Smart Home 2015 highlights

I don’t know whether we can say that 2015 has been the year of the Smart Home. There is still a lot of work to do for mass adoption. But we can surely say that there has been a lot going on and that important steps have been taken towards a wide deployment of smart home technologies. At ModoSmart our main focus is on the design and development of smart heating and cooling solutions, and I’m mainly involved in smart home platforms and low power networking protocols. Therefore, these are the three main smart home building block which I have been closely following in 2015 and which I try to summarize in this post.

Smart heating has officially taken off 

Almost two years ago Google acquired Nest. The operation was declared insane and there were speculations on the fact that Google wasn’t really interested in the smart home and smart heating market, but it would have rather been interested in the Nest’s team skills in designing IoT products. That is partly true, but the exciting activity that the smart heating domain has seen in 20015 proves that betting on Nest was a right move and that there are huge market opportunities out there.

In 2015, Nest released a new version of the thermostat. Most focus has been put more on the design than on adding more functionalities. It is thinner, sleeker, and has a bigger and sharper display. It introduces Farsight technologies, meaning that the thermostat lights up and shows you the temperature you set. A Nest competitor which I like a lot is Ecobee and has also had significant activity in 2015. They released the HomeKit compatible version of the Ecobee3 thermostat, which is a smart thermostat equipped with remote sensors.

Interesting smart thermostat activity has also happened in Europe in 2015. Tado, a Germany-based thermostat which was born as the European alternative to Nest, has recently raised about 15M Euro from investors including Siemens AG and has positioned itself has the main smart thermostat in Europe. The main UK-based energy company, British Gas, has released the second generation version of its smart thermostat Hive. Netatmo, a French based company which designs smart home products, has also released its own smart thermostat  and has raised 30M Euro, which  is the biggest funding rounds for a hardware makers in France in 2015.

What we haven’t seen much in 2015 and that we will surely see in 2016 is the move from centralized to distributed smart heating. Although indicated as smart, these thermostats still control the temperature of an entire apartment or even house based on the environmental conditions (presence, temperature, etc.) of one single place. I personally prefer Ecobee3 to Nest and Tado because the thermostat comes with a remote sensor and you can buy more sensors if needed. Alarm.com has also taken this approach by recently announcing a remote sensor-based smart thermostat.

Besides smart heating, smart cooling is also an interesting domain which requires some more attention than the one received in 2015. To the best of my knowledge, in Europe only Tado has invested on this technology with its infrared based cooling solution, crowdfunded on Kickstarter. While in the US a solution which I find particularly attractive is the smart vent from Keen Home. It is difficult to predict what will happen in 2016, but the traction on smart heating has been so strong in 2015 that it is worth investing in smart cooling as well.

Big players try to unify the smart home with their platforms 

About a year and a half ago Apple announced HomeKit, a smart home platform which aims to integrate smart home devices and iOS devices. Apple’s vision is that an Iphone would be able to control different devices by means of a single integrated app or by using Siri speech recognition functionality. After a very soft launch, different from the typical Apple style, in 2015 HomeKit has been improved with the release of iOS9 and the first devices have started to appear. Although there is still work to be done, the first reviews of HomeKit devices are rather promising.

Big news, announcements and visions in 2015 have arrived from Google with Brillo, an Android-based operating system for resource constrained devices, and Weave, a cross-platform application protocol used for automatic device and functionality discovery. Google’s Nest has also clearly demonstrated its intention to become a smart home platform. In fact, Nest recently announced that next year they would strengthen their Works With Nest program by moving towards a direct device-to-device interaction which removes the need for the cloud-based API. This would happen by allowing third party devices to implement the Nest’s Weave application protocol. There has been some confusion on the use of the term Weave.  Everyone was convinced that Nest’s Weave and Googòe’s Weave are the same protocol, but apparently they are two different things.

Amazon has also made significant moves to puts his hands on the smart home domain by reinforcing its development of Amazon Echo, a hub with voice recognition which is able to perform various actions by means of voice commands. After a limited release to a selected number of users in late 2014, in 2015 Amazon has started to sell the Echo to the masses, has provided support for several smart home devices, and has integrated it with the popular IFTTT platform. The company also established a 100M$ investment fund for the AI brain behind the Echo. There has been  a lot of enthusiasm for the Amazon Echo, and some think it’s the smart home breakthrough product of the year. Whether Eco has been the product of the year or not, I personally think that Amazon, by developing a platform and opening up the API for developers, has followed an approach more open and more effective, compared to Apple and Google.

The fight for Smart Home networking gets interesting

The major steps for dominating the smart home networking space have been done by the Thread group and by the Bluetooth SIG.

In July, the Thread group announced the release of the first protocol specifications. Thread is a protocol for low power networking in the smart home announced last year by Nest, Samsung, Freescale, Silicon Labs and other companies. The release of the first protocol specifications is important news for the smart home market as it means that the development of products based on Thread will soon be available. The group has also recently launched a product certification program. They claim to have 30 products that are currently submitted under the certification program and that they expect that they will hit the market in  2016.

The Bluetooth SIG, after officially adopting the 4.2 specifications at the very end of 2014, at the beginning of 2015 announced the creation of the Bluetooth Smart Mesh Working Group for standardizing mesh networking capability for Bluetooth Smart technology. In addition, on the very same day in which the Thread group announced the product certification program, the Bluetooth SIG announced the 2016 roadmap which includes a four time longer range, the creation of the mesh profile and double speed.

I have written before about the fact that Thread and Bluetooth Smart with its mesh functionalities are going to get most of the smart home market share and that will soon get rid of ZigBee and Z-Wave. And in my opinion, Bluetooth smart is in a better position due to the fact that it’s widely available in smartphones and wearables and to the fact that it is interoperable. Thread is promising, but they risk to make the same mistakes that ZigBee has always done in terms of interoperability. The future of Thread will depend on how the protocol will be integrated with the major application layer out there, such as the AllSeen Alliance and the Open Interconnect Consortium. And it will also depend on how the products coming out from these collaborations will be branded. I had written about this when Thread announced the collaboration with the ZigBee application layer. But for the moment, they don’t seem to be on the right path in terms of product branding. In any case, 2016 will be the year in which the first Thread and Bluetooth Smart products will appear and will surely give the first indications on who is going to win the smart home networking space.

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