BreakingModern — Home automation systems featuring smartphone control of garage openers, grill thermometers and other connected home devices will be a hot commodity at CES 2016. As such, Apple HomeKit is making fast inroads in tying these assorted mechanism together, said manufacturers and analysts during CE Week, a mid-year event held by the Consumer Electronics Association in New York City each June.
Meanwhile, Apple will fend off competition from others who want big chunks of the smart home action, including Google with its recently unveiled Brillo Project, Microsoft and its allies and proponents of industry protocols like ZigBee, Z-Wave, AllJoyn and Thread, a platform led by the now Google-owned NestLabs. In their own ways, each platform is about interoperability of home appliances, laying the groundwork for the Internet of Things (IoT).
Manufacturers of many stripes are getting ready to start with an appliance as simple as a door lock and then “work their way up the food chain” by adding wireless connectivity to all manner of other things, noted Robin Raskin, founder and president, Living in Digital Times, in a presentation called “The State of the Consumer” during ShowStoppers’ Media Day.
Two hours later, a panel made up of reps from garage opener, door lock and cooking thermometer companies all chimed in on why their businesses are developing products for Apple HomeKit.
In these talks, three more companies — iDevices, Schlague and Chamberlain Group — unofficially joined official launch partners such as iHome, Insteon, Ecobee and Elgato as early adopters of HomeKit. For the uninitiated, Apple plans to use a Siri-enabled HomeKit app, targeted for availability with iOS 9.0, to let consumers set up and control assorted things in the home. In the same time frame, a software update to the Apple Watch is expected to add native support for HomeKit, plus Siri voice control.
Yet despite the enthusiasm of the HomeKit panelists, other exhibitors at CE Week are either undecided about the Apple platform or are adopting other approaches to interoperability.
Siri Voice Control for Locks and Thermometers
With HomeKit, companies are looking to bring “a more holistic experience” to consumers, said Jeremy Kaplan, editor-in-chief of Digital Trends and moderator of the HomeKit panel at CE Week.
Consumers are not seeking “home automation, per se,” observed Rob Martens, futurist and director of connectivity programs at Schlague, an almost century-old door lock company that’s lately moved into camera-driven, remotely controllable door systems.
Instead, people simply want secure and reliable connectivity between the various pieces of equipment in their homes, he said.
Yet many folks are confused about technology, and HomeKit will help to “take a lot of the guesswork” out of linking products together wirelessly and making them work together, said Ben Arnold, another panelist, who is an analyst at NPD Group. “We think it will be beneficial,” he added.
The analyst also suggested that HomeKit can ease matters for manufacturers by allowing them to build multiple products all “specifying on a common platform.”
Working with Apple on HomeKit-enabled devices is also helping Chamberlain Group to “listen to customers more” and to be more adaptable due to Apple’s emphasis on agile development, said Cory Sorice, VP of connected products at Chamberlain, which is using garage door openers as its entry point into smart homes.
Essentially, Apple wants each home automation system to be operated by “a single app with different features,” Kaplan said.
“Smartphone control of (devices) is very important,” Sorice echoed. “Apple wants us to build a great app.”
Control and Privacy With HomeKit
How much control is Apple exerting over its partners? That’s not an issue, the panelists agreed. “Apple doesn’t control the manufacturing of products,” Martens said.
Consumers, after all, hold device manufacturers accountable for the quality of their products. “That door opener needs to open every time,” he emphasized.
During a Q&A moment, an audience member asked a question about privacy. “Apple keeps data very private,” said Martens. “That data is important only in the aggregate.”
“We take privacy very seriously,” said Chris Allen, CFO of IDevices, a manufacturer of kitchen and grill thermometers. Customer data will be stored on the customer’s phone as well as on Apple’s iCloud, in the event that customers misplace their phones. iCloud, though, will be simply one of the layers “riding in back of the ecosystem,” according to Allen.
The week before the CE Week fest, Apple partner Ecobee announced the availability of HomeKit-ready Wi-Fi-enabled home thermostats at another press event in New York City, Pepcom’s Digital Experience!
Also at CE Week, though, some people voiced concerns that, with so many companies wanting to jump into interconnected smart home systems, Apple’s proprietary HomeKit might turn into the de facto standard before other technologies get a chance to take root.
Yet manufacturers’ relations with Apple don’t appear to be necessarily all that exclusive, and some older protocols are actually way ahead of Apple at this point. Insteon, which has already shipped a communications hub for HomeKit, has agreed to supply a different version for AllJoyn, a platform now being adopted by Microsoft.
Insteon supports Bluetooth and Wi-Fi in addition to Powerline-based wired networks. An Insteon for Hub app, already available in the App Store, is designed to allow iPhone and Apple Watch users to connect to the hub for controlling Insteon devices such as outlets, switches and lightbulbs and for receiving push notifications from motion and water leak sensors.
