Smart Homes Need Data Communication Standards

Smart devices often speak slightly or even very different languages. We need to develop better smart home data communication standards.

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The success of connected homes or buildings relies on data communication. All of the smart devices within a network must be able to interact with each other, their controller and the local wireless connectivity system (e.g. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth). This might sound easy enough, but the concept poses a real challenge for device manufacturers because there are no generally accepted smart home data communication standards. In this piece, I’m going to highlight the importance of developing data communication standards for smart homes.

Smart devices manufactured by different brands often speak slightly or even very different languages. This makes it difficult for the devices to communicate with each other. It’s as if they understand every other word or a small cluster of words the other device is transmitting. This poor interoperability diminishes the convenience and efficiency these devices are supposed to offer users.

To play it safe, some consumers and businesses might become brand-aligned and purchase devices from the same product families. For example, a homeowner might upgrade his or her home with a Whirlpool refrigerator, washer and dryer and use a smartphone to control all of them. Better smart home data communication standards would empower end-users to combine brands more creatively while stimulating innovation in the industry by fostering competition. Moreover, these devices still need to connect easily with the user’s home Wi-Fi in a plug-and-play fashion for ease of setup and use. From there, the devices need to maintain that connection effortlessly to ensure that they are ready to work when the end-user needs them. Better standards would streamline everything from innovation to end-use.

Users will want to integrate a new or different product from another brand. This, of course, opens up the inter-device data communication issue again; it’s anti-competitive and restraining to be limited to a single brand ecosystem. Furthermore, many smaller devices are intended for self-installation by the user. If the installation and integration into the smart home are too complex, the end-user will have more headaches than she or he bargained for, which will stall adoption. And if the devices do not follow the same cybersecurity protocols, the smart network could have holes at the junctures of different brand ecosystems—or even within a single ecosystem—allowing hackers to compromise critical user data, which will impact not only the brands involved but also the smart home industry as a whole. Just think back to the massive whiplash the self-driving car industry experienced after Uber’s recent fatal accident.

Developing Smart Home Data Communication Standards

To address these problems, which concern the smart home industry, the greater IoT industries, and end-users alike, we need better smart home data communication standard. Industry experts should find the lowest common denominator among devices on the market to establish a new or modified common language that devices from different brand ecosystems can use to communicate with each other and execute tasks in tandem. New brands and devices would also speak this language in order to be included in the mainstream IoT market. In addition, the standards should establish a suite of common security protocols to ensure that there are no cybersecurity holes within or between ecosystems.

In Jabil’s 2018 Connected Home and Building Technology Trends survey, 43 percent of participants said that the lack of data communication and application standards was one of their biggest challenges. Meanwhile, 97 percent of respondents indicated that clear standards for data and communication between devices would benefit their businesses. The potential benefit of these standards is wide-ranging. Here are the highlights:

  • 54 percent agree these standards would provide an opportunity to create a new category of solutions to manage all connected devices
  • 48 percent believe this would speed up user adoption of smart home and business devices because users will not have to grapple with device integration challenges
  • 44 percent say smart home data communication standards will allow them to focus on their core strengths instead of worrying about connectivity issues
  • 43 percent note that the standards would enable brand owners to capture rich data sets by correlating with other types of connected devices
  • 42 percent add that smart home data communication standards will simplify payments for up-selling and cross-selling opportunities

Of course, better smart home data communication standards would also benefit the end-customer. A common language among connected devices would enable them to operate in the way users expect: without a hassle and reliably with other devices, even those from unrelated brands. Ideally, a user could plug in a new device and turn it on and then the device could connect itself with the local network to become part of the smart home or building ecosystem, which itself might comprise many smaller brand ecosystems. This would be much more user-friendly. It would empower consumers to install a connected deviceeasily—on their own and without headaches.

As more consumers are adopting connected devices, now is the perfect time to solidify these standards, before the smart home industry truly explodes. At some point, most—or even all—devices and materials in a home or building will be smart. Establishing a common language for these products will ensure that new devices can integrate into smart homes or networks effortlessly and work together in harmony.

Choosing an Ecosystem Approach for the Internet of Things

For now, different manufacturers have different approaches to interoperability, leaving the industry with a few starter options for building a smart home data communication standard. In the Jabil survey, 45 percent of participants said they utilize a controlled approach, which means their brands deliver all of the needed functionality within their own managed ecosystems. This gives a brand full control over the customer experience. Solution providers that exercise this approach are known to have an ecosystem of devices that are easy to use, providing the convenience that users seek. Considering 50 percent of survey respondents said delivering a user interface that works as expected was a challenge, a controlled ecosystem may be the way to go. However, tight controls make it more difficult for devices with one brand to communicate with devices from another brand, so this does not solve the interoperability problem.

A slightly larger portion (47 percent) of survey participants have adopted an “interoperable” approach, meaning that they design their products to work with devices across brands, allowing the user to create their own ecosystem. Companies that manufacture connected devices for businesses are more likely to adopt this approach, as 60 percent of the B2B participants of the Jabil survey indicated that they follow this system. These manufacturers are more interested in functionality than user experience, so they do not need as much control.

Only 8 percent of survey participants said they are using an open-source system that enables users to do whatever they want with the device. This system is for more advanced users and might be too complicated for the average user as of now.

Interestingly, there is a striking contrast between controlled and interoperable manufacturers, the types of products they produce or plan to produce, and their cybersecurity approaches. Manufacturers who follow a controlled approach believe that the largest opportunity for connected home and building solutions lies in energy efficiency devices, such as smart lightbulbs and thermostats. In contrast, manufacturers who favor interoperability foresee smart building devices, such as smart temperature, energy, and lighting controls, in the future. In addition, controlled manufacturers seem to be more concerned about device cybersecurity. According to the survey, 87 percent of controlled manufacturers have adjusted their cybersecurity approaches as a result of the Facebook data controversy that was revealed earlier this year and the recent introduction of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In contrast, only 57 percent of interoperable manufacturers changed their cybersecurity policies.

The answer must lie somewhere in the middle. According to Jabil research, consumers expect an easy, plug-and-play experience and devices that are easy to operate and control through a friendly and intuitive interface or through voice commands. At the same time, they do not want to compromise their privacy and home security by installing devices that could leak their personal information or give hackers digital access to their home networks. Smart home data communication standards must take these and other user interests into consideration to help build truly connected homes and buildings that add convenience and tackle daily challenges for users.

Written by Sam Salem, Senior Director of Technology and Strategic Development, Connected Consumer Technologies, Jabil.

Jabil (NYSE: JBL) is a manufacturing solutions provider with over 260,000 employees across 100 locations in 30 countries. The world's leading brands rely on Jabil's unmatched breadth and depth of end-market experience, technical and design capabil...
Jabil (NYSE: JBL) is a manufacturing solutions provider with over 260,000 employees across 100 locations in 30 countries. The world's leading brands rely on Jabil's unmatched breadth and depth of end-market experience, technical and design capabil...