Want smart-home devices to get along? Get the industry to do it first

IoT may simplify home automation, but not without a lot of hard work behind the scenes

Home IoT products on display on Tuesday at Connections, a smart-home conference in Burlingame, California.

Home IoT products on display on Tuesday at Connections, a smart-home conference in Burlingame, California.

Buying one slick connected device after another until you have a smart home sounds cool, but things may not work out that smoothly.

Making products from different vendors work together isn't always easy. And depending how emerging standards shape up, consumers may opt to rely on someone else to put the pieces together.

The issue of device integration loomed over discussions at the Connections conference in Burlingame, California, on Tuesday. It's heady times for the annual meeting on connected-home technology, long a backwater of IT but now bursting with new gadgets from Internet of Things startups.

If things like Internet-connected lightbulbs, washer-dryers, thermostats and security systems can't work together, it's not really a smart home. But no one yet knows how all those devices will see eye to eye. Speakers at Connections tried to chart the future for device integration.

Until recently, home automation has been largely the realm of security system providers, professional integrators and a few hobbyists. Now the hope is for the Internet of Things to make it a mass market. Selling and implementing smart homes at large scale will require some changes, and interoperability could be one of the biggest. A diverse ecosystem of IoT devices is a long way from an installer's predefined solution.

"The connected device industry in particular is about companies that have really worked hard to create and protect distribution, and in many cases create sustainable competitive advantage through barriers to entry," said Seth Frader-Thompson, president of EnergyHub, an energy-management software startup.

That's going to change with IoT and the new wave of connected devices, he said. Consumers will buy whatever gadgets catch their fancy. While some will start with a basic setup from their broadband provider and go from there, others will just buy things one by one.

"This is going to look a lot like the Internet in the sense that everything depends on interoperability," he said.

In many cases, devices are equipped for basic communication today. A true smart home requires more: Each thing you buy should be able to tell what all the other devices are and what they're capable of -- so a lightbulb knows, for example, that the homeowner has just unlocked the front door and will want the living room lit up.

Alliances like the Thread Group, AllSeen Alliance and the Open Interconnect Consortium are working to set ground rules for communication, but no one of them will cover everything. And then there's the issue of how to control all those devices: Each vendor may craft its own smartphone app, but a dozen separate user interfaces could get irritating after a while.

All of this calls for big players with deep pockets, according to Farooq Muzaffar, who not coincidentally is vice president of corporate strategy and development at Verizon.

Startups need to focus on selling one product at a time to satisfy their investors, and none yet has had the resources to solve the bigger issues, he said.

"We do need the beautiful devices and the great user experience those companies bring, but a bigger player needs to ... put that together and put it out in the market with the scale that they have," he said.

Muzaffar praised products like Google's Nest thermostat but said buying them individually has its downsides if you want them to work together. The alternative is a traditional system from an integrator or home security company, but the devices they install don't have the kinds of design and user experience that consumers want to show off to their friends. And combining the two worlds is technically challenging. "Consumers don't want to be programmers," Muzaffar said.

Muzaffar advocated a "mobile first" approach to connected homes, saying some processes need to be reinvented from the ground up to take advantage of the mobile era. He cited Uber, Airbnb and car-rental startup Silvercar as examples of mobile-first businesses. He also thinks consumers want a single app to control all their connected-home devices.

Verizon sells Nest thermostats and other third-party IoT products for homes and provides guidance about which devices work together and which Verizon smartphones can be used to control them.

Whatever form it takes, IoT integration in homes will require a wide range of partnerships, including both technical cooperation for interoperability and business relationships to make products viable. That's already happening with arrangements like electric utilities subsidizing the cost of energy-efficient products, which in turn can reduce the peak demand that utilities spend big bucks trying to meet.

Even companies that do integrate systems in smart homes are counting on the industry to build an ecosystem of products that work together.

"We absolutely cannot do it alone," said Adam Mayer, vice president and general manager of Time Warner Cable's IntelligentHome division. "I can't have my technicians understand how to install every single door lock or every single thermostat."

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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