Google and Amazon fail to drive much-needed integrated home hubs

Having struggled for years, the smart home market could enjoy a significant boost if it can escape the plague of multiple standalone controller hubs. The market clout of Google and Amazon could drive unity by opting to integrate a low power smart home radio into their new devices, but so far, neither seem particularly keen on the idea.

The picture is complicated by the emerging trend for multiple WiFi gateways within a home, which could eliminate the need for a low power mesh networks, since a single-hop protocol like Bluetooth would find itself always in range of one of the WiFi access points. That could see short range networks like Zigbee, Z-Wave, and even the troubled Thread completely sidelined, ceding the smart home to just WiFi and Bluetooth – which would match Amazon’s and Google’s current line-ups.

The standalone hubs have never been the optimal solution. Early adopters and enthusiastic smart home buyers would quickly find themselves swamped in these boxes, which governed a single function within the home and had no easy way of collaborating. Each hub that was installed was an admission that the dream of an organically unifying smart home was years away.

The user experience of having to install and configure at least one dedicated hub for each brand of smart home devices was not pleasant. For users with a conventional WiFi gateway, a relatively large smart home of a couple of dozen devices ran the risk of completely populating the Ethernet ports on the back of the WiFi box. Buying an eight-port switch to alleviate that problem never sounded particularly ‘smart’ either.

The hubs came into being primarily because the device makers needed a way to bridge their nodes to the Internet, in order to access the cloud-based coordinating applications. As such, a small box with an Ethernet connection to the home’s Internet network was the easiest way to ensure that the devices would be able to connect.

However, the other major motivating factor was the need to provide the necessary low power radio, usually Z-Wave or Zigbee, which typically do not exist inside the home natively. There were some attempts to create dedicated smart home hubs that would replace the need for these hubs, but these have fallen by the wayside.

The other complicating fact was that the brands might not want to cede control of their devices to another third party hub, such as the Wink or Securifi Almond router. The software powering the devices might have been incompatible, or a company might not want to have to invest in porting the stack, but because of the lack of enthusiasm between brands to come together and decide on a standardized approach, their collective hand has been forced by Amazon and Google.

Because the sales of smart home devices have been so low in volume, there was a catch-22 situation that led to the lack of a common hub approach. In tandem, the Amazon Alexa and Google Home platforms have taken off, and smart home device makers now need to ensure their devices work on these platforms. Such compatibility is now a competitive necessity.

Consequently, these two platforms have forced their hands, and now the dedicated hardware of the Echo and Home provide a way to ensure that the required radio is provided. This means that if the Amazon or Google hardware has the correct low-power radio, then the manufacturer can kill two birds with one stone – ensure that its devices are available on the most popular smart home entry devices, and offload the need for a standalone hub.

But this does put the smart home device maker at the mercy of Amazon and Google. Should either choose to drop the required radio from their devices, that would be very bad news for the manufacturer. Similarly, relying on either platform could expose them to fee hikes or per-device payments that might have been avoided via standalone gateways. However, the trade-off should be improved sales and a better user experience – a more ‘out of the box’ experience, without painful installations.

The Z-Wave Alliance points to a number of devices that will bridge an Amazon Echo and its Z-Wave ecosystem, chief of which is the Samsung SmartThings Hub, as well as the aforementioned Securifi Almond router and Wink hub (although Wink has since been sold and might not be long for this world), as well as a trio of HomeSeer boxes. While this gives you access to Z-Wave, it does necessitate an extra gateway.

As for Zigbee, Amazon’s Echo Plus unit has an integrated Zigbee radio, but the standard (and much more popular) Echo does not. This could be something that changes over time, but as it stands, it’s not entirely fair to say that Amazon supports Zigbee.

Google, meanwhile, has no offering that integrates either Z-Wave or Zigbee. A recent announcement saw GE partner with Google to integrate its range of C bulbs, from GE Life, with Google’s Home platform, but these lights use Bluetooth – a protocol that has had a significant boost with the recent launch of the Mesh expansion, as well as the range improvements from Bluetooth 5.0.

As such, there’s something of an argument to be made that in killing off the standalone hubs, Amazon and Google could well kill off the low-power Z-Wave and Zigbee ecosystems. If the only viable route to market is through the two platforms, then smart home device manufacturers will be forced to ensure that their devices play nicely, and perhaps that leads to them opting for Bluetooth and WiFi instead of Z-Wave and Zigbee.

It might play the other way, though. The manufacturers could put pressure on the two platforms to include one or both of these radios in the next generations of devices, as a way of improving the user experience of the Amazon or Google smart home. Because we’re still at such a nascent stage in the mass-market consumer smart home market, firm bets on how things will shake out are probably foolish.