Topic: Home automation
I haven’t seen an official announcement around this, but Windows Central reports that Microsoft has quietly added support for four smart home vendors – Nest, SmartThings, Hue, Wink, and Insteon – to its Cortana virtual assistant. On the one hand, this is good timing with the Harmon Kardon speaker apparently getting ready for launch, but on the other it’s odd given the recent voice assistant partnership between Microsoft and Amazon, a big selling point of which was being able to control smart home gear through Alexa. In fairness, the latter still has much broader support for smart home ecosystems than Cortana, but Microsoft’s assistant now talks to several of the largest, and these plans must have been in the works for months now, certainly before the Alexa partnership was announced. At any rate, it’s going to be much simpler to control these devices directly through Cortana than through the awkward two-step process the Alexa partnership would require, and this is a good addition ahead of the launch of Cortana-based speakers.
via Windows Central
Samsung and ADT have announced a partnership which will combine Samsung’s SmartThings home automation gear with the alarm company’s security system and optional monitoring service. Consumers will buy at retail and install the system themselves, while professional monitoring by ADT will be an optional extra. This is something of a theme in recent weeks, with Nest’s recent launch of a self-install security system (also with a partnership with an existing company for monitoring) and a separate announcement by smaller smart home company Ring. I continue to be skeptical about the broad appeal of self-installed smart home systems, but there clearly is a segment of the population that’s willing to self install and manage, and expanding into security makes sense for them. At the same time, most buyers are likely to continue to go with service-based approaches to both security systems and broader smart home gear.
Nest held a press conference in San Francisco today and introduced three new products including its first really new product categories since its 2014 acquisition of Dropcam (this chart I put together a while ago presents the picture prior to today). The theme of the event was progress towards Nest’s ultimate goal – creating “a home that takes care of the people inside it and the world around it.” That mission combines Apple’s tendency to reinvent familiar products in ways that makes them vastly easier and more pleasant to use (unsurprising given the Nest founders’ Apple heritage) with more of an environmental message, largely tied to the smart thermostats. The first product announced today was a new outdoor version of the Nest Cam IQ indoor camera announced recently which added smarts including facial recognition to reduce false alarms among other things. The second was the Nest Hello, a smart doorbell very much along the lines of others already in the market but again with some clever technology borrowed from the camera line, and is the only product announced today that won’t be available until next year. The third was Nest’s big new category, home security, in the form of the Nest Secure system, which combines a hub and sensors to monitor movement inside a home as well as doors and windows.
The Nest product line now feels a lot more comprehensive than it did a couple of years ago, with smart thermostats, smoke/CO detectors, and indoor cameras for inside the home, outdoor cameras and the doorbell for outside it, and a security system to keep it all secure, plus integrations with various third parties for lighting and other device categories. But it’s very much still an off-the-shelf, DIY, pay-upfront approach to the smart home, which continues to limit the addressable market to people willing to tinker, take risks, and self-manage with their home gear. When new CEO Marwan Fawaz came on board, I had thought he might lead the company through a transformation to more of a services company, which would put it much more in line with the telcos, cable companies, and others already offering that model and thereby reaching a much broader market. But there’s little sign of that yet – the only service component announced today is provided through a partnership with a third party monitoring company, and the prices for the new gear remain high: Nest Cam IQ outdoor is $349 for one, the starter pack for Nest Secure is $499 but only comes with two sensors, with most homes likely requiring several more, with pricing for Hello yet to be announced.
As such, Nest continues to largely target people with higher disposable incomes and a willingness to self-install and self-manage. My Nest thermostats frequently disconnect randomly from the strong WiFi signal in my home and suffer from other glitches, so unless Nest has improved things dramatically in these new products they’re likely to require quite a bit of management. It’s also worth noting that there continues to be minimal integration with the rest of Alphabet – I’d hope that some of the clever detection stuff has leant on Alphabet’s broader AI and machine learning capabilities, and Google Assistant integration is coming to the Nest Cam IQ devices in a software update. But Nest feels like it’s still being run very much at arm’s length from Google, for better or worse.
