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Smart Home Weekly: HomeKit Rumors, Slow Echo, Harmony API, Lowe's Installation Dreams & More

Mike Wolf AllSeen Almond Canary Echo HomeKit Logitech Lowe's Iris OIC Z-Wave

As January nears its end, it’s time to get back to our regularly scheduled programming. Smart home news is coming fast and furious, and I expect things won’t slow down pretty much all year, so let's buckle up and enjoy the ride.

This week’s is an action-packed edition of the smart home weekly, with news on HomeKit, Xiaomi's smart home moves, the Harmony API, Lowe's installation services, standards moves and more. The rumor mill is also pretty active right now, and while some of the stuff I can’t write about because it’s not confirmed, stay tuned as I think we could see some big news soon on the M&A front and also with new entrants coming into the market.

And before we get to what I can write about, a few housekeeping notes:

  • Check out my Smart Home Show with Ben Harris from Drop (a connected scale company)
  • Keep an eye out for two new Smart Home Shows this week with the CEO of Securifi (maker of the Almond router) and David McCall of the OIC. We’ll also have the audio version of this newsletter (weekly news update) drop in the next day or so.
  • Download my CES 2015 Smart Home Report (free) if you haven’t already
  • Check out my smart home predictions for 2015
  • I'll be at SXSW moderating the show's only smart home panel. I'm going to be putting together a smart home mixer, so let me know if you're interested (including potential sponsors).
  • NextMarket is growing significantly this year, to meet the strong demand for consulting and research. Email me if you have a need for strategic advisory, research or event editorial services.

On to the stories:

HomeKit Bridge for Interoperability With Z-Wave/Zigbee

Interesting story out of 9to5Mac this past week, which says that Apple’s going to enable Wi-Fi to Z-Wave/Zigbee bridges as a way for the HomeKit network to connect to non-HomeKit Z-Wave/Zigbee devices. It’s been known for some time HomeKit approved devices will use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth as their primary air interfaces, but this news, if true, means the Apple recognizes the importance of allowing Z-Wave and Zigbee devices on the smart home network. From what I can tell, the approach Apple is taking with these HomeKit to Z-Wave/Zigbee bridges is similar the one taken with INSTEON, where Apple has approved an INSTEON-HomeKit bridge that enable the HomeKit network to connect to any INSTEON device through this HomeKit-INSTEON hub.

The other interesting piece of news here is that all Wi-Fi or Bluetooth-centric devices will need to be MFi and HomeKit certified to bridge with these alternative air interfaces. This means other Wi-Fi-centric smart home products like Nest or WeMo will need to be HomeKit certified.

Takeaway: Apple is recognizing the need to bridge to the large installed base of home automation products already out there using legacy smart home air interfaces. With this move, collectively now it looks like the Z-Wave, Zigbee and INSTEON smart home will also be welcomed into the HomeKit world. This also provides a way for managed smart home service providers (such as those on the Icontrol platform) to incorporate HomeKit-enabled products into their offerings. 

The Xiaomi Smart Home Rumbles Begin

Xiaomi, the Chinese smartphone maker currently causing some sleepless nights for Samsung and Apple with their eye-popping smartphone growth in Asia, is now looking to enter the US market. Not all that surprising, but maybe what is is the company’s belief smart home is a big part of their future as they enter new regions.

Just this past week, the company’s CEO talked about the plans for the US, and he indicated that the plan will lean heavily on acquisitions and partnerships. As per the article: “The company invested $200 million in Chinese appliance maker Midea in December 2014. Around the same time, it developed its air purifier, costing $150, which allows for remote access through Xiaomi smartphones. The Chinese manufacturer, apart from developing smart devices, is also working on a “smart module” that could be installed into other hardware devices, enabling them to link up with smartphones."

Add to these plans some of the early products - the company also launched a home sensor/security kit this week (see pic below) - and this could be an interesting new entrant into the market.

