We missed last week, so there's a quite a bit to make up, so we'll be short and sweet but get you the key insight for each development.
Before we start, a couple notes:
- Remember to sign up for our 2015 smart home outlook webinar
- Listen to the smart home show for audio versions of these writeups
- Check out our newest report on the smart kitchen
Onto the analysis.
Before I look at the news, I wanted to do something that may (or may not) become a recurring feature, which is quickly highlight some trends I'm noticing in smart home. These aren't so much specific news stories as me connecting dots across what I am seeing, pointing out trends that are forming before others start talking about them (as I have with the Bluetooth smart home and the growing retrofit momentum).
One thing I'm seeing is that HomePlug may be making somewhat of a small comeback. Blossom, a new product from some ex-Skype/Cisco team (hear me talk to their CEO on last week's podcast) uses HomePlug. Another new company called Umbrela also uses it.
Two companies aren't exactly a trend yet, but I wouldn't be surprised to see some more HomePlug momentum in coming months. The technology is mature, it's better than Wi-Fi in terms of whole-home reach due to lack of signal dissipation and it makes sense for those applications that are going to be line powered. Obviously smartlocks are not a good application, but for those that are it's a great tech IMO.
2015: Year of Water?
Smart lighting? Smart thermostats? Done and done. But water, that's a key resource in the home that hasn't gotten quite as much love up to this point in smart home innovation, but I think that's starting to change. Just last week, we saw a couple interesting new products, including Blossom (see below) and Aquanta. Add to this folks such as those behind the HiTap (disclosure: consulting client) and I think more and more you'll see some interesting products in coming months.
Part of the reason I think water and monitoring/controlling is important is it is not only a huge expense for people, but like electricity it's a resource that is becoming increasingly important to conserve as more and more places in the world have droughts and general shortages. The waste around water usage in the US is extremely high and so the application of Internet of Things technology to better conserve and manage is a space where will see more innovation as companies look to stake out some new positions in the market.
I published a report on this last week because I think it's going to be a real hotbed in the coming year for smart home product innovation. The reasons for this are multifold, but one of the biggest is simply smart home technology can make people better cooks. The first step in this move towards application of technology in the kitchen is the massive popularity of cooking apps for mobile devices, but now these companies behind these apps are integrating with a number of connected cooking appliance makers to enable automated cooking and food management. Longer term, enablement of auto-replenishment of food inventory through integrated e-commerce will also become an important driver of new product innovation.
Look out for some more fleshed out analysis on both these trends coming from NextMarket.
Littlebits Goes Smart Home
I've been a fan of Littlebits for a while, but not because of any association with the smart home. The company, which makes building blocks to onboard the Lego generation to the maker movement, has made some really cool toys and I've purchased their starter kits for my own kids.
But in the last year the company has started to transform from maker kits for kids to creating real building blocks for the a DIY IoT.
First came the cloudBit, a component that allowed you connect your littlebit creations to the Internet. And last week came the company's smart home kit, a compilation of components that allows you to add basic home automation features to your home.
The smart home kit plug in modules include a few of their existing modules like cloudBit as well as some new ones such as AC switch and a temperature sensor. While the components still look like toys and might not fit the decor of a swanky high-end home, there's no doubt you have some real functionality built into the components.
The kit is a bit expensive as a toy, but cheap as a smart home kit. From what I've seen, this kit is the easiest and probably lowest cost roll-your-own kit for some advanced creations like building your own smart thermostat, so I'm curious to see how far Littlebits goes in this direction.
Blossom, A Very Special Company
As I mentioned above, a new startup called Blossom came out with a new smart home water irrigation system (you can hear my interview with CEO Manrique Brenes here). The device uses both Wi-Fi and HomePlug and helps you monitor and control you watering system. The reason I wanted to talk to Blossom is I got an email about the company from Matt McRae, who is the company's chairman. I know Matt from his Linksys days and since then he's been making a name for himself as the CTO of Vizio.
The product itself looks like it's pretty far along, and so while they have launched a Kickstarter, the company is doing so more for product feedback and some market validation rather than as a way to get to market (crowdfunding as a sole mechanism for enabling engineering and a production run has been a big red flag for me for a while).
