Smarthome, pulling it all together
Editor / Provider: Gary Tang, a&s SMAhome | Updated: 3/6/2014 | Article type: Hot Topics
As the demand for smart home products has been steadily drifting upwards, many suppliers started facing the vexing conundrum of how to connect one product to another. Some advocated the concept of connecting products through hubs, others proposed using cloud services. In order to cater to the need of interoperability and connectivity, device makers and service providers are still trying to come up with a win-win solution.
Pulling it All Together
For the connected home to be realized, devices need some way to exchange data. This can be achieved at the device level, through a hub, or through a cloud service. Many manufactures have their own ecosystems of connected devices, but this is a barrier for wider adoption. There are also multiple proprietary and open protocols that are widely adopted by the industry for use in connected devices—the problem is, users have to go through hoops to make them work together.
Interoperability is essential for the smart appliance industry because consumers want to have the flexibility to buy best-of-breed appliances and have them work together, Dahlberg said.
In the case of Blacksumac's popular security and home automation unit Piper, which reached 3 times its original funding goal on crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, Z-Wave was the optimal protocol.“Most users know very little or nothing about smart home technologies, and we wanted to give of users the broadest range of interoperable smart home accessories to make learning about it easy for them. Z-wave offers our users with a huge range of choices and from a large group of manufactures,”said Russell Ure, CEO and co-founder of Blacksumac.
Alarm.com's system is more holistic, working with Z-Wave, ZigBee and Wi-Fi devices. However, not all protocols are created equal.“The main difference for us when we evaluated the protocols available on the market is that Z-Wave had more of a standards approach to their protocol. If you integrated a Z-Wave chip into your solution, anything that is Z-Wave will work,” Kenny said.
I ZigBee, on the other hand, has many more variations; different ZigBee devices may run different “flavors” of ZigBee, Kenny continued.“There isn't a standardization of the protocol. It is more like an open-source code base that people modify and use.”
Wi-Fi devices can be even trickier, since some manufacturers, such as Nest and Sonos, do not officially give third parties access to their APIs. Solutions like Revolv work around this by reverse-engineering the APIs of popular devices made by these companies. However, this approach means that users will be shut out if these manufacturers push out a software update to their devices, Cooper said.
In contrast, Staple Connect's approach is to form partnerships directly with device makers. “Staples Connect is targeting the mass market consumer and we are focused on building the broadest and most compelling ecosystem for devices. As such, it is important for us to give consumers assurances that the devices included in the ecosystem are done so in an official capacity, with the manufacturers a core part of the experience,” Cooper continued.“At a high level, the more devices we can embrace and bring in to this solution, the better it is for consumers. However, we're sticking to our model where we work with premium brands consumers know and trust, while also keeping the ecosystem open for new, compelling and emerging companies as well.”
Standards make for lower cost implementations, since the learning curve is not as steep; it is also easier to create systems in which products from multiple manufacturers work together. On the other hand, proprietary systems afford advantages such as longer range (1W 900MHz networks can go over a mile) and plug-and-play installation and provisioning, Dahlberg said.
It is unlikely that all manufacturers will collaborate to interoperate in the home by agreeing to adopt the same communication protocol, but interoperability can be achieved relatively easier in the cloud. “Arrayent already has a customer, Chamberlain, that connects its LiftMaster branded garage door openers to an Alarm.com home security app via cloudto-cloud integration,” Dahlberg said.
Off loading Interoperability to the Cloud
Alarm.com's approach to interoperability relies on its cloud service. “Our system consists of communication devices that go in the home, a cloud service connects all the different elements and cuts rules and automation for the hub to bring them all together, and apps to make management and operation simple for users,” Kenny said.
The devices don't have to talk to each other in the house. The door sensors talk to the hub through radio waves; the door lock and thermostat through Z-Wave, Kenny continued. “They don't talk to each other, but our system can talk to them in a choreographed way, so if you open the door system, the thermostat can adjust, for example.”
Kenny provided another example, “Our video cameras connect over broadband. They don't talk to the other devices, but they're aware of what's going on the house because they talk to our service. The devices don't necessarily talk to each other, but they can do intelligent rules because they talk to our cloud service.”
Cloud services also allow device makers to offer more advanced features that may not be possible when limited to the hardware of a single device, especially when the device itself has limited processing power—sensors, for example. With richer features, device makers can also differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive market, Wyckoff said. ”These technologies are enabling us to succeed in a demanding environment.”
It is, however, important that users do not lose the ability to control their devices even when their Internet connection at home is down. The advantage of a point-to-point solution is that if the Internet goes down, the system will still function; when you press the light switch, the lights will go off, because it does not depend on an Internet connection, Cooper said.
“Even in 2014, broadband service in the U.S.A. still isn't 100 % reliable all the time. Most people, even with some form of broadband, don't realize it's not always consistent or reliable. Downtime of less than a minute may not be a big deal when web surfing, but it matters when you come home late at night and your lights don't work. We believe a home automation solution needs to work even when the Internet is slow or down,” Cooper continued.“When Staples Connect customers are inside their home using a smartphone or tablet, they connect to the hub via their home WiFi network. When they are outside the home, they connect via their cellular network, through the cloud, to the hub,” Cooper said.
The key factors for a successful cloud service are scalability, latency, security, and reliability, which are also the some of the biggest challenges in making cloud software, Cooper said.
Internet Connectivity = Security Issues
Any device that connects to the Internet is bound to have vulnerabilities, especially when manufacturers are inexperienced in making these types of devices or deliberately neglect security to cut costs.
“First and foremost, security aspects cannot be compromised, and I can't stress how intricate those elements are. Opening a door with a mobile device is one thing, opening it without vulnerabilities is another,” Wyckoff said. “Our product has been on the market for four months and has been publicly declared attack against by the black hat community. This speaks volumes about our architecture and implementation. This element is so often overlooked in the Internet of Things, but when you couple this to the access to your home, security cannot be compromised in any fashion.”
While some try to argue that tighter security impacts user exerience, it is not necessarily a zero-sum game.“We believe that security is the responsibility of the device manufacturer, and at Blacksumac we take security very seriously,” Ure said. “Security problems are due to poor testing and poorly defined internal test programs rather than a result of improved usability.”
Exciting Things Ahead
At the moment, device makers and service providers are still trying to come up with a compelling scenario that will convert even non-believers. 5 years from now, every device will be connected; for the next 2 to 3 years, manufactures of different products will continue to learn and experiment, Kenny said. “I think there is a very clear path. Everything in the house will be connected, and we're at the very early stages of understanding how these devices can connect to each other and what they can do with that connectivity.”
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