thinking behind Apple’s Home Kit and Android at Home (or whatever we are calling that today). The energy and cable companies as well as several retailers (e.g. Best Buy, Lowe’s, and Target) area all trying to string together their own ecosystems to make this work. So far, my sense is that everyone has a ways to go. You will know when we have arrived when no one uses the term “Educating the Consumer” when discussing their IoT strategy.
The problem with this vision is that it is going to require Wi-Fi to do some things it is not very good at right now. Wi-Fi is still a very centralized protocol relying on that central access point, and not very good at sharing with multiple access points around the house. So there is a pretty complex technical challenge waiting out there. We do not need anyone to solve it, but if someone does, then they have a good shot at winning this market entirely. The level of technical complexity certainly tips things in favor of Apple and Google.
However, Apple’s networking products are … how to put this… not their strongest category. But maybe they are working on something yet to be seen. By contrast, Google is clearly doing a lot of work on networking (building their own fiber networks, Internet balloons, etc.) And the person running this is Craig Baratt the former CEO of Wi-FI chip maker, Atheros. See where this is going?
It is still far too early to make any guesses as to how this plays out. It seems to be the kind of problem that Apple should excel at – making complicated, clunky technology ‘magically’ easy, but nothing in their recent history gives me confidence in their Wi-Fi products. By contrast, Google clearly has a lot of smart people working on this problem, but on the other hand, it is hard to name a single Google hardware product that is easy to use. (Aside from Nest, but let’s set that acquisition aside.) Who knows? Maybe Xiaomi in China will beat everyone to the finish line.
To be clear, I am assuming that Wi-Fi is what will sit at the heart of all this, but there are other possibilities. For instance, Google is promoting its ‘Thread’ protocol which I believe is based on the 802.14 standard (making it closer to Zigbee than Wi-Fi), but pushing another radio standard at this stage is going to be hard to do.
Building the Smart Home is going to be interesting to watch. There is the real potential for one company to walk away with the whole market. I think it is unlikely, but not impossible. Far more probable is that we make do for a long time with multiple, somewhat overlapping, largely inelegant solutions.
And truth be told, I would just be happy if I could get Wi-Fi to work in all the rooms of my house.