Nest Unveils Cheaper, Slightly Less Capable Thermostat E (Aug 31, 2017)
Nest unveiled its first new thermostat product in two years today in the form of the Thermostat E, a cheaper ($169 vs $249) and slightly less capable alternative to its core product line. The functionality is very similar, with only a slight reduction in compatibility with HVAC systems (Nest says 85% versus 95%) and one other minor missing feature relative to its core product. But the new thermostat is also redesigned, with a much lighter and arguably less distinctive look, apparently intended to blend in better to light colored walls and rooms rather than sticking out as an intentional piece of striking design like its first product in the category. Though the price of the original thermostat has certainly been a sticking point for some, especially those who need several units – the reality is that price is only one of many factors holding back the smart home. Far more important in many ways is the fact that most people find installing and managing these things intimidating and therefore managed services rather than DIY solutions are going to be the key for the vast majority of users, and Nest really isn’t doing anything in that direction. Meanwhile, Nest’s slow pace of new product introductions continues: it has three product lines, none of them newer than 2014, and its core thermostat and Protect products haven’t been updated in two years (see this image for an overview of its product launch history). The camera products have received most of the attention in the last couple of years, but there’s been no new organic product category from Nest since 2013. (See the Smart Home is Stuck narrative linked below for more context on all this)
iRobot CEO Backtracks on Roomba Data Sale Comments (Jul 28, 2017)
Nest Launches Smarter Security Camera for Inside Homes (May 31, 2017)
Ecobee Launches Thermostat with Alexa (May 3, 2017)
Comcast invests in Plume, a Wi-Fi wall plug startup – Axios (Apr 11, 2017)
This is an interesting investment for Comcast, which already has a big focus on WiFi, as evidenced by its Xfinity Mobile launch last week. Its home broadband routers double as WiFi hotspots for other Comcast customers, and it’s been investing in home automation technology too. So investing in Plume, which offers a service-based approach to WiFi, is a logical next step. Smart home systems are increasingly going to require management and control over the WiFi and other networks in the home for quality and security purposes, so going deeper into WiFi technology and management is going to be important for companies like Comcast that want a role there. The other intriguing part of this is that Plume has been working on a model where it would charge a monthly fee for that WiFi management service, something I could see Comcast doing in time either separately or as part of a smart home service. Yet more evidence, though, that the future mainstream version of the smart home is likely to be service-based. (Incidentally, read this smart piece by Stacey Higginbotham for more on Plume)
I’ll cover the other accessories announcements from Samsung in a separate item, but this one feels worth calling out by itself, because it’s really the first time Samsung has created any meaningful connection between its smartphones and the rest of its portfolio of appliances and smart home devices and therefore created a proper ecosystem. As with the new phones, we’ll have to see how this hub and associated apps perform in practice, but on paper this looks like a good combination of hardware and software for setting up and managing a Samsung-owned ecosystem of devices, incorporating both Samsung-branded appliances and the SmartThings home automation gear it also owns. The separateness of these parts of Samsung’s portfolio in the past has been baffling, because its smartphone base has been a big potential lever for moving SmartThings forward and it hasn’t used it. This now puts Samsung into more direct contention with some of the other ecosystems in this space, like Apple’s HomeKit, Alphabet’s Nest and Google Home, and Amazon’s Echo. And it’s another sign that other big companies are deepening their in-home infrastructure even as Apple appears to be backing away from its WiFi routers, at least for now. I suspect we’ll see something new from Apple in this space eventually, but for now its withdrawal from this market feels risky as routers and associated devices are going to be important components in a smart home ecosystem.
This isn’t the worst example yet of an IoT / smart home vulnerability, but it’s bad enough, given that it allows burglars to defeat a security system if they happen to know how. More worrying, it appears the researcher who discovered the vulnerability shared findings with Nest back in October, but Nest didn’t notify customers or push out a patch until now, when it says it has a fix rolling out to customers soon. The more of these devices we have in our homes, the more potential points of vulnerability there will be for hacking of one kind or another, and makers of both systems and ecosystems need to bake really tight security in from the get-go to prevent as many of them as possible.
via The Register
I got not one but two press releases yesterday from different companies saying they had closed their acquisitions of Icontrol, and that’s because Comcast and Alarm.com split what was previously one company’s assets into two and each took the piece it was most interested in. Alarm.com gets the piece that’s most similar to its existing business, which is white label smart home systems for alarm companies, while Comcast gets the part that helps manage its own existing smart home systems and similar ones for other cable companies. Both Comcast and Alarm.com are currently focused on the service model for the smart home, which I continue to think is the most promising for mainstream adoption, but the Icontrol acquisition actually gives Alarm.com a way to pursue a DIY model too, while Comcast gets a way to start licensing its home automation platform, something it already does with its X1 set top box operating system. We’re going to see lots more acquisitions in this space over the next few years, and I’m betting a lot of them will be focused on the service model, although we’ll also see some service companies enabling the DIY model as a way to capture the smaller number of higher spending early adopters.
