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27 July 2020

Microsoft and Samsung join forces amid growing fervor for intelligent real estate

Few horizontal application sectors of ICT have proved as elusive and illusionary as smart buildings, a concept that first did the conference rounds almost four decades ago in the early 1980s. Each generation of course is circumscribed by the technology available at the time, but at all stages progress seems to have been stymied by lack of integration, as promising islands of automation fail to be joined up properly.

That seems still to be the case today, or at least very recently, if we judge by how Google’s smart buildings strategy slid into disarray despite, or even because of, the success of Nest, the smart thermostat company it acquired for $3.2bn in January 2014. Nest established a highly successful island of automation, but Google failed to blend it well into a broader smart home portfolio by incorporating other integrated IoT components around data analytics.

Against this backdrop, other big technology vendors have zoomed in with strategies built around cloud delivery and integration, with the latest major initiative bringing together Microsoft and Samsung as partners. The two have just announced a global collaboration aimed at smart appliances with digital cloud technologies. Samsung will provide the appliances around its SmartThings platform, integrated within Microsoft’s Azure IoT and associated cloud-based productivity services for data aggregation and analytics.

The two hope to learn from Google’s mistakes, one of which was gaining too big a share of that one sector, thermostats, distorting its efforts in the others. Nest was ahead of its time and rapidly came to dominate that sector as its API was opened to third party developers, accumulating a network of products connected by WiFi and Bluetooth.

Google swooped in and also acquired another smart home product, the Dropcam Pro, expanding the Nest brand to include smoke/CO detectors, indoor and outdoor cameras, a basic security system and a doorbell camera, in addition the smart thermostats. The company maintained its reputation for reliability, so all well and good. But then Google had to move on and wrap the expanded portfolio in data analytics, and this is where matters started to unravel.

The company decided to install Google Assistant as the IoT hub to replace the earlier Works with Nest smart homes in which many developers and customers had invested, leading to problems with interoperability and loss of confidence in the whole portfolio. Google has been wrestling with the problem and will no doubt resolve it, having established new partnerships to expand its portfolio with for example with Candy, a provider of home appliances such as washing machines and dishwashers. But Google has lost some of its earlier momentum and lead.

Microsoft and Samsung believe the time is now right and can adopt a more bottom up approach by exploiting data analytics capabilities now built into a wide range of consumer electronics (CE) appliances, including fridges and cookers, as well as those IoT components like thermostats and security cameras. They can focus on the platform and the bigger picture rather than having to build out from established silos.

With real time data analytics now in the frame, inevitably 5G comes into the equation and in particular its support for edge compute and low latency. It is no surprise that at this year’s Smart Buildings Conference 2020 to be held in September, 5G, IoT and the Intelligent Edge will be the major theme. The idea is that as these once disparate islands of building automation converge into a single system around IP, intelligent edge will allow data to be analyzed and acted on close to its location of capture in a network, rather than being transported back to a central server. The thinking is that deployment of 5G will encourage this decentralized processing at the network’s edge and foster new processes in the home that can only work with low latency.

Microsoft and Samsung are targeting the 5G edge with the aim of harnessing data from the latter’s range of smart refrigerators, washing machines, vacuums, air purifiers, ovens and other devices through its SmartThings platform. One deficit is the focus just on Samsung’s products at this stage, although its CE portfolio is comprehensive and SmartThings does support third party products.

Naturally, other major cloud providers are also in on the game. Amazon has partnered with US IT services group Cognizant, to develop the latter’s Cognizant Connected Places platform on AWS. This in turn attracts software developers with the main focus on the commercial sector at present. Its smart home strategy is focused on the Alexa digital assistant.

Other big tech companies including the social media giants are also looking in and Facebook seemed to be signaling its intent when it poached Zorba Manolopoulos in August 2018 from Microsoft, having been the latter’s global program manager for IoT and smart buildings.

Manolopoulos was installed as Facebook’s global smart campus program manager, but to start with the focus has been on automating the company’s own global property portfolio comprising at least 80 buildings. So Facebook has been getting its own houses in order before offering to sort out those of others.