Holiday season looms for smart homes, alongside lawsuits and bundles

The European Smart Home summit was an event that let Riot do an awful lot of thinking about the smart home, fostered by two days of very interesting discussion. With operators and developers present, there were some common concerns and themes present – and an expectation that now might finally be the time for the smart home to take off.

A full exploration of that event will be published next week, but while chairing a panel, the distinction of ‘gadgets vs. services’ was brought up – with many seeing the early adopter momentum as a flash in the pan and the provision of Smart-Home-as-a-Service (SHaaS) from operators, utilities, or insurers as the vehicle that really drives growth in the smart home market.

While that service-driven growth would be B2B2C, sold via channel deals and partnerships rather than directly off the shelves, the upcoming holiday season, kicking off with Thanksgiving, sees an unprecedented number of options for consumers to try their hands with.

Amazon and its Echo platform are all-in, releasing multiple variants to suit all needs, as well as a new range of very price-competitive security cameras that it also hopes will power its in-home delivery service – Amazon Key. Samsung has recovered from its Note 7 calamity, and has been pushing SmartThings bundles in combination with its smartphone sales, and Apple’s HomePod has arrived, just as its HomeKit ecosystem is beginning to flourish – after it lessened its hardware-based security requirements.

Perhaps this will finally be the holiday season that launches the smart home proper – a frantic Black Friday period, running into Christmas, and then embraced by CES in the New Year, to propel those post-holiday sales. After three years of waiting for the explosion, this year looks a lot more promising than the tail-end of 2014.

Google’s acquisition of Nest is usually the demarcation we use, and since then, Nest hasn’t actually done all that much on the surface. Behind the scenes, it has been quite dramatic, but besides buying Dropcam and then releasing home security cameras, Nest is much the same – signing partnerships to give it more utility channels to market, and offering a more affordable and plainer looking of the thermostat to suit a different audience.

Parent Google has also decided to launch into hardware, both in smartphones and the home, and now offers a range that includes WiFi routers, WiFi mesh extenders, and the Google Home audio devices that house its Google Assistant. Industry consensus places Google behind Amazon and its Echo devices in this market, but Google has yet to really bring the power and influence of its Android platform to bear in the smart home – although that might be a nightmarish task of software integrations.

Traditional retailers are also better embracing the sector. Lowe’s announced that it would be building smart home centers at 70 of its national stores, and adding smart home display stands to over 1,000. The goal is to demonstrate the devices to prospective customers, with staff on hand to show off the latest offerings from the likes of Google, Nest, Ring, Samsung, and Sonos. The move is in partnership with b8ta, a specialist retailer that creates bespoke shops and outlets for technology products.

The retail experience is still important for customers, even if they end up buying things online instead of in-store. Being able to see things in action, pick them up, and test unique settings or scenes, all lead towards creating a tactile experience that can sell them on a particular use or example. Many mobile carrier stores feature similar in-store displays, and pay TV providers are also following that same path – although there packages will be sold as ongoing services.

But there’s still lots of activity in the sector, behind the scenes. The Thread Group has expanded its certification offerings, adding four new testing labs to make it easier for adopters to gain ‘Thread Ready’ status – built on top of 8 certified chips. Some ten devices are expected to be certified by the end of the year, which is slow going for a mesh protocol that seems to have stalled, in the wake of strong momentum over the past two or so years.

Thread also announced a strategic liaison with the KNK alliance, which maintains and promotes the KNX protocol, used by many of the elder statesmen of professional smart home and building installation. The pair say that they will integrate Thread’s IP-based networking layer with KNX’s well-established application layer, in a move that is addressing use cases in the commercial building domain.

The past week also saw a US judge place an injunction on the sale of Ring’s Protect smart home security offering, after incumbent security firm ADT filed suit against Ring in Delaware, alleging that Ring gained trade secrets using “theft and felony” after smart home startup Zonoff was wound up. ADT had invested some $36m into Zonoff, and after it went bust, some Zonoff staff joined Ring.

Logitech is also getting some bad smart home press, after deciding to end the cloud support for its Harmony Link universal remote controls, which it was selling as a smart home hub. The cut-off is in March 2018, which will still be within the expected hardware warranties of many buyers. Logitech has offered a 35% discount coupon for a new Harmony Hub, but there’s good news if you picked one up in the fire sales over the past three months, as you’ll get your upgrade for free.

Users are understandably furious, with many taking to online platforms to decry the company and declare that they plan never to buy a smart home product that requires a cloud server to function. Adding to this bile is the apparent censorship of the phrase “class action” on Logitech’s user forums.

The action is a perfect example of the concerns many consumers will have over their smart home purchases, whether conscious or not. They want to know that their devices will still work in the next decade, especially for expensive purchases or those that require professional or difficult installation. For devices linked to cloud servers, there isn’t much in the way of recourse if those servers are taken offline – and for many customers, even if the code is somehow open-sourced, they aren’t going to know how or want to host it themselves.