While neither company is in the habit of announcing products or platforms outside of their own events, both Google and Apple have looked poised to make significant smart home announcements for the past six months. With CES, a prime candidate for such an announcement, now out of the way, we have to ask when the Google and Apple smart homes will arrive.
A likely reason for the slow progress suggested by a recent Accenture report, which found that consumer enthusiasm for tech had significantly waned in the past year, and that the small growth of IoT devices is nowhere near enough to compensate for the falls in smartphone, laptops and TV purchasing intent and consequent revenue. The Accenture report was released just before CES, and it’s possible that the two would wish to avoid announcements that would allow the press to join the dots and brand the launch a doomed endeavor.
But with the next potential launch cycle for the two companies beginning in the early summer, if the announcement occurs then it will have been a full year since a piling amount of insider reports suggested that the two tech titans were on the verge of a major release – so has something caused them to delay?
There have been a number of wireless standards that have seemed central to the new vision of the smart home, but have yet to come to market. The Bluetooth SIG is finalizing its mesh networking implementation, which would bring the low-power benefits of ZigBee and Z-Wave to the home using the ubiquitous BLE hardware and brand familiarity.
Similar, the first Thread products are beginning to make it to the market, using the Nest and Google-backed 802.15.4 protocol that aims to provide an IPv6-compatible mesh networking technology, but again, Thread hasn’t stormed to the fore, and is likely to enjoy slow adoption among consumers until it is pushed aggressively – as mass market consumers don’t really care what’s powering their experience, only that they can afford it and that it works once they’ve paid for it.
Meanwhile, a trickle of HomeKit products have emerged, after it looked like Apple would be unveiling the newest Apple TV at its summer event, with a prominent smart home selling point and accompanying devices. However, the HomeKit devices that began haphazardly appearing suggest that Apple had to pull out of a planned launch and left the device manufacturers in the lurch – forced to sell to a market that has yet to be convinced by the Apple marketing sway.
While Google has announced initial implementations of its Brillo and Weave software frameworks, while enjoying continued sales success of its Nest devices and the launch of its OnHub digital assistant powered WiFi router, it still hasn’t launched the smart home hub that would form the center of a smart home platform. Given its very fractured hardware partner ecosystem (a stark contrast to Apple), it makes much more sense for Google to push a software-centric reference design, which can be implemented by the OEMs – but such a design has yet to surface.
Elsewhere, the WiFi Alliance also used the holiday break and CES as a time to give a brand name to its sub-GHz 802.11ah WiFi protocol. Called HaLow, the protocol threatens to rival the likes of ZigBee, Z-Wave and Thread by providing a good-enough alternative to WiFi access point manufacturers – as it appears that HaLow would be available in dual or tri-band configurations, allowing OEMs to cater for the smartphones and OTT devices in the home using a single chipset, instead of having to integrate a mesh networking PHY layer into their designs.
Like Bluetooth, HaLow would also benefit from the brand familiarity of WiFi, and Bluetooth itself could be used to connect smart home devices to gateways or routers, thanks to its near ubiquity in smartphones. The WiFi and Bluetooth approach is the one apparently being taken by Apple and its HomeKit software framework, with its Apple TV as the in-home device that will manage the connected devices while the user is away from home.
But whether Apple strikes deals with operators to offer HomeKit in conjunction with a pay TV or broadband service remains to be seen, and it seems unlikely given company history. Google meanwhile, or rather Android and potentially a combination of its Nest hardware platform, is well-suited to providing a reference design or starter platform that operators could base their own smart-home-as-a-service (SHaaS) offerings on.
Nest has already begun partnerships with some utilities in the US, which sees the utility offer the smart thermostat to customers as an incentive – and in future, will allow the utility to use demand-response technology to dynamically adjust the power usage of a home to optimize the baseline load on the grid.
Adapting this approach to meet the ISP or pay TV operator takes very little tweaking, and for these operators, the smart home device would provide the foundation of a churn-reducing platform – as it’s much more of a disincentive to cancel a contract if you have to unscrew door locks, replace light bulbs, and rewire the old thermostat, compared to just returning a set top or gateway device.
But this is no secret to the larger pay TV operators and ISPs, which have begun developing their own platforms. Last week, AT&T announced that its Digital Life platform would be licensed for use in the UK by Telefonica-owned O2, and Comcast’s Xfinity Home offering made headlines over the holidays for its hopeless home security functionality – which defaults to the open/safe mode if subjected to a ZigBee jammer, meaning thieves would just have to fire up a jammer to gain entry to the home.
That’s the sort of horror story that makes consumers wary of smart home technology, and it’s a very reasonable reaction. As such, the likes of Google and Apple will only want to launch their flagship smart home devices once they are sure that they won’t be the subject of reputation-shattering new reports – as the first smart-home hacking murder will be a tabloid sensation.