Surfing the Smart Home “Weave”

Smart home and smart building technologies have progressed enough  over the last few years and promise a considerable market in the next future. Large players like Apple, Google and Amazon, which have never been in the domain, have adopted different strategies to try to jump in the game as early as possible. In this post I’ll try to briefly recap their recent moves.

Apple has created HomeKit, a smart home platform with the aim to seamlessly 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. Each compatible device has a unique code which can be scanned with the smartphone in order to be recognized in a very easy plug and play fashion. HomeKit was announced last year but only recently the first devices have started to appear. The main reason of the delay has been that HomeKit devices need a dedicated chip for strict security requirements. This has led to some problems for device manufacturers. For example, Ecobee has recently released the HomeKit compatible version of the Ecobee3 thermostat but has disappointed many of its existing users because the previous version, released only a few months before, is not HomeKit compatible. The dedicated hardware approach has also resulted in some companies staying away from HomeKit. SmartThings, a successful IoT company bought by Samsung, has recently released a new version of the hub and it surprisingly doesn’t support HomeKit. The company’s CEO has admitted to be “disappointed so far by the proprietary hardware and he hasn’t seen much value in adding support for it”.

Google started his smart home strategy with the acquisition of Nest, the first smart and connected thermostat appeared on the market. Nest started Works with Nest, a program allowing other devices to communicate with the thermostat via a cloud-based API. At the same time, the company  initiated a strong standardization activity on Thread, a mesh networking protocol stack for low power smart home devices. The Thread group is led by Nest and includes big names such as Silicon Labs, ARM, Samsung and Freescale. However, working on the standardization of a networking stack wasn’t sufficient to respond to the Apple’s HomeKit strategy. Some big announcement was needed at the platform level. Therefore, Google came up with the announcement of Brillo and Weave. Brillo is an Android-based operating system for resource constrained devices, while Weave is a cross-platform application protocol used for automatic device and functionality discovery. Google’s smart home strategy seemed to be quite clear: Brillo becomes the OS for smart home devices so that they can easily be controlled by Android smartphones, probably with the voice support of Google Now. Other smart home devices which don’t run Brillo, either because they are too constrained in terms of memory or because they are based on a non-Android based OS, can use the cross-platform Weave protocol to be discovered and controlled by Android smartphones.

But two weeks ago Nest 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. All those who followed the Brillo/Weave story immediately thought that the Weave protocol to be opened up by Nest would be the same Weave protocol previously announced by Google. But there was a clarification immediately after on the CEPro website which surprisingly reported that Nest’s Weave is different than Google’s Weave: “Weave is Google’s program to support connected devices broadly across the IoT space. Nest Weave is Nest’s proprietary application protocol that is currently used in Nest products around the world.” Seriously? Two companies, one owning the other one, manage to come up with the same name for two different application protocols which are used for the same purpose? I have written before on the battle for smart home networking protocols, but I thought that the battle could only be among different alliances and companies and not in the same company. Analyst Michael Wolf from Next Market Insights has suggested Google and Nest simplify their smart home messaging. We are indeed very confused.

Let’s try to understand what Nest’s strategy means for users and for product developers:

  • From the user point of view: Nest Weave basically allows third party devices to talk to the Nest thermostat (and to other Nest devices like the new cam and smoke detector). It surely works on top of Thread, and it’s not clear whether and how it would work on top of other protocol stacks, like WiFi and Bluetooth. My feeling is that it’s a protocol specifically designed for Thread, as it can also be deduced on the Silicon Lab website, and won’t be compatible with other protocols. If you want to integrate into your home a device which is based on Thread/Weave you need another device which has two interfaces, one based on the Thread/Weave to talk to your device and one to talk to your WiFi router. Does it sound familiar? Yes, it’s a Nest. This means that Nest is trying to lock users down into an ecosystem consisting of a Nest thermostat and a network of devices based on the Thread stack and Weave application protocol.
  • From the product developer point of view: the Weave protocol will be opened up in the scope of the Works with Nest program. But Weave works on top of the Thread stack, which means that a product developer will have to also be part of the Thread group (upon paying a fee) besides applying to the Works with Nest program. This would probably penalize smaller companies which have limited resources.
Nest is using a rather closed approach to the smart home. They have developed a great product, and I personally think that it’s still the best smart and connected thermostat out there. But I don’t like the strategy they have adopted for the smart home. They want to basically transform a thermostat into a platform, even defining a new networking stack and an application protocol, with the aim to lock users and product developers down into a closed ecosystem.
Amazon has followed a different and in my opinion more open approach. The company has released Amazon Echo, a hub with voice recognition which is able to perform various actions by means of voice commands. Echo can perform web searches but can also act has a smart home hub. In fact, Amazon has opened up an API so that manufacturers can integrate their products with the hub. This means that if I have an Amazon echo I’m not locked down into a protocol ecosystem because the platform is not bound to one specific protocol, alliance, group, etc. The Amazon approach makes the life easier both for users and product developers. Users have more choices in buying smart home devices, while developers can simply use an open API to develop devices compatible with the Echo. Among the three giants which are trying to arrive first in the smart home market, Amazon seems to have adopted a more open approach: they have developed a powerful voice controlled hub and have opened it up to developers with a simple open API. This is far different than being a smart thermostat which wants to become a closed platform with newly defined protocols.
We are almost there, the smart home might soon explode and go mainstream. But to convince the mass market, we need that big companies like Google/Nest and Apple work hard on delivering solid products and platforms with a more open approach. Confusing us with their visions announced at annual company events is not sufficient. And above all, Nest and Google should be more clear on Nest Weave, Google Weave and Brillo. Please tell us what they are and how they work. In summary,  please stop surfing the smart home “weave” and start listening to what users and developers want.

Comments

  1. Riyaz Muhammad says

    I see the Smart Home in presentations still far from reality. Google needs Nest thermostat at home with Thread and Works with Nest products that connect with it. Amazon has a definite plan with Echo, but I am yet to see a solid plan from them. Apple is still struggling to penetrate AppleTV which is their hub for connecting HomeKit devices to outside world when you are not home. Apple has focused on BLE and iPhone where as Google is with Thread over 802.15.4. It is possible that Apple might migrate to support 802.11ah when it comes sometime next year (?)

    • Walter Colitti says

      Hi, thanks a lot for your comment. I agree with your points. Just a clarification. I don’t think the AppleTV is necessary to access HomeKit devices when you are not at home. The remote connection can be done via iCloud.

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