IoT in the Home – You’ll know we’ve have arrived when no one uses the term “Educating the Consumer”

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.

5 responses to “IoT in the Home – You’ll know we’ve have arrived when no one uses the term “Educating the Consumer”

  1. Great post(s) and thinking. (Hat tip to Ben Thompson at Stratechery for mentioning you in one of his recent emails).

    I’ve been doing a little research on this for a project myself and the Thread Group seems to be based off of IPv6 and a mesh network that I actually like the sound of very much – It’s a considered and thoughtful solution which isn’t looking to ‘own’ anything, but instead make it easier to control and interoperate between different devices – Something that’s a challenge and a perceived threat to almost all device manufacturers.

    Thread’s solution:
    a). Is focused on the ‘connected home’ (for now…)
    b). Is purely a networking protocol i.e. Thread Group isn’t interested in how appliances communicate with each other, or which app does the controlling (whether it be through Weave or Apple, or some other solution). Thread simply ensures that all these appliances can fail gracefully, are secure and, to your router scenario, provide all the necessary information to all potential appliances in a secure manner so that you won’t have to punch wifi passwords into each of your connected light bulbs if you choose to switch provider.
    c). It provides direct addressability – either device to device or device to cloud.

    This final point is what was so interesting about Google I/O a couple of weeks ago. Whilst it seems Apple will require Apple TV to control your home appliances when you’re not there, and will force manufacturers to make Apple TV the conduit to ‘Made for iOS’ partner apps, Google is effectively enabling any product from any manufacturer to be that hub – even independent 3rd party app developers who don’t own or control any appliances.

    That’s good if you’re in a mature market and everyone understands what’s going on, but in a market where ‘educating the consumer’ is being used in almost every sentence, it seems premature…We’re still at a point where Google and Apple are ‘educating the manufacturers’ and no one’s very clear about what happens next…On the one hand you’ve got a totally closed Apple solution and on the other a totally open Google solution and manufacturers are scratching their heads unsure which way to turn…

    More on Thread in this .pdf buried on their site from Sept. 2014: http://bit.ly/1e0SLDI

    • Rick
      Thanks for taking the time to make some really good points. Knowing the team behind Thread, I’m not surprised that they are doing a lot of the right things. I need to read through the PDF you linked to, but I have one reservation about Thread. As you mention, they now have to ‘educate the manufacturer’. This is the problem with all standards, because you need a critical mass of manufacturers, and chip makers, to sign on. Building ecosystems just takes a lot of time. Apple and Xiaomi could just beat them all to the finish line. Standards are also very delicate political contraptions. I imagine that the politics within Google alone are complicated enough to pose a wrinkle. And how do you get outside companies to partner with a company who has a separate subsidiary (i.e. Nest) that is a competitor. Not impossible to achieve, but its just one of those things where the technical challenges are the easiest part to solve.

  2. I take your point re: standards and politics. I guess I don’t see Thread as anything more than a networking protocol which doesn’t care about the standards – it’s simply providing a way for communication between devices to occur – which is why they’ve been working with ZigBee and are planning to support HomeKit.

    Without that protocol in place, everything else becomes a pointless conversation in an echo chamber – you might as well just build your own silo and be done with it.

    It’s the Google Weave bit that looks like it implements the control schema for all these devices and the last word appears to be Google’s and that absolutely sounds like as much of a minefield as Apple HomeKit’s schema and as you suggest is confusing the heck out of manufacturers.

    On the OS (or interface) side of things Google is pushing Brillo, whilst Samsung (a Thread partner) announced last week that it would be pushing its Tizen OS platform and ARM (also a Thread partner) will be pushing its mBed OS platform – whilst all will use Thread as the networking protocol – All of these companies will no doubt have good reasons and feature-set advantages for building their own OS platform, but this for me is the biggest challenge to wrap my head around from a consumer pov and as you say a company like Xiaomi is well set to take advantage of this and make huge headway way before any Google or Apple traction has time to form….

    PS – As well as the IoT podcast, I’ve also been enjoying Bruce Sinclair’s Iot-Inc podcast: http://www.iot-inc.com/

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