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.