Blossom CEO Manrique Brenes told me this is only the first of many products from Blossom, which sees itself as a smart home company which will design products for the "outside of the house". I think that's a smart differentiation in a space that is becoming increasingly crowded with new entrants.
Zigbee has had a very mixed history in the smart home. The technology, which was created over a decade ago to address the need for a low power mesh networking technology in the home and IoT has, for many reasons, had a troubled history largely due to significant fragmentation of the software/application software profiles. The end result is lots of Zigbee nodes in the wild that don't interoperate, something that Wi-Fi and even Z-Wave can say isn't really as much of an issue.
The result of this profile fragmentation within Zigbee has been some in the space looking for new alternatives (read Thread) and others looking at older technologies like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi as answers in the smart home. With its new standard it announced, it looks like the folks at Zigbee have heard the criticism and are looking to finally create one universal application layer software profile that works. The money quote from the release:
"The ZigBee Alliance has always believed that true interoperability comes from standardization at all levels of the network, especially the application level which most closely touches the user,” said Tobin J. M. Richardson, President and CEO of the ZigBee Alliance. “Lessons learned by Alliance members when taking products to market around the world have allowed us to unify our application standards into a single standard. ZigBee 3.0 will allow product developers to take advantage of ZigBee’s unique features such as mesh networking and Green Power to deliver highly reliable, secure, low-power, low-cost solutions to any market.”
I don't know if it's too late for Zigbee. There is lots of momentum around Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and Thread is on the horizon, but maybe what will save Zigbee in the long run is some big players like Control4 and Crestron have invested heavily is Zigbee as a networking technology for their products and it's not like those nodes in the field are going to go away.
Vera's New Vera Edge Controller
Vera announced an update to their smart home controller with the Vera Edge. The Edge looks like an iterative update to their Vera controller, with more horsepower, memory and the inclusion of Wi-Fi 802.11n (not sure why they didn't include AC, other than for cost-control).
As I discuss with Seth Johnson on this week's update, Vera is in an interesting position, having developed a fairly robust product line built on a mature software/cloud framework, but a company which doesn't get nearly the mainstream or tech press as many that have launched in recent years. That's too bad, as It's a product that is powerful and appeals to DIY smart home enthusiasts as well as one that can punch above its weight a bit at the low end of the integrator channel.
I'm not sure if this product will bring much wider attention to Vera, but long term I'm wondering if the company (which also includes the MiOS software as a separate business) ultimately sees greater awareness as the smart home tide rises or if they become an acquisition candidate for a big-tech-co smart home latecomer looking for an off-the-shelf smart home business.
Quirky's Big Smart Home Relaunch
Since I didn't get a writeup out last week (apologies - but hey, it's the crazy season), I didn't get a chance to write about Quirky's relaunch of its smart home product line.
Much has been written about this, so I'll keep it short and focus on the angle I don't think many have touched on. I found it curious that the company had a big smart home line launch alongside GE and both those companies (Quirky and GE) were the headlining brands, while Wink - a spinoff Quirky launched just months ago as its smart home product company - took only a supporting role.
I've had some folks write to me and suggest that Wink was really all about the core app and hub and that's how they're are drawing the lines (Wink being the app/hub, while Quirky being the company that will come out with lots of new products), however I still think its a curious move for a company that made a big hullabaloo about launching a separate company for its smart home products. My suspicion is they realized a) it makes more sense for a resource constrained startup (all startups are, at some level, resource constrained) to put most of the "wood behind the arrow" of one brand than two, and b) they might have wanted to leverage the halo effect of Quirky, a sexy innovation-oriented startup, and may have wanted to distance themselves a bit from the fairly tepid reviews for the Wink hub.
It looks like Quirky is doubling down on smart home, and going forward the parent company (Quirky) will get most of the starring roles around new product launches while Wink is being relegated to a hub/app brand within the larger Quirky smart home ecosystem.
That's it. It's a short week due to Thanksgiving, so I'm not sure we'll have a weekly update next weekend, but we have a couple good podcasts coming out, so make sure to check those out.