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6 August 2020

OCF fires latest salvo in smart home standards war

There has been a very clear opportunity for CSPs to expand their triple and quad play offerings by implementing a smart home service, for quite a few years now. Despite this, Amazon and Google waddled in and created a consumer duopoly, chiefly because interoperability was a problem they could solve in their gigantic cloud environments.

For the CSPs, with their legacy CPE decisions, multi-vendor deployments, and general poor track record on technological overhauls, the smart home has appeared daunting. They don’t have a voice-processing platform than can solve user-experience problems, and can’t subsidize that cost via retail or advertising revenues, in the same way that Amazon and Google can.

So, the CSPs have collectively stayed out of this game, and have often pointed to the lack of industry standards as a convenient excuse. Unfortunately, there has been a prolonged standards war in the smart home sector, but this past year has shown some real progress on a resolution. Unfortunately for the CSPs, this is still a good few years off our expected roadmap.

This past week, the Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF) has finished work on its Universal Cloud Interface (UCI) specification, and launched the accompanying cloud-to-cloud certification program. This is a big step, in that it will allow different smart home vendors and platforms to create services that are guaranteed to work, allowing devices to be deployed alongside any configuration of certified equipment and supporting infrastructure.

As the OCF has already managed the device-to-cloud specification, this is essentially the final piece of this particular puzzle. Now, an OCF adopter can use OCF 2.2.0 as a way to deploy devices and services that should be interoperable with other certified environments – thanks to the new Cloud-to-Cloud Certification Program. For those that are not members of the OCF, there’s also an open source version of the specification available.

We spoke to OCF President David McCall, for an update on progress since the beginning of the year, when the OCF had just been blindsided by the formation of the Connected Home Over IP (CHIP) group. This new player was essentially doing the same thing that the OCF had been plugging away at, but was very notable for having Amazon, Apple, Google, and Zigbee as members.

Despite the fanfare, CHIP hasn’t exactly got much done since inception, and McCall said that he believes CHIP is looking to standardize a device-to-cloud element but that it does not address all the necessary use cases. The OCF has a liaison agreement with CHIP, but McCall said there’s nothing to announce at the moment, with regard to partnership work.

We asked McCall if the OCF objective had changed at all, and the answer was no – that the organization is still very comfortable with its current scope. McCall noted that over the past two years, the OCF had adjusted to expand beyond the device-to-device implementations, at its members request, and that it was also surprised to see how keen the members were for the UCI certification process.

The demand for certification stemmed from the desire to be able to include such a demand in business contracts, as a way to better guarantee interoperability between the largest firms and much smaller vendors. Given the pace of adoption, McCall reckons that millions of devices will soon fall under the ‘UCI Certified’ banner, as the OCF’s largest members begin upgrading.

McCall did note that there has been a small internal shift, to accommodate the desire for using non-OCF data models alongside the core OCF framework. This was seen in the recent partnership to found IP-BLiS, the IP Building and Lighting Standards liaison between the OCF, Thread Group, Zigbee Alliance, BACnet International, and KNX. Unsurprisingly, IP-BLiS is quite focused on lighting and building infrastructure, rather than the smart home services that Faultline is more interested in.

Another point made was that COVID-19 is having a noticeable impact on the development process in organizations such as the OCF. McCall explained that the day to day working is actually mostly business-as-normal, as the staffers are quite used to working in a distributed fashion, across the different companies and regions, via conference calls.

However, the larger and more political decisions are usually made in face-to-face meetings, over coffee, food, and sometimes beer. Currently, this is impossible to do, and it means that the give-and-take agreements that resolve differences of opinion between members are going to be prolonged. The easy stuff is progressing at about the same pace, but the harder stuff is a lot harder now, said McCall, adding that it is also quite challenging for new staffers that have been allocated to such projects.

But for the OCF in particular, McCall thinks it is in a good position, as it has already got most of the big projects done. There are only a few small things left to sort out, and McCall thinks that the only thing that might have some internal debate is the end-to-end security implementation.

The other problem that lockdowns have brought is the testing process, said McCall, explaining that normally, you can bring a pile of devices to a laboratory and begin seeing how well they play together. The new cloud-to-cloud testing has been straightforward, but trying to conduct remote device-to-device tests has been difficult.

In wrapping up, we asked whether McCall had seen any difference in interest from the CSP crowd, over the past couple of years. McCall said that it had probably increased, but stressed that many in the CSP ecosystem have now realized that the technology itself is not the problem, rather it is still the business model.

McCall stressed that many consumers do not view smart home services as something that Comcast, for example, should be providing to them. On the other hand, the amount of consumers that have Google Home or Amazon Echo devices that actually use them for smart home purposes is still miniscule. McCall argues that this is unlikely to change until smart home infrastructure is treated in the same manner as conventional home infrastructure – where your choice of plumbing doesn’t affect the choice of faucets, nor does the choice of electrical wiring impact the available functionality of your outlets.