Microsoft makes very quiet smart home move with Johnson thermostat

Microsoft and Johnson Controls have unveiled GLAS, a smart home thermostat that runs on Windows 10 IoT Core and houses Cortana – Microsoft’s digital assistant. Stepping on all manner of smart home toes, from Amazon’s Echo and Alexa, to Alphabet’s Nest line and Google Assistant, as well as Apple’s Siri, this has been a very low-key entrance to the smart home market.

That market, as a whole, has been rather underwhelming. Riot has covered this in the past, but broadly, we are well behind the vision of the smart home that was expected back in 2015. Instead, consumers have met the new tech with lukewarm enthusiasm, and operators are just about familiar with the idea that a Smart-Home-as-a-Service (SHaaS) as a means of reducing churn or improving service margins.

Consequently, a low-key entrance is a probably a good thing for Microsoft – which despite a lot of changes, is still viewed by the majority of consumers as the company that provides an OS for their laptops or insufferable work machines. Google bought into Nest at the zenith of Nest’s smart home coolness credibility, and while Apple probably has enough brand power to sell a vision of the smart home, Microsoft doesn’t.

The Cortana integration, one of the first we’ve seen in the smart home, alongside Harman Kardon’s Echo-rival speaker, is the result of a strategy announced back in December – which boiled down to Microsoft integrating Cortana with the IoT Core version of its Windows OS. Alexa found its first thermostat home inside the Ecobee 4, a unit that also comes with room sensors that can be distributed through the home.

The GLAS unit looks pretty sleek – mostly consisting of a translucent touchscreen that allows it to better blend in with a wall (brick, in the case of the promotional materials). However, regardless of how nice it looks, it’s not clear if GLAS will be made available to consumers – or confined to Johnson Controls’ B2B customer base.

While the announcement video shows homes, offices are also rather prevalent – we think it might go B2B2C, via dedicated smart home installers. Johnson has an established history in thermostats, and claims to have invented the first electric room thermostat. The Microsoft partnership looks like an attempt to evolve that core offering further, adding those voice-control interactions with a touchscreen interface – and one that also mentions air-quality monitoring for ‘everyday spaces.’

There have been studies done on the effect of poor air quality in workplaces and productivity, with high CO2 levels from poor air flow being a key factor to reduced output. Office managers and facilities management types are major buyers for these sorts of devices, if the air quality capabilities come to the fore – as they are able to demonstrate an ROI to the people holding the purse-strings.

However, we’re not sure we see the benefit of adding Cortana to an office setting – other than settling the occasional temperature setting dispute with a resounding statistics lookup. The voice-interaction function seems much more suited to homes, where a consumer would come to use voice as the primary means of controlling their smart home – rather than a remote control, touchscreen, or smartphone.

We have covered the merits of voice as a smart home UI in the past, but note that the industry seems in no hurry to catch up to this vision. Voice could allow for automated profile and permissions settings, recognizing each user and differentiating what they are allowed to control – such as preventing kids from playing with appliances or locks.

Voice also allows for hands-free control, and if the system is correctly configured, it should be possible to much more quickly issue commands – in just a few seconds of speech, one could achieve dozens of key presses or gestures. Similarly, if those functions are ported to the end-device, they shouldn’t suffer the latency of being sent to a cloud application to be understood and decoded – and there are privacy benefits to having that traffic stay in the home.

But voice controls in smartphones still struggle to tell users apart – with Siri being notably poor at allowing strangers access to its voice functions, without any apparent authentication. This identification issue needs to be resolved for the smart home, but the training elements, which typically involve the repetition of a set of key phrases, are not a fun experience for the consumer – and will have to be stomached in order to prevent people being able to shout commands through windows to play havoc with a smart home system.

Johnson Controls and Tyco took part in a rather larger merger, back in 2016, combining Johnson’s building management and automation with Tyco’s range of security and fire safety products and services. Johnson is still focused on those smart building products, and doesn’t look like it is going to step into the consumer space any time soon – not in the same manner as Nest or the other consumer smart home developers.

As such, this still looks like a quiet debut for Cortana in thermostats – a first step that will be monitored closely for problems and opportunities. For Cortana, gaining new users should help it improve its accuracy and capabilities, potentially allowing Microsoft to improve the user experience (UX) by porting the findings to the GLAS units (and removing the device-to-cloud-to-device latency).