With OnHub, Google Just Fast-Tracked the Post Smart Home Hub Era

Another week, another Google bombshell. Yep, today Google announced it had introduced a new Wi-Fi router called OnHub, a Wi-Fi router/smart home hub that they think will make Wi-Fi simpler and easier.

There's no doubt this is something that we could all use. In fact, I think nearly a decade and a half after home networks started to become a thing, in large part due to the emergence of Wi-Fi, in home wireless networking still by and large is a crappy experience.

Not that the industry hasn't tried. We've seen the emergence of ever-faster speeds: first there was 802.11b, then g, then n and more recently ac, all going up in speed, at least theoretically, almost an order of magnitude each time.

We've also had significant work done around antenna technology, with MIMO being the biggest advancement. In short, MIMO is a technology that vastly increases the size of the radio link by using multiple antennas. 

But here we are in 2015 and many of us still not only have problems with getting good signals in our oversized, metal, wood and stone laden homes, not to mention fighting the overcrowded Wi-Fi airwaves in the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands, and as a result many of us are still using tricks and troubleshoot hacks to make sure things keep running. Just this morning I did the old "pull the power plug and, count to 30" power cycle refresh on my Xfinity Comcast router because things were running slow and voila, things were working better again.

There has to be a better way, and apparently Google thinks they've found it. The OnHub website and video make it clear that the focus of the OnHub is to make a better Wi-Fi experience, which they look like they'll tackle through both a huge amount of antennas (13!) packed into the device as well as through a much easier overall configuration experience which they center around an app.

They've also made a conscious decision to make the device aesthetically pleasing - every article I've read this morning noted how it looks very similar to the Amazon Echo because, well, it does look like the Amazon Echo. But that design decision was in large part because Google wants the router to be out and in the center of the room, rather than stuffed in a cabinet or behind a desk. It's no secret that the way most of us place our routers hurts signal propagation, and by simply placing the router on a counter in the living room would probably do wonders for our ability to connect.

But beyond the horsepower of 13 Wi-Fi antennas, app configuration and a better industrial design, I was just as intrigued by the decision to place 802.15.4 and Bluetooth radios in the router. With its 802.15.4 radio, the OnHub is the first device, outside of the Securifi Almond Plus, to place this radio in a consumer home router that I know of. While the Almond Plus is very much positioned as a "home automation" router, the initial wording around the OnHub router doesn't talk up the ability to do either Zigbee or Thread (both which use 802.15.4). That said, the OnHub site does have this little teaser:

It’s built to support a growing number of "smart devices" over time because it includes Bluetooth® Smart Ready, Weave, and Thread. 

So basically, while the first foot forward in marketing the OnHub is as a better home Wi-Fi router, Google (or Alphabet?) is not hiding the fact this device will also act as a smart home hub. The fact that it has Bluetooth is also intriguing, as the technology is fast becoming an important networking technology for smart home devices as well as wearables. 

All of this is a big deal, folks. Again, outside of Securifi with the Almond Plus, no other large router maker has really done much in the way of trying to reinvent the home router to make it also a smart home device. This may be Google saying, well, the smart home hub as a standalone separate device is probably not long for this world and the router makes the most sense to subsume this capability.

In short, with the introduction of the OnHub, Google may have just ushered in the post smart home hub era, where stand alone hubs become a relic of the past and smart home capability gets pulled into a master home connectivity hub, aka the home router.

It also should be noted, my sources tell me this router uses Brillo.  I had posted a few months ago that Brillo was originally targeted at home routers, and by the looks of it, Google decided to build its own home router with the new smart home Android-centric stack. 

One last thing to note: the OnHub also has a USB port.  This is also important. I've always felt the USB port is an important way to make sure devices stay future proofed, and who's to say that Google won't decide to add radios via the USB port in the future.

Bottom line: Google just announced a very compelling new home router that also will be a smart home hub, and in doing so may have just accelerated the demise of the smart home hub.

Also see: Why The OnHub Is Google's Nexus One For Routers (And Why It's All About Brillo)

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  • Michael Wolf

    @Patrick – Thanks for your comment. Yes, the Revolv acquisition was interesting, but my sources tell me this wasn’t a direct result of that – i.e. the Revolv 2. Instead, the company hired a significant amount of Qualcomm and RF engineers to build this from scratch, and while Revolv-as-acquihire may have contributed, that this was driven out of Craig Barratt’s group (he came fro Atheros/Qualcomm) makes me think this was in development long before Revolv. Also, the software piece – Brillo – is where the magic happens, and I am not sure how much Revolv contributed to this.

  • Patrick

    This is not a surprise at all (and should not have been). Let’s not forget Google acquired Nest who acquired Revolv for this very reason. It was inevitable that this device would surface. Lets hope there won’t be a subscription fee kike DropCam.

    A little disappointed the article did not speak to this history/pedigree and give credit where credit is due with Revolv.

  • Chun Liew

    I think it may become possible to connect a Z-Wave USB Stick to the USB port via which the OnHub would also be able to connect with Z-Wave devices.

    I believe Z-Wave currently already is and will stay a popular smart home connectivity protocol.

    I do not expect this to be possible from the start but if the software facilitates plug-ins it should be very feasible.

    The above being said, by only facilitating Z-Wave via a USB Stick Google also circumvents the need for separate hubs per region, due to the fact that Z-Wave operates in the Sub-1GHz frequency band, it is subject to region-dependent regulatory requirements [Z-Wave US (908 MHz), Z-Wave EU (868 MHz) and Z-Wave AU (921 MHz)].

  • Michael Wolf

    @Zatz – Dave, I agree with you that as a router, it’s lacking w/o Ethernet. But as a smart home hub, I don’t think it needs Ethernet. So yes, it seems out of the box it would be missing what many of us like in our usual Linksys /NetGear/Belkin(or in my case Almond) routers, which is Ethernet ports. That said, as a smart home hub out of the box I think its fine.

    And again, technically you could add an Ethernet bridge via USB at some point I am assuming.

  • Zatz

    Michael, your SmartThings hub is not your wireless Internet access point… Regarding the USB port, so the proposition is buy a new router and a new bridge, hub, or switch to replace a single existing router? It’s a tough sell. At $200 anyway.

    Interesting they went with “Google” versus “Nest” for this product. Makes you wonder…

  • Michael Wolf

    @Zatz – “needs” is a strong word. I haven’t ever used my Ethernet jack on my SmartThings hub or any of my WeMo gear. And there’s a USB port, like I said, for add-on technologies (like an Ethernet bridge).

  • Zatz

    Uh, smart home router needs Ethernet jacks for smart home hardware… like my Arlo, Sonos, and Hue bridges.

  • Michael Wolf

    I think using Brillo is Google’s attempt to eat their own dog food. They want others to use Brillo as a IoT stack in devices like routers. The benefits are still unclear relative to other RTOS’s that most routers use, but Google claims the fact it is Android is a benefit in itself. We’ll see.

    And yes, thanks for correcting my spelling on voila :). There are downsides to writing fast, and one is some need for backediting to correct typos or downright dumb spelling mistakes :)

  • Craig Treleaven

    BTW: “wa-la”. I mangle my French when I try to speak it. Attempting to spell correctly is the least we can do, isn’t it?

  • Craig Treleaven

    I think you’ve alluded to the problem—wifi protocols aren’t mature; they keep improving. Incorporating home automation capabilities in a device that likely has a limited life span is a recipe for potential unpleasantness!

    BTW, what does “Brillo” add to the mix? Brillo is a stripped down version of Andoid…which is a fork of Linux (no?).

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