Ikea is the latest to join the smart home fray

Some of the biggest names in consumer technology have failed to make the smart home a thing, but this week, Ikea has waded into this apparent quagmire with its new smart home portfolio. With monstrous brand recognition, Ikea has already solved the distribution problem that the likes of Apple and Google have encountered – it already knows how to sell people things for their homes.

For Ikea, it’s a case of home+tech, while for the smartphone platforms, tech+home is a lot trickier as consumers aren’t in the habit of buying homeware from them – or even making the kinds of routine and habitual visits to their stores. Ikea has marketed the notion of repeat trips, with each visit an opportunity to sell both smaller impulse purchases, as well as major redecoration projects.

For physical stores, such as Ikea and the likes of Target in the US, as well as DIY stores, the smart home sale is much easier when you already have a store where you can demonstrate the value of smart home tech to a person who has walked through the door with the intention (or at least persuasion) of buying something for their home.

Initially focused on lighting, Ikea’s suite has opted for ZigBee as its communication layer, using the low-power mesh network to link its lights with its Tradfri Ethernet gateway that links it to the cloud elements. A smartphone app, remote control, and a motion sensor allow users to control the lights, which come in a pretty broad array of sizes and form factors – including pre-integrated into some furniture and light panels, as well as a range of wall switches.

However, there’s no current indication that Ikea is planning on integrating the Tradfri (‘wire-free’) platform with other smart home ecosystems, which is likely going to cause some headaches from early adopters that were planning on merging existing devices and deployments with new Ikea devices. Not even IFTTT gets a sniff, when it comes to adding the devices to other applications or workflows.

For Ikea, there’s likely a strategic philosophy behind that initial decision, one that centers around wanting to remain focused purely on the home, and not delving into the higher-level platform integrations that might suck-up a lot of developer time – either from Ikea or the ODM that might have designed the tech behind Tradfri. As it stands, Ikea only has to worry about the smartphone app, and not cloud-to-cloud API pairings. The last thing it wants to do is put people off of visiting the store in the wake of a poorly performing smart home sale.

Being entirely standalone should also help ease consumer nerves about compatibility – a concern that crops up a lot in forum posts about decisions. While vendor lock-in is the thorn, Ikea’s choice should mean that everything a consumer buys from Ikea will work. That helps Ikea guarantee a certain user experience expectation.

In 2015, it looked like we were about to witness Apple and Google duke it out in the battle for the smart home, using their duopoly in the smartphone world to push a new market on consumers. Instead, both bungled it, with Apple’s HomeKit platform appearing to gear up for a launch that left its hardware partners in the lurch, forced to slowly leak products that still didn’t have integrated support from iOS until version 10.

Google’s $3.2bn acquisition of Nest was a clear indication that it had big hopes for the market, but the absolute farce that has been Nest’s recent history, in the wake of Google’s Alphabet reorganization, has seen Google begin developing its own home hardware –Google WiFi, and Google Home, which has admittedly had a pretty major update this week (more on that below).

Samsung made a big smart home play by acquiring SmartThings, the most complete smart home platform, but has since done little with the company and its hardware – despite holding the number-one spot in Android phone shipments these past three years.

Its new Galaxy S8 features the Connect app, which will allow the phone to control all SmartThings devices, as well as other Samsung home devices, but we aren’t confident that Samsung ends up being a major driver of smart home growth, even with a new hub device to cross-sell with its S8.

Since then, Amazon has held most of the smart home attention via its Echo devices and Alexa assistant – a surprise success that even Amazon wasn’t expecting, and one that it managed to salvage from its abortive Fire smartphone project. After all, it had developed Alexa and needed to do something with it, and was remarkably enthusiastic about opening the platform up to the third party developers and brands that have helped push the device into the market.

Google’s Home hub has had a pretty big update this week too, adding 12 new hardware partners to complement its original handful, which comprised Nest, Philips, SmartThings, and IFTTT, as well as Honeywell and Belkin’s WeMo at CES. Now Google has added support for devices from: Anova, August, Best Buy’s Insignia, First Alert, Frigidaire, Geeni, Lifx, Logitech’s Harmony, Rachio, TP-Link, Vivint, and Wink.

It’s a boost for Google, and helps it catch up with Amazon in this space. Apple shows no real sign of wanting to create a rival to Home or the Echo, instead preferring to use old iPads or Apple TVs to act as the in-home gateway. Apple’s decision to mandate a particular chip for security purposes has also proven pretty unpopular with developers.