Gateway, the brain in a connected home

Gateway, the brain in a connected home
It’s fair to say that the concept of home automation has been around for a long time. But it’s only been the last few years that this smart home frenzy has been charging ahead at full throttle. As home automation continues to play its vital role as the driver of a smarter living, the growing awareness about wireless technologies and the connected home will only propel it further towards mass adoption in the future.

Smart “brain” hub

Smartening up a home begins with installing a hub. This gadget serves as a linguistic bridge between different protocols, letting ZigBee devices talk to Z-Wave, and both of them talk to gadgets that run on Wi-Fi or other wireless standards. The smart home hub, also known as the “brain” in an automated home setup, is designed to make automation easier in your house by connecting all the devices together.

But due to the mishmash of competing protocols, most connected hubs are forced to include an ensemble of modules that can interpret them. Supporting all those standards inevitably makes the hubs more complex and pricier.

In short, this little gizmo can often be a bit confusing for early connected home adopters in a number of ways, such as price, connectivity, interoperability, installation and usage. For a newbie, these questions really boggle the mind.

Getting started – The easy way

A connected home hub is basically designed to perform “plug-and-play.” Since the hub acts as a universal remote for the IoT, it provides a single interface for binding the control of lights, media devices and any other smart electronic appliances from different manufacturers.

“Consumers care about how the hub works, how fun and easy to install and use, and how much does it cost,” said Insteon CEO Joe Dada. “We created Insteon to be simple and that’s what I believe the market wants as well. This means homeowners can easily install the system on their own and then run it from any smartphone, tablet or computer without paying monthly fees. The best DIY solution will end up feeding the professional install market.”

Regarding Insteon’s sales channels, Dada said his company also works with several other leading retailers in hope to bring home automation to the masses. It currently has more than 200 Insteon products readily available in more than 2,500 local retailers such as Walmart, Costco and Home Depot.

Fibaro, a connected home solution provider based in Europe and the official partner for Orange France, says early adopters typically look for the simplest ways to getting started.

“The key feature of a main controller (hub) is robustness. It needs to be both powerful and simple to use, which is very hard to combine. However, I like to think we managed to do so in our products,” said Fibar Group PR Manager Ewa Bujak.

Fibaro believes that innovation comes from nature. Such examples include the design of their flood sensor, which was initially inspired by a drop of water; and the motion sensor, an idea conceived by observing the eyes of a cat. “All of our products are multifunctional, intuitive and easy to use. We provide the complete package in one device – everything suited to customers’ needs,” she said.

Also based in Europe, Zipato is another major contender that provides a complete home automation platform for both professional installers and DIY customers to create their own smart solutions.

“Our flagship product is certainly Zipabox, which is a unique modular home automation device that allows customers to scale from do-it-yourself, easy-to-install devices,” said Zipato CEO Sebastian Popovic.

With well over dozens of connected home hubs lining across the IoT today, some suppliers are even taking steps to upping a hub’s exterior appeal.

“The latest Insteon flagship hub follows the design profile of its predecessor. Its smaller, sleeker, square shape and white complements the style of any home,” Dada said.

Protocols & interoperability – A mishmash of options

Protocols and interoperability, two eluded words that might even startle entry players interested in setting up a connected home. Right now, there are two names at the forefront of standardizing the connected home: ZigBee and Z-Wave. Both are composed of similar wireless networking technologies, and both include languages that allow devices to share select information over their wireless networks. Meanwhile, there are also other mishmash of protocols floating above our IoT sphere today, including Lutron ClearConnect, Wi-Fi, Insteon, and so forth.

The role of a connected hub is to provide a single way for appliances to speak with each other. However, what modules are embedded to the hub depends from manufacturer to manufacturer, and even software platform providers who sells their services to hub makers.

“Certainly Z-Wave and ZigBee are two of the most well-known wireless standards in the home automation industry today. However, there are other new/old names such as Bluetooth LE or Wi-Fi, which are commonly used wireless protocols by customers worldwide,” Popovic said.

“Gateways/hubs are mostly becoming like controllers as they are doing much more than just converting from one protocol to another. Ability to integrate multiple protocols to the same home automation installation, and their advanced logical possibilities gives them the most important role in each and every home automation network,” he added.