Takeaway: With 60 million phones sold in 2014 alone, Xiaomi is a serious new player in mobility. That said, its strategy of being cost leader for smartphones with a design aesthetic based on mimicking Apple doesn’t guarantee the company can build out a smart home ecosystem in the US market. I’m guessing that the company has aspirations to be a “platform” player rather than simply a low-cost maker of point products for the smart home, and the cost-first strategy might work well in markets where Xiaomi has shown some early success (mainly Asian emerging economies like China and India), I’m not sure that approach will translate to significant market share in the US market. While there are many reasons for this (at this stage of the smart home market), the main one is that unlike the US smartphone market (which still is largely dominated by expensive, contract-laden phones like those from Apple and Samsung) there is no clear leader in home-connectivity and hardware prices for connected hardware are already fairly affordable. Consumer comfort with the brand and the surrounding smart home ecosystem will be crucial for new smart home consumers in the following few years, and it’s yet to be seen if Xiaomi can deliver this. 

Lowe’s-Backed Frontporch: Retailers Bolstering Smart Home Installation Services

Lowe’s backed local-installer marketplace got another round of funding this week, and as I wrote over at Forbes, it’s interesting to speculate "how this nationwide network of local installers could help another Lowe’s strategic initiative – Lowe’s Iris – get traction.” In short, my piece talked about how retailers might be building up a local installer network that could help them assist consumers install smart home products which, while called DIY, often require wires being cut and screws being turned (something many consumers don’t like to do). After my piece was published, I was reminded by an informed reader that Lowe’s already has a fairly strong installation services network called Installernet.

The reader also had a well-reasoned/thoughtful take on the difficulty of building out an installation services business: "The challenge with the smart home space is the craziness of local legislation. The requirement for the certification of tradesmen makes it almost impossible for any single tradesmen to do all the work. For example, electricians have to fit light switches, locksmiths have to be certified for door locks, and you will need a registered plumber to fix a water shutoff valve - and don't get me started on the subject of installing security systems where the rules are bizarre. Most rules are simply an effort by professional associations to protect their business."

(As always, I appreciate feedback on my analysis and am open to sharing smart takes from readers).

Takeaway: I think retail has a strong place to play in the smart home and beyond their own platform aspirations (i.e. Iris) some other opportunities are becoming clear in recent months. Not only are service providers looking to possibly push some of the hardware distribution responsibilities to the retail channel, but retailers themselves also will possibly make money off of installation services over time as smart home moves more mass market.

Logitech Harmony API

This one could be a big one. Logitech signaled their interest in smart home a few months back with the release of their own smart home-enabled remote, but it appears their strategy for the smart home may ultimately rest on enabling others to tap into their own fairly substantial ecosystem built out around their successful universal remote brand. This week the company announced the Harmony API, which will enable smart home device manufacturers to integrate with Harmony remotes. The company touted some 270 thousand living room devices already integrated with Harmony, a massive number that includes all the other things you’d expect to integrate with one of the most popular universal remotes out there.

Takeaway: Harmony is hugely popular, and by opening up access to some of the integrated gesture and voice control capabilities built into Harmony remotes, as well as the ability - at some level - to integrate with the large amount of available products compatible with Harmony could be very interesting. One of the key battles I outlined for the smart home in 2015 was the control interface, and this is a significant move by Logitech that positions them well in this fight.

Amazon Echo Shipping Delay Currently At Four Months

Speaking of control interfaces, Amazon’s Echo is still early in its life, but I believe the company has big plans for the device. The same product team within Lab126 that developed the Fire TV also developed the Echo (though many have moved on at this point), and while my sources tell me Bezos put the brakes on smart home integration with the first-generation Fire TV, Amazon’s plan long term is to be a player in the smart home space and I expect Echo to be a key component of the strategy.

With that in mind, I was excited this past week when I got the email from Amazon saying it was my turn as a Prime member to order one. I was decidedly less excited when I got the email after I’d purchased it telling me my Echo would arrive some time between mid-June and early July.

Now Amazon might be playing the long-lead-time game so I’ll be happy when it arrives much earlier, but even if it arrived in April or May, that’s still a ways out for a device that’s only available to Prime members.

Takeaway: Amazon might have its first hardware hit in a long while on its hands. Amazon creates demand through key placement on its site, and with the Echo it’s accelerating this demand even more with the early-entry half-off price for Prime members. Amazon used its own voice recognition technology for Echo (unlike with the Fire) and the reviews are mixed at this point, but I still expect the device to get better over time and with smart home integration likely coming, this should be an interesting device to watch.

Standards Work: OIC Releases IOTivity, AllSeen’s AllJoyn Gateway Agent

The OIC announced this past week the release of their preview release of their open source software framework IoTivity. The release, which is not the same as the spec OIC has told me they also plan to have out in the first half of 2015, is essentially a reference implementation of the eventual standard based on open source code licensed under an Apache license. The specification will be mandatory for those who want to release OIC certified compatible products, but according to the OIC, by building around the preview release of IoTivity, this should get members pretty much to that end-goal.