Microsoft (and Others)
However, at its Build 2015 conference in April, Microsoft announced that Insteon will also create a “universal app” for Windows 10, for communications across smartphones, tablets, PCs and Windows 10-enabled home devices.
Microsoft, though, faces challenges in the smart home market because its share of the smartphone market is less than stellar, numerous observers noted during CE Week.
On the other hand, Microsoft made investments last year in 10 home automation manufacturers, buying into products such as Novi Security’s home security system, HeatWorks’ “fully connected” water heater and Scanalytics’ SoleSensor technology for analyzing foot traffic in home and office spaces.
Also on Microsoft’s list are Reemo, a wristworn, gesture control device for home appliances, Chai’s gateway device for communicating with smart energy meters, Plum’s Wi-Fi-enabled light pads, smart plugs and outlets, Red Balloon’s security for embedded devices, Wallflowr’s technology for preventing kitchen fires and Neura’s technology for providing devices with “contextual awareness and adaptive learning capabilities.“
Google, ZigBee, Z-Wave and Others
Going into its alliances with Apple and Microsoft, Insteon already boasted more than 1,000 connected devices. ZigBee, which emanates from the ZigBee Alliance, also has plenty of existing device support, as does Z-Wave, a protocol from the Z-Wave Alliance.
So far, Google seems to be lagging behind Apple and these existing players. Project Brillo, just announced in June at Google I/O, is a shrunken down version of Android aimed at use with home appliances. Thread will reportedly work with Brillo to let pieces of equipment communicate with each other wirelessly
Thread uses 6LoWPAN, a low-power wireless protocol which sends IPv6 over an 802.15.4 radio. This is the same radio that ZigBee uses. Z-Wave, another low-power protocol, runs in the 908.42 MHz band.
In April, Thread and the ZigBee Alliance announced plans to collaborate on “an interoperable solution” which will run over Thread networks. Backers of the ZigBee Alliance include companies such as Freescale Semiconductor, Comcast, Philips and NXP.
Aside from Google’s NestLabs, founding members of the Thread Group include Freescale, Samsung, ARM, Big Ass Fans, Silicon Labs and Yale. Also at the Pepcom event in June, the Thread Group stated that version 1.0 of the Thread specification will be shared with Thread Group members during the second half of 2015.
Along with Intel, Cisco, GE Software, and Mediatek, Android phone maker Samsung is also a top “Diamond” level member of the Open Internet Consortium (OIC), an industry group which is working on specifications for interoperability across the Internet of Things.
CE Week Exhibitors Weigh Their Options
iHome, one of Apple’s initial partners for HomeKit, isn’t ruling out the prospect of teaming up with Google, as well. “The dialog with Brillo is open and the possibility is there,” said an iHome rep. “Apple has their cloud, but we have ours.” She also said that a Google-based system wouldn’t allow for Siri voice support.
The iHome system incorporates a HomeKit-enabled SmartPlug for wall outlets, scheduled for availability in July. Other products include a wide variety of Bluetooth-enabled audio speakers and alarm clocks. iHome produces apps too. Although most are for iOS, one of them is called Sleep for Android. The app offers features for Android phones such as custom alarms, wake and sleep music profiles, social updates, reminders and sleep statistics.
VTech: Smart Home System on a Cordless Phone Network
Other vendors are taking a do-it-yourself approach to device connectivity for the moment. Cordless phone maker VTech Communications, Inc., for example, is currently developing a home security system which will work with sensors being added to its phones and new devices. The system is envisioned as ultimately including an IP hub, HD remote access cameras, a baby monitoring system, HD remote access cameras and smart sensors for open/close windows, broken glass, motion detection and flood.
For communications within the home, VTech’s system will use ULE (ultra low energy), an encrypted DECT protocol. ULE operates in the 1.9 GHz spectrum which is reserved for cordless phone systems, so it will prevent interference. Also, in contrast to some other approaches, ULE is not a mesh network. No repeaters are needed for long-range communications in the home, said product marketing director, Chris Conrad.
However, VTech also plans to let users control the system remotely via smartphones, first through iPhones and later through Android phones.
Meanwhile, Conrad is keeping an ear to the ground for alternatives like HomeKit, Brillo and AllJoyn. The advantage of a system like HomeKit is that it could allow for relatively deep product integration, he explained.
Fantem: So Who Needs a Smartphone Anyway?
For its part, a startup named Fantem doesn’t believe that integration with smartphone apps is necessary at all. Colin Marshall, Fantem’s VP for business development USA, said that consumers don’t want to control their home systems with smartphones because smartphone apps are too “clunky.”
Fantem’s ZigBee-enabled Oomi system uses its flat screen panel, known as OomiTouch, to control systems like TV and music. Other products include OomiCube, a hub-like device with sensors and a night vision camera, the OomiCam security camera, an Oomi water sensor, Oomi lighting systems and many more. Most are scheduled to ship in October.
All Screenshots: Jacqueline Emigh