As software solution provider, iControl Networks develops platforms for tier 1 service providers and home security companies worldwide that enable them to offer these connected home solutions under their own brand name to their customers.

“We chose ZigBee, Z-Wave, Wi-Fi years ago because those had the most traction with device manufacturers in the worldwide marketplace. And that has continued to be the case for… at least for the smart home growth and the wireless standards that are driving that smart home growth,” said iControl VP of Marketing Greg Roberts. To date, ZigBee, Z-Wave and Wi-Fi are the predominant protocols in the smart home industry and those are the ones we embrace currently, Roberts told a&s SMAhome magazine.

However, Roberts said due to the hodgepodge of protocols available today, it seriously hinders the growth prospects of the connected home market in North America.

“How we look at the marketplace is looking at what are the opportunities for growth and what are the barriers that are hindering growth in North America. One of those is interoperability. It’s the friction of interoperability of connected devices and solutions that hinder the consumer an easy and frictionless way to get a connected home,” he added.

Considering all these protocols, and the fact that wireless is often combined with some hard-wired devices, it is obvious that integration will be necessary in the future, explained Popovic.

Since connected home adoption is still in its very early stages, the standardization or integration of protocols has yet to be seen. According to Zonoff Chief Marketing Officer Bob Cooper in a recent interview with a&s SMAhome magazine, the current problem lies in the interference of custom protocols that falls into the mix.

Zonoff, which powers the software for the Staples Connect Hub, provides a comprehensive software platform to channel partners including retailers, service providers, consumer electronics OEMs and system integrators who, in turn, deliver “Connected Home” products and services to the consumer mass market.

“You have people writing their own custom protocols which cause confusion for consumers, and support issues down the road. Our goal at Zonoff is to work with all the top wireless standards (current and future) and eliminate that confusion for consumers,” Cooper said.

The different radio protocols (ZigBee, Z-Wave, DECT-ULE, and so on) will remain a long discussion, according to Thibault de la Fresnaye, Orange VP and Head of Product Marketing Anticipation. “We are keeping watch on the alternatives in term of interoperability, battery life and product range. Additionally, Orange Labs is also looking at managing multi-protocol situations,” he said.

“Orange is supporting standards but we cannot implement all of them in the home boxes, hence Orange is making choices in relation to the entire ecosystem.”

Orange France, who partnered with Fibaro to bring its own connected home solution since October last year, said it is working effortlessly to propel its presence in the smart home space.

According to Sunitec Enterprise Minerva Yeh, the company is focused on Z-Wave standard because of its low development cost, low power consumption, high usability, expandability, and interoperability.

“Furthermore, besides our popular Z-Wave home security sensors, we are working on applying Z-Wave with health-care monitoring products such as sleeping pillows for the elderly,” she said.

Is software-based gateway possible?

There’s been a lot of heated debate lately about the feasibility of a cloud-based gateway in the future of smart home, replacing the physical connected hub as a single-purpose unit. Yonomi, a software developer based in the US, had mentioned in its press release on November 19: “Our innovative approach to device discovery and connectivity eliminates the need for the hub and instead leverages the user’s mobile device as an essential piece of the communications fabric.”

“Consumers don’t want hubs, they need hubs. That is, until the requisite hardware is embedded into other devices that consumers have,” Insteon’s Dada retorted.

“As the best wireless protocols become the winners in the IoT space, their silicon will be embedded into routers and other consumer devices. The silicon already in those devices might be functional enough for some of today’s single point IoT offerings, but they will not meet the demands of the future automated home,” he added.

The fact is, a connected home still need one central “brain” or control point to truly integrate all the subsystems of a home, said Cooper, adding that he still sees the hub as a central controller for connecting all the devices together.

D-Link, a leading global networking solutions provider for enterprise and consumer markets, provides a fully-integrated, easy to use smart solution for the masses. Their line of connected home includes network cameras, gateways, routers, smart plugs, sensors, cloud service, and mobile app.

“The connected home requires an ‘always-on’ device to act as a bridge between the different connected devices,” said Hans Liu, senior manager of software R&D at D-Link. “Until there is a breakthrough, I simply don’t see individual electronic appliances working on TCP-IP, or any other such protocols to enable them to send information to the cloud. That is simply not cost effective and energy efficient in this respect.”

However, Liu reiterated that he expects the connected hub to be embedded to other connected appliances in the coming future, and not only as standalones. “All-in-one hubs will be the foreseeable hype.”

