The week of January 4, 2015

The missing piece of the smart home revolution

By Dylan Love

The Internet isn’t going anywhere—it’s going everywhere.

Despite the oft-mocked naming scheme, the Internet of Things (IoT) has an incredibly practical goal: connecting classically “dumb” objects—toasters, doorknobs, light switches—to the Internet, thereby unlocking a world of potential. Imagine what it means to interact with your home the same way you would a website, accessing it without geographic restrictions to lock and unlock your doors, adjust the thermostat, or even identify where people are in your house.

This of course has huge implications for consumers and businesses alike. Entrepreneurs are already cashing in on what will inevitably become a mainstay of the modern home—automated sensory technology that enables you talk to and customize your living space in new and intriguing ways. The Internet of Things, when it delivers to the fullest, finds ways to make you even more comfortable in the space you already call home.

Imagine what it means to interact with your home the same way you would a website.

As these technologies sense and and react to changes in your environment, there are obvious parallels to computer operating systems, which receive input and return output. What does the “operating system” for the smart home of the future look like?

Think about it this way: When the smartphone revolution began, the underlying platform that made the phone smart, that enabled apps, was the operating system (iOS and Android, primarily). So what will be the system that capitalizes on the smart home in the same way, the enabler of all the applications and actions we want our homes to run and do?

Alex Hawkinson is trying to help answer that very question. The founder and CEO of IoT company SmartThings is not only a leader in the market, he’s a consumer. (Hawkinson is so bursting with Minnesota hometown pride that he’s rigged his kitchen lights to flash purple whenever the Vikings score a touchdown.)

He suggests there won’t be a singular, cohesive operating system for your home, that this stuff isn’t one-size-fits-all. “I think it’s up to everyone to determine their own bits,” Hawkinson said. “Some people love cameras in house, my wife wants none. It’s up to your preferences.”

What does the “operating system” for the smart home of the future look like?

SmartThings offers a variety of products to build your own intelligent home system from the ground up. The company has Internet-capable security solutions, locks that talk to your phone, and even light bulbs that can receive Internet data and behave in unique ways. They all come from the same company, but that doesn’t mean SmartThings wants to be the one-stop mainframe for your house.

That equal opportunity mindset isn’t how all IoT companies are attacking the market. Loxone, for example, wants to become the cohesive home management system, something straight out of our sci-fi movie future. The company has seen ample success in Europe since its 2008 founding, but it has yet to make the same waves in the U.S. Its primary commercial offering is the Loxone Miniserver, which marries hardware and software in such a way that it becomes a chameleon of home automation, able to function as multiple home devices at once. The Miniserver consists of electronic relays, and the software controlling them can effectively imitate the electronics of various household objects while talking to the Internet.

“If it needs to be a climate controller, we have software that makes those relays perform accordingly,” said CEO Chris Raab. “We completely dispense with the notion of a thermostat. Ours is intelligence-based, and gets its data from sensors in the environment. It considers things like humidity and CO2, and based on that info, it does the decision-making. Most other systems are without logic. This really separates us from other systems. It’s not another remote control; it truly is an intelligent system.”

The contemporary consumer will build their smart home one solution at a time because we don’t yet think that there’s a home automation “problem.”

A company called Arrayent is taking a third, middle-of-the-road approach. Its clients aren’t people looking to build the smart home of their dreams, but instead the companies that manufacture home appliances and gadgets for them. The company isn’t consumer-facing, but its technology is powering devices that consumers will buy.

“We work with a customer that knows all about garage door openers, for example,” Bob Dahlberg, Arrayent’s vice president of business development, explained. “It’s a company called Chamberlain that has some 70 percent of the market share. We are experts in Internet technology, they are experts in garage door openers, so we work with them to install Wi-Fi modules in their devices. This means that even if you’re 10 miles out from home and can’t remember if you shut the garage door or not, it’s easy to check.”

Like Hawkinson, Dahlberg is skeptical that a single OS is going to meet everyone’s IoT needs in the way that iOS and Android have dominated smartphones. The contemporary consumer will build their smart home one solution at a time—a smart lightbulb here, a presence-detector there—because we don’t yet think that there’s a home automation “problem.”

“There won’t be a Microsoft or Intel of IoT,” he said. “There are a lot of applications and moving parts in these things. If you talk to the guys at Whirlpool, and we have, not one of them will tell you that they have a 100 percent Whirlpool-equipped home even though they work there and have ready access to it.”

“We completely dispense with the notion of a thermostat.” —Loxone CEO Chris Raab

The real potential for home automation, Dahlberg says, lies not in local software running on a home device but in the cloud. “In order to get all these things working together, it’s not going to be a hub or Swiss Army Knife of protocols. The cloud is going to be more important over time. By getting your brand into the cloud now, your opportunities magnify.”

The most salient point here is that consumers have yet to identify home automation as a problem. Right now, it’s a feature. Consider Nest, which simply set out to build a better thermostat. It decided to do one thing well, and it did it so well that Google bought the company last year for $3.2 billion. Nest has since released an intelligent CO2 detector, called Nest Protect. The company approached the Internet of Things space the same way that Dahlberg says consumers are: by building a piecemeal system to meet their needs, one unit at a time.

So, yes, right now the Internet of Things is rather disjointed. At least, it is when compared to how we’re traditionally approached Internet and computers systems. Microsoft and Apple dominated desktop and laptop systems; Apple and Android did the same for mobile (of course, with solid competition from market outliers). But while this has brought immediate stability and understanding to those technologies, it’s also created a walled garden—iOS-only apps here, continuity communication issues there—that hurt end-users.

Fortunately, it appears the bit-by-bit building of smart home operating systems could help sidestep this issue. “This is not one size fits all,” explained Hawkinson. “It’s up to your preferences. There’s no way to automate when kids go to bed.”

Photo by F Delventhal/Flickr (CC 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman