Smart home technology continues to develop and expand at an insanely rapid rate with new devices hitting the market practically every day. These frequent developments and breakthroughs make it very difficult even to guess what the industry will look like next week. Before we dig in, we need to accept and acknowledge the following as fact: nobody enjoys walking into a trap.
Sadly, this is a very real possibility since so many products are isolated and cut-off from one another. For example, say you want to have Amazon unlock your front door and allow parcel carriers to secure your packages inside your house. This requires Amazon’s Cloud Cam and a smart lock from either Kwikset or Yale. Then you want to build a custom home security system with Google’s Nest as the foundation. This requires a different smart lock from Yale and eliminates the option of a video doorbell from Ring. Heaven forbid you took the leap and exchanged vows with Apple’s HomeKit system only to realize that you cannot arm your Google Nest security system or view the live feed from your Amazon Cloud Cam via Siri.
The (New) Big Three
The intense competition and business-oriented motivations couldn’t be more evident. Powerhouse tech companies like Apple, Google and Amazon have set their sights on smart home industry and are intent on conquering the fresh territory via their respective ecosystems. All three companies have maintained an open-door policy towards outside partners, yet each focused their efforts toward the development of their own products. This creates a dilemma–the more you (the customer) buys into one system, the more isolated you become from the others.
In an ideal world, every smart home device would speak the same language and exist in a state of harmony. Sadly, this is not the case. The competition between Amazon, Google and Apple has created a culture of exclusivity that limits a customer’s options based on the devices they purchase. Smart home devices should be interchangeable, but this would require the “Big Three” (Amazon, Google & Apple) to coordinate their efforts across the board. Again, this is purely hypothetical. Doing so would be a massive undertaking and would go against years of traditional business practices, but it would be worthwhile in the end since everyone would benefit in the long run.
One Way Communication
The current approach to smart home technology and automation is a near identical copy of the mobile networks and cell phones. Instead of working towards a common goal of an interoperable landscape, each company developed their own platform with platform-specific tools for developers to build apps. Rather than a tech version of sitting around the camp fire and singing Kumbaya, each company has their own way of app distribution. While this method is not ideal, its doable since the market is limited to two major platforms.
Smart homes are far more complicated with a half-dozen respectable platforms that all interact and interconnect in certain ways and compete in others. For instance, Amazon’s family of devices featuring Alexa can control a Nest thermostat or Nest Cam, but Alexa isn’t on the best of terms with Nest Secure and flat she flat out refuses to acknowledge any communications from a Nest Hello doorbell. This puts the onus on customers to essentially take a wild guess as to whether the product they’re about to purchase will get along with future offerings. Safe to say that this task sure makes choosing between an iPhone or Android phone seem like a walk in the park!
Thankfully there are a few options out there that are truly customer-centric. The Ecobee thermostat gets along nicely with all of the major voice assistants, and August smart locks are on good terms with Apple’s HomeKit, Nest, Alexa to name a few. There are a few SaaS options out there, such as IFTTT and Stringify, that connect devices that typically aren’t meant to connect.
Sounds like a complex mess rife with opportunities for things to go awry, right? Absolutely. Keeping track of all the back-alley integrations is a total nightmare but is currently unavoidable. This headache is exponentially worse for developers because they must be mindful and very careful as they navigate through all the muck when writing apps.
Fight for You Right to Openness
There are several third party groups trying to streamline the whole smart home industry with open standards. The basic gist is that the various companies would not have to explicitly support products produced by their rivals, but they would support the overarching standard, which in turn would ensure that all the devices would get along.
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