Smart Home Interoperability: A Fragmented Landscape

Smart home systems are limited by the lack of true ecosystem interoperability. Why don't smart home product developers do a better job of facilitating interoperability? Standards and protocols are part of the solution, but there are numerous strategic, technical, and operational obstacles yet to be overcome.

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Floating smart home devices on pattern background

The smart home is broken. OK, maybe not shattered beyond repair, but the fragmented state of the connected home market is certainly creating challenges (and opportunities) for all involved—consumers, product manufacturers, and service providers. For the average consumer, useful interoperability that goes beyond basic device connectivity is often hard to achieve. This lack of intuitive cross-product functionality with a truly customer-centric whole-home app experience undermines the customer’s efforts to achieve a truly smart home.

While numerous product vendors have traditionally pursued interoperability by building interfaces with “glue” type apps like IFTTT (if-this-then-that) to add logic to device events, more and more companies are now pursuing the path to coexistence by building “works with” compatibility facilitated by Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google. These approaches certainly have merit. There’s no doubt that collectively these four tech giants have helped accelerate the adoption of relevant consumer devices—particularly Amazon and Google through the aggressive promotion of voice-enabled devices in North America.

There are some coordinational challenges driven by these tech-giants, however, including the lack of sustainable business models that share the value of the logic, the customer relationships, and—not to be undervalued—the data emanating from smart home devices.

The Importance of Smart Home Interoperability

Real progress towards the delivery of customer-centric smart home applications will be made when broader interoperability becomes a key design consideration and not just a checklist item.

This two-part article (part two forthcoming) describes the current shortfalls affecting application level connected home interoperability, discusses the main hurdles preventing broader collaboration between product brands, and offers a path forward to overcome these challenges.

Problem: A Fragmented User Experience

The abundance of consumer-grade connected home products spans dozens of device types and hundreds of brands. While competition is generally great for customer choice, it also leads to a rather fragmented market and a disjointed user experience. Despite the broad selection of products boasting compatibility with Alexa, Google Assistant—and to a lesser degree Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung’s voice assistants—the promised land of whole-home automation remains elusive for most users.

Smart Home Flexibility Continuum (Plasmatic Technologies)
Image Credit: Plasmatic Technologies

The various alternatives consumers have can be illustrated across a spectrum describing the degree of flexibility offered. On one extreme are the home automation systems from Clare Controls, Control4, Crestron, Nexia Home, Vera, and others. These solutions are designed to provide a well-integrated experience of a rather limited selection of devices and their dealer installation model may put them beyond the budget for most homeowners.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are several options for systems based on flexible platforms such as Homeseer or the coding-intensive Home Assistant and OpenHAB platforms. These have traditionally been the domain of motivated early adopters, who have the patience and skills required.

The prevailing alternatives for the mass market are somewhere between those two extremes. Here we find security-centric smart home solutions that are often bundled with subscription plans for monitoring and video storage such as Vivint and Ring. These provide a well-integrated experience but usually offer limited ability to add devices from other brands.

The other mass market option is to adopt a relatively open hub-based ecosystem that’s compatible with a range of brand and device options such as Wink and Samsung’s SmartThings.

Finally, a pretty common approach is to assemble a hybrid system made from a collection of products from different brands—with or without their designated hardware hub (also called a “bridge”)—and to install each purpose-built app without any meaningful integration at all.

Smart Home Interoperability Goes Beyond Network Protocols

It seems much of the industry focus around compatibility of connected home products thus far has been contained to the communication standards (WiFi, Zigbee, Z-Wave or the less popular Thread standard) and the use of hubs that support a combination of such protocols. From that perspective, ecosystem vendors like Samsung’s SmartThings and Wink have done a great job by continuously expanding the portfolio of third-party devices supported and delivering ways to bridge them, thus providing customers with more choices when piecing together their smart home.

This, however, only goes so far. There’s more to interoperability than basic integration and device control. The ability for a heterogeneous system to use and collect relevant data across devices, overlay context, and derive the insights required to deliver the comfort, automation, and safety that homeowners expect from a smart home interface—be it an app or a speaker—is not as attainable we would like.