via CE Pro
There are several interesting elements here – a cheaper Nest thermostat, a thermostat with the power to control the temperature in individual rooms, and a home security system. Bringing the price down could certainly help drive adoption – $250 is a little steep for a single thermostat, but it really adds up when you have several (as we do in our home). Of course, one of the reasons why you might have several Nests installed is to control the temperature in different rooms more effectively – we have a number of different zones for just this reason, and no smart thermostat I’ve seen can manage more than one zone at once. Of course, this might also require a professional HVAC technician to create some new zones in your home – I can’t imagine how it would work without those changes. However, all that said, I think the security system is potentially the most interesting thing here, because it opens the door to the kind of service model I think is key to the future of the smart home (see the narrative attached to this post). When Nest’s new CEO was installed, I pointed out that he comes from a services background and would be an appropriate leader to drive a transition from a retail model to a services model – I’m very curious to see if we see a move in this direction when this hardware launches. That could drive much stronger growth in Nest’s business, but it would likely be heavily reliant on partnerships, which is the other important part of such a shift.
I’ve been wondering when we’d see Amazon get deeper into the home automation business, and it looks like some sort of camera might be the answer, and fairly soon. The Echo is often described as a smart home enabler, but I’ve argued that it’s actually a fairly dumb device – it merely passes commands back and forth without knowing anything about the state of your home or being able to intelligently take any actions on its own. If Amazon had a camera (or several of them) in your home, however, it could start to know whether anyone is home or not, and do other clever things, which could enable a smarter approach to home automation in future. I’m still skeptical that the home automation market can advance much further out of the early adopter segment without a services model – that feels like the key to broader adoption, and I can’t see Amazon offering that directly, though it would be an interesting fit with its new third party home services business.
via The Verge
Nest adds automatic door detection and animated push notifications for subscribers – VentureBeat (Feb 14, 2017)
This is fairly minor news from Nest, but that seems to be the only kind of news it’s capable of making these days. Other than a new outdoor camera in the middle of last year, it’s mostly just refreshed existing hardware over the last couple of years, and there hasn’t been a completely new hardware category for several years. However, these software and machine learning-based enhancements do show the value of a smart device – hardware already in market just got more functional thanks to a software update. It’s not clear from the coverage here whether Nest is leveraging any Google expertise or whether it’s building the necessary technology in house, but one hopes it’s the former.
Alphabet’s smart home brand Nest expands to Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain – TechCrunch (Jan 23, 2017)
Nest has appeared somewhat stuck over the last couple of years – though there have been updates to some of its existing products, there’s been nothing brand new or particularly notable, and it seems committed mostly to maxing out its addressable market with existing products. That’s confirmed by this report of expansion into new countries in Europe, which is one of the few levers left to the company based on its current business model and products. I continue to feel very strongly that the future of home automation is services, and Nest has no direct play there for now, though its new CEO is well suited to pursue such a strategy. In the meantime, all it can do is attempt to saturate the addressable market for retail, DIY purchases of smoke detectors, thermostats, and cameras, which is largely limited to early adopters and tinkerers. That’s not a great long-term strategy for Nest, and until something changes in its business model, its future doesn’t seem all that bright.
CES 2017: What Makes a Smart Home Smart? – Comcast Blog (Jan 9, 2017)
I wanted to link to a news article on these announcements, but it was relatively short on meaty content and linked back to Comcast’s own blog here, so I’ve gone with that instead. This post echoes a lot of my own thinking on the smart home, which is that the retail DIY model is broken for the vast majority of ordinary consumers, and that integrated services and platforms are the way smart home technology reaches the mainstream. Vivint is selling a similar vision here, and I actually think their total offering is more promising than Comcast’s. But it’s these services companies and not the retail ones who will do best in the long-term smart home market.
Watch out, Wi-Fi systems! Comcast is transforming its Xfinity gateway to a smart digital home platform – CNET (Jan 4, 2017)
Two hot areas collide in this Comcast announcement – smart home and better whole-home WiFi. But that’s kind of the point here – better WiFi is increasingly important because a lot of smart home gear relies on it, and I’m coming to the conclusion that smart home gear will likely need to be tightly integrated into the home router/gateway, rather than piggybacking off a generic router. That puts companies like Comcast in a strong position, and it also means AT&T and others that currently use other connectivity will have to go deeper into home networking. Meanwhile, standalone off-the-shelf smart home gear makers will be increasingly isolated.