The concept of the connected home has become common currency what seems like an astonishingly short time, although the origins of a smarter home can be traced back decades. As far back as the 50s at least, when General Electric (GE) showed off a concept smart kitchen of a typical 21st century home, with pop-up fridge, ice dispenser, plastic plate maker, and ultrasonic dishwasher. The US animation The Jetsons sought to popularise this new concept in the 1960s, and although we’re still waiting for hovercars to hit the mainstream, many of the innovations are beginning to come to fruition, such as smart fridges from the likes of Electrolux and LG and smart lighting from Philips Hue, Osram and others.
So where are we now? Well, the number of households with some form of smart home system passed 100 million worldwide by the end of 2015 and is set to nearly triple in the next ten years’ time to over 300 million, according to leading analysts. This unprecedented goldrush has resulted in several, fairly predictable results. A deluge of devices has hit the market, some from established major players such as Apple, Samsung, LG and Google, many from less well known brands and developers, competing to shift product lines ranging from IP camera solutions, and smart lighting systems and thermostats, to pet feeders, trackers and digital door locks.
This deluge has caused considerable market fragmentation, partly due to a broad range of industry standards, and partly due to speed to market considerations. For example, just in terms of wireless protocols, device manufacturers have a choice between standards including ZigBee, Bluetooth Smart and Wi-Fi Direct through to proprietary standards such as Z-Wave and HomeMatic, and that’s before (or after) choosing a platform. Platform choices in the smart home market are similarly eclectic, from Nest and HomeKit, to Deutsche Telekom’s QIVICON, Google’s Brillo and Amazon’s Echo. Of course in some of these cases platform choice is the make or break decision, as it can set in stone the ecosystem in which product X exists, potentially limiting market uptake.
Solving this fragmentation is perhaps the most important challenge for the IoT market as a whole, as the market experiences an evolutionary ‘shakeout’. Without reliable interoperability, the market as a whole suffers, consumer confusion over which vendors, platforms or protocols are trustworthy becomes a lottery, and otherwise fantastic products which deliver genuine value to consumers may become obsolete overnight and far too rapidly due to protocol choices that don’t work out.
We believe that a platform-based open ecosystem approach delivers the resilience and consistency that both industry players and consumers need to deliver this next generation of smart home services. A standardised platform not only assures end users that interoperability is a given, but also offers significant cost savings for manufacturers. This interoperability isn’t a nice-to-have element, it is the basis on which new products and services will be offered – existing sensors, hubs or systems integrating seamlessly with new.
Currently many market entrants are rushing to build their own platform, and in this high-speed approach many incur high setup costs, and lose the flexibility that a truly open platform should provide – APIs and software developer toolkits (SDKs) should be readily available to third party developers. Of course, the need to attract an innovative, exciting and motivated developer community is also paramount, and an open environment encourages this too. A good example of a successful open platform is Android, which has arguably triumphed because it allowed significant latitude to developers wishing to build on existing products. From TVs to robots to smartphones, tablets and STBs (Set Top Boxes), Android has been reworked significantly to suit many end uses.
Another key advantage of an open platform approach – aside from the significant technical benefits – concerns the increased partnership benefits to be gained. Our own connected home platform is a good example of this as it already has over 40 partner companies of different sizes across a range of industries utilising the platform to bring their own products and services to market quicker, as part of a larger connected ecosystem. By creating ecosystems designed to bring together multiple partners, costs and risks in developing and monetising an open and agile platform are minimised, and the value of collaboration enhanced significantly.
However, while the opportunities offered by the smart home are huge, open platforms are only one of