This follows the AllSeen Alliance’s news at CES of its new AllJoyn Gateway agent, which adds remote access to cloud services for AllJoyn managed devices. The code, which can be added to Linux or OpenWRT routers and smart home hubs gives a standardized way for smart home hardware providers to enable access to cloud and remote services.

Takeaway: Both the OIC and Allseen are actively positioning themselves with early announcements in 2015 as key consortiums for the Internet of Things and smart home. AllSeen is much further along, but the OIC is making fast progress and I expect most of the large smart home players will need to look at adapting one or both in coming months. The big question for me is how much these open source efforts will act to bridge or even break down proprietary walls from the large closed or semi closed ecosystems such as HomeKit, and if the proprietary ecosystem players like Apple and Google seriously embrace these standards in service of a bigger industry goal of interoperability. History has shown that companies like Apple don’t exactly embrace openness early in a market, but the entire promise of the smart home and IoT rests on the idea of interoperability.

Quick Takes

  • Smart water becoming more of a theme this year. Bollente releases smart water circulation pump, following smart shut off valve from Lowe’s. 
  • Canary is finally shipping, about a year and a half after its successful Kickstarter campaign. While I give crowdfunding companies a bad time for late ships, they deserve to be recognized when they join the “ship product” club. 
  • Neeo has launched a successful Kickstarter campaign for the smart home remote. While I don’t think Logitech is losing sleep at this point, it will be interesting to watch Neeo (assuming they ship) and their remote. 
  • Almond shipping the Almond+ - While also late after a crowdfunding campaign, Securifi has finally shipped its Almond+ router with embedded Z-Wave and Zigbee. 

That’s it for now. Again, stay tuned for future smart home weeklies and listen to the Smart Home Show for interviews and weekly news and follow me on Twitter for daily updates.

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  • Larry on

    I was talking to a plumber friend who mentioned he had a customer who had a water circulation system in his house. My plumber friend said the customer’s pipe developed a leak prematurely because of the circulation system. The plumber told the customer before that they would have issues with the pipes. He said since water is a corrosive the constantly flowing water eats away at pipes much faster than stationary water.

    Just a warning to folks to be careful when you look at water circulation systems. They will age (wear out) faster than normal.

    That’s just what my plumber friend said. I’m just a messenger.

  • Michael Wolf on

    In response to the Xiaomi analysis above, reader PT in San Diego sent in this interesting comment about the challenges Chinese technology companies face entering the US:

    “Xiaomi has made rumbles about coming into the US market which I think they are going to find to be very tough for a couple of key reasons
    1. The US smartphone industry is brutally competitive (I spent about 15 years on the wireless carrier side managing smartphones so I know a little bit about this market ;) At this point Samsung and Apple have an absolute stranglehold on the US smartphone market (about 75%). The rest of the market gets divvied up amongst a changing cast of 5-10 major global players (LG, HTC, Motorola, etc.). There are a constantly changing list of mostly Chinese players who try to attack the US market and they are finding the US market much more difficult than the Chinese market. Huawei, ZTE, Coolpad, TCL/Alcatel, Hisense, etc. have all tried to become a top smartphone OEM and they just haven’t been able to convince large numbers of US consumers to buy their products. When you have Samsung/Apple’s top quality products and hundred million $$ ad budgets it is tough to unseat them!

    2. The reason I brought up the smartphone market is because one of the other reasons Chinese OEMs have and will continue to have serious challenges in the US market is due to US Government security concerns. Over the past few years, the US Government has expressed serious reservations about Chinese companies (mostly Huawei but also ZTE to a limited extent) selling wireless network hardware to wireless operators. Even though Huawei was able to get a modicum of sales success about 5 years ago, they have hit a brick wall with the “wireless carrier network establishment” due to US Government security concerns (spying, hacking, etc.) I think that when you look at US Government/Network Corporate America attitudes towards Chinese OEMs and then you couple that with a lot of the security concerns that people are starting to have about Smart Homes, I think that means that Chinese companies like Xiaomi will have a very hard time convincing the US Government, US service providers, and US consumers to buy Xiaomi Smart Home products."

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