Aside from the aforementioned hub-based solutions that offer varying levels of automation for supported devices, technically advanced homeowners often find themselves with a hybrid system and then do one of the only things possible. They augment their home automation with apps like IFTTT and Comcast-owned Stringify (provided those solutions have been integrated with by product manufacturers). These apps do offer the ability to create applets that allow you to orchestrate routines and configure “flows.” They make sense for individual lifestyles and needs, particularly when no other integration option exists.

The downside of this approach is that it’s developed by the user in an entirely piecemeal fashion; as more automation logic and components are added, the more cumbersome the system becomes, quickly eliminating the desire for convenience that inspired the effort.

Will Voice-Activated Smart Speakers and Displays Deliver the Goods?

Smart speakers are widely recognized as the fastest adopted consumer electronic device in history. They’ve reached 25 percent market penetration in North American in less than four years. They’re expected to reach 50 percent in the next several months. Despite limited use cases for the speakers, there’s strong evidence that once used, these voice-enabled interfaces contribute to the further adoption of connected home technologies.

Research by specialist analyst firm Parks Associates illustrates that a significant portion of consumers start with a smart speaker and security cameras, thermostats, lighting, and other connected devices. There’s no doubt that the increased penetration of smart speakers by both Amazon and Google fuels the motivation for device vendors to build interfaces (largely voice skills) and pull consumers through the “works with” programs that are somewhat reminiscent of the “Intel Inside” affiliation scheme, but it’s important to note that these programs don’t speak to the depth and quality of these integrations. Much like the smart hubs mentioned above, the consumer may often find themselves with far less functionality than expected.

In addition, interoperability with both companies’ streaming devices and smart displays (Amazon’s Fire TV Stick and Echo Show, and Google’s Chromecast and Home Hub) are evolving beyond streaming media by offering access to security and doorbell cameras. Experts expect screen-enabled assistants, as well as TVs with an integrated voice such as Bixby, and powered Samsung sets to grow in popularity.

At present, however, all of these products offer what amounts to rudimentary interfaces and lack true coordination that extends beyond simple control. They fall short in terms of providing the integrated and contextualized experience homeowners expect from a “smart” home system.

Google Home Mini Smart Speaker on brown board
Image Credit: Photo by John Tekeridis from Pexels

“Universal Control” Apps Tackle the Challenge

For homeowners that use devices from multiple brands. The gap in broad and cross-ecosystem interoperability has evidently been a stumbling block for users with hybrid systems for quite some time and is being addressed by a growing breed of multi-purpose apps that strive to help users overcome the challenge of using different apps for each device brand. “Universal control” apps like Gideon, Muzzley, Simple Commands, Yeti, and Yonomi work by allowing the user to link multiple device accounts to a single app, and then to use that app to control the devices. In some ways this is like the “universal remote control” people use to overcome the situation of separate remote controls for their TV, VCR, DVD player, Hi-Fi sound systems etc. These apps vary quite a bit in terms of the ecosystems they support and the depth of their integrations but are still a valid option.

The main challenge of such “universal” apps is that only some product manufacturers offer publicly available interfaces and are hence supported. Even when those do exist, developers struggle with very basic documentation and API methods. The structure and data formats vary greatly, increasing the engineering complexity. Unfortunately, in most cases, despite significant effort and creativity, these apps fall short of providing homeowners with a whole-home view and adequate cross-device insight and automation.

The Key Question Remains: Why Is Device Interoperability So Elusive?

The limited ability to coordinate sensors and devices to provide home automation from anywhere and anytime, particularly through the cloud, begs the question as to why these companies don’t do a better job of facilitating useful interoperability.

In our next post, we’ll discuss the various reasons for such interoperability shortfalls, spanning strategic issues, security and privacy concerns, technical challenges, operational considerations and more.

Written by Adi Kabazo, VP Marketing and Alliances, Plasmatic Technologies