CES: Security and voice are key in the smart home battle

As we went to press, the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas was in full swing. In advance, it was looking to develop into a slugfest between Amazon and Google in the smart home market, as the rest of the industry adapts to their lead. That will only increase the tension between the operators which want to make a smart home-as-a-service (SHaaS) play, and the off-the-shelf DIY direct-to-consumer approach. Google apparently has triple the floor space it did last year.

Amazon announced that its Alexa Guard feature was now live for US Echo owners. The feature acts as a security alarm of sorts, and will listen out for the noise of broken glass, for an indication of a burglary or break-in, and for fire and smoke alarms. If your Echo hears such a trigger, it will push a notification to your phone. You can then listen in to the microphone, or even broadcast your voice to the home, thanks to two-way audio. However, only the newer Echo devices will support the feature initially, with Amazon somewhat vague on whether it will be added for the oldest Echos.

There are integrations with ADT and Ring, the latter being Amazon’s own camera and video doorbell wing, which has now branched into security kits, and the former a venerable home security firm that has acknowledged Amazon’s presence in the home hub market. In addition, the Alexa Guard mode will cycle any connected lights, to make it appear as if the house is occupied. A PIN code is requiring to disarm the system, on your return.

Early impressions of Alexa Guard seem encouraging, but it’s a solid demonstration of how a firm can add value to an existing product – in turn increasing the value of their brand to their customers. Amazon announced plans for Alexa Guard back in September, and about three months later, it is now able to offer a new service to its customers. Sure, it might not be the best, but if it is good enough, it can be very disruptive. The killer feature will be when Amazon can link this to calling emergency services – the current domain of monitored, and much more expensive, security services.

On the CSP side of things, venerable provider Universal Electronics (UEI) unveiled its new Nevo Butler home hub, as well as the supporting back-end cloud services. Pitched at TV or broadband providers looking to enter the smart home fray, the device houses a digital assistant powered by Microsoft’s Azure IoT platform and its virtual assistant solution. Notably, this is not a Cortana hub, rather an assistant that is enabled by Microsoft’s stack.

UEI is continuing its core business of building the equipment that many CSPs provide to their subscribers. To this end, the Nevo Butler is a nice-looking unit, about the size of two Echo Dots stacked on top of each other. It’s not a full height hub. The white-label offering includes kits and equipment, centered around the devices that UEI has developed. UEI acquired Ecolink Intelligent Technology in August 2015, a smart home developer with a pretty comprehensive portfolio, and then added energy and thermostat expertise by acquiring RCS Technology in May 2017.

The partnership with Microsoft centers around the cloud services, particularly the Azure Bot Service and Azure Cognitive Service that both power the assistant itself. UEI’s QuickSet Cloud is being integrated here, to handle the entertainment and smart home features, with the promise that customers will be able to customize the environment to their heart’s content. To this end, QuickSet Cloud is already being used by ‘millions of connected devices in the home, through customers including Comcast, Sony, LG, Samsung, and others,’ according to the announcement.

“With Nevo Butler, we are democratizing access to an essential technology where consumer’s brands and service providers can quickly and efficiently deliver new services across many categories. Our sensors and hubs are pre-integrated with a configurable digital assistant where these brands can remain in charge of the relationship with the end consumer,” said Arsham Hatambeiki, SVP of product and technology at UEI. “Microsoft has proven to be a reliable and innovative partner in delivering this flexibility to brands, and choice to consumers.”

Cybersecurity is another major concern for CSPs entering the smart home market. Orange-owned SoftAtHome announced a new offering for CSPs, Secure’ON, which is designed to protect connected LAN and IoT devices. The software is installed on the home gateway, and will monitor the home network to spot weak security credentials, which can then be brought to the attention of the user. It will also look for suspicious network activity and traffic.

SoftAtHome will be looking to build on its success with WiFi’ON, a system that uses AI-based tools to monitor WiFi quality in the home, which can prevent churn and lower customer support costs. In addition, the Things’ON service is an attempt to streamline the user experience for digital assistants, letting an operator manage all devices inside a smart home via their own CPE. SoftAtHome is also highlighting its commitment to WiFi, Z-Wave, and DECT ULE.

This brings us to a conversation we had towards the end of 2018, speaking to Dojo – a smart home security firm that was acquired by BullGuard. Dojo has shifted its focus somewhat, now concentrating on its B2B offerings, designed for CSPs that want to offer more comprehensive security services – having learned a lot from its initial B2C strategy.

Keren Semel, director of product management, noted that there is a distinct irony to be had if the security camera you buy to protect your home acts as an entry point for hackers. To this end, Dojo’s CSP offering consists of three components – the SDK for use on CSP gateways, the cloud-based platform, and the mobile application, which can be white-labeled or incorporated as an SDK too.

Some machine learning elements help with device and threat discovery, and the managed firewall is still perhaps the most important element – firing off alerts if suspicious activity is spotted, as well as carrying out behavioral analysis and traffic filtering. Semel said that ML ties it all together, and that Dojo has a pretty advanced cooperation agreement with Israel’s Ben-Gurion university, to this end.

Dojo and SoftAtHome are far from the only offerings on the market, but Dojo’s is perhaps the most advanced one that we have seen demonstrated. Semel said that such technologies offered CSPs the chance to distinguish themselves from competitors, adding that she thinks such ca

pabilities might soon be mandatory requirements due to government legislation.

The mobile application is useful to the CSPs as it can prove the value of the service to their customers, acting as a discoverable timeline of events – chronicling all the threats it helped protect the customer from. The ability to find all devices connected to the home network is also handy, as well as the ability to group devices, to separate personal, guest, and smart home devices.

Semel said that Dojo can’t talk about its current customers, but added that there are a lot of CSPs and that nearly all CSPs have such features in their roadmaps. They all understand that this is a service they must provide, and that if they do not, it is an opportunity for their rivals. Semel added that there was also an opportunity in the SMB space, providing these services to companies that are not large enough to have their own IT departments – where the cost of hiring a contractor or outsourcer could easily be higher than the monthly payment for Dojo’s system.