“I think SAAS and cloud services will gain bigger and bigger share of the software market, however there will always be the need of physical hub, at least to provide all modules in installation with Internet connection, since Wi-Fi in every one would highly increase power consumption. We also believe that system should be as independent as possible, to ensure flawless work even when there is no Internet connection, since there are still some remote areas without access to broadband,” Fibar Group’s Bujak said.

Meanwhile, French telecom giant Orange said it is studying whether some future functions, handled by the gateways or other boxes at home could be achieved in the network (in the cloud) either for Total Cost of Ownership reasons; or for greater agility that would enable rapid updates and further segmentation; or for customer needs such as multi-site services.

Competing for space

From a retailer perspective, we can see that the heated competition in the home hub segment is still raging on. In a tug-of-war affair, leading home automation retailers are slashing down their hub prices in a bid to woo new customers. Examples such as Staples, which introduced the $99 Connect Hub in late 2013, slashed its price to $49 in June last year. The device, originally manufactured by Linksys, supports Wi-Fi, Z-Wave and Lutron ClearConnect Caseta wireless technology, has become one of the cheapest on the market in that price range. The move was initiated to differentiate from the newer Staples Connect Hub that is made by D-Link for $79. The newer model adds ZigBee and Bluetooth to the mix, including the Win 8 and Samsung TV apps that are added to its platform.

“We believe that the most recent Staples Connect Hub, manufactured by D-Link, supports the widest array of wireless protocols available on the market today, including Z-Wave, ZigBee, Lutron Clear Connect, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth LE,” Cooper exclaimed.

Zonoff’s modular, cross-technology approach includes Home, Cloud and App Software which can be combined to deliver best-of-breed home automation, remote control, energy management and safety monitoring, ranging from entry level to comprehensive solutions.

When asked about Zonoff’s partnership with Staples, Cooper said his company provides a service that Staples was looking for.

“Staples explored the idea of adding home and small office automation as a new retail category. Once they understood what we offered, they realized that it was an ideal fit for them,” he said, adding that Staples looked to Zonoff for “best in class” recommendations of connected devices. “We did additional testing on each device to make sure it would create a great user experience for Staples’ consumers.”

Several other leading US retailers, such as Home Depot and Best Buy have also joined in on the fray, and are all vying for a space in the smart home arena. The Home Depot/Wink partnership formed in July last year brings the Wink hub to retail stores across the US for $49.99, a buck more than the Staples Connect Hub. Meanwhile, electronics retailer Best Buy has teamed with SmartHome Ventures to bring PEQ, which is sold in kits ranging from $120 to $490.

Adding to the smart home frenzy, giant retailer Walmart partnered with Insteon in November last year to stock the Insteon hub to its 1,500 stores across the US. A day prior to this announcement, the home automation maker unveiled its “killer” flagship hub.

“We are leading in this dimension. Our new hub is the lowest priced unit on the market. Through the release of the new Insteon Hub, we’ve made it more affordable and efficient to get your home connected. While $39.99 is an introductory price, we will continue to offer the Hub for free in our kits. We’ve demolished barriers in order to reach the broadest customer demographic,” Dada said.

So, what’s next?

In the midst of all this excitement, it’s safe to say that for the Internet-of-Things to really take off, we need to get all the connected devices at home to talk to each other in one common language, regardless of what brand they carry and the functions they provide. The smart hub, through which the information is synced and carried to the cloud, plays the inevitable role in a connected home.

As technologies continue to evolve, there is a potential trend from a gateway perspective that could very much play a role in the growth of the smart home, said Roberts of iControl, adding that for the foreseeable future, cloud-supported smart home solutions are nevertheless going to be prevalent in the marketplace and driving a lot more innovation along those lines.

“It’s like any other complicated organization. Someone ultimately needs to be in charge, making the final decisions,” Cooper said.

Obviously, like the Game of Thrones, there is a King leading his royal subjects. As the IoT continues to rage on, a mystery “big player” has yet to surface, whether it’s Google, Apple, Microsoft, or any other anonymous connected home player. It’d be interesting to see what they can contribute to the development of a connected home.

“We strongly believe that there is no other way than cooperation of different protocols with each other, which is the future of home automation,” Bujak concluded.
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