We live in a brilliant time when doors open without keys and coffee brews itself. Refrigerators come with sensors and cameras to track what’s inside your fridge. We’ll have an incredible 500 devices per home by 2022, according to Gartner. But with so many devices running on different platforms, we risk ending up with a mess of separate walled gardens.
If these devices are to communicate with each other, share data securely and privately, and offer good user control, we’ll need to move to open standards. But big players in the home-connectivity space have conflicting ideas of how this should play out.
Here’s a look at what’s currently being offered:
This is an exciting season for Apple with the release of iOS 10, and along with it comes the Apple Home native app available for compatible iPhones. The app manages compatible devices and is the central piece to the Apple smart home ecosystem. Apple has designed Apple Home to run on Apple products, along with tough requirements for devices to become HomeKit compatible, which is Apple’s developer framework and interoperability protocol, delivering the language for gadgets to talk to one another for the last two years. The Home app is the first time the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch have been able to control any compatible device from a single app.
Analysis: Apple has never released anything open-standard and instead has actively restricted open standards on devices by advocating for proprietary standards. It’s unlikely Apple will play nice with any competing hardware. So the Home app, which connects to 100 devices today, will likely become the controlling force for buying high-priced Apple products in the future.
Google Home is a home assistant providing voice features to anyone in the family from anywhere in a room, not unlike Amazon Echo. Google has already perfected natural language processing featured on Android smartphones and is now leveraging it for a centralized home network. There are three other pieces to how Google is tackling the Internet of Things, including Thread, offering a network built on open standards and IPv6/6LoWPAN protocols, Brillo, an operating system, and Weave, a common language for fragmented devices to communicate about things such as lowering the heat. This is where Google offers some improvement over what Apple offers by making a platform other companies can use to build hardware and communicate within the network.
Analysis: With Brillo, Google is attempting to establish itself in the Internet of Things as a solution for independent manufacturers to work off one open operating system. However, just like with Android, the risk is the access to personal data, which is a sensitive topic with consumers in the connected home market. For instance, Nest knows when you are home, what your schedule is, when you’re awake, and when you’re asleep. This information is much more valuable than what you put into a search query, and Google makes $30-$60 billion a year off that.
Echo is a smart home controller with the ability to link to and control devices with your voice. The intelligent personal assistant known as “Alexa” is capable of almost any request you can think of from your mobile phone and smart home apps, such as music playback, to-do lists, streaming podcasts, and providing weather and traffic information. You can even ask Alexa to order a Dominos pizza.
Analysis: Amazon is really onto something by releasing a centralized personal assistant while keeping the connected home system decentralized across multiple manufacturers. Amazon has no direct investments, such as smart TVs, refrigerators, or thermostats that pose a risk to this system of centralizing for interoperability and efficiency.
We need centralization in moderation
The smart home market continues to be plagued by high device prices, limited value, and hard-to-install devices. Centralization may be necessary for the connected home to work, but where should we limit this? If the benefits we’re looking for are interoperability and efficiency (when everything is distributed, the devices and app do all of the same work over and over again when it could be done once), then the connected home should limit centralization to only this, allowing the rest of the appliances and electronics to be decentralized.
Now that we are inside the home, as stewards of technology, we should push for decentralization where possible. An example is The AllSeen Alliance, a nonprofit that has developed a collaborative, universal open source framework. The Internet of Things will not be controlled by one company or brand, and it is in our collective best interests to invest time and resources into the decentralization process while the infrastructure is being built.
Beth Kindig is Product Evangelist for Intertrust and founder of the blog CitizenTekk, where over 300 guest writers contribute. She was previously Developer Evangelist for Personagraph, and she speaks at several conferences a year on security and data privacy. Follow her on Twitter: @Beth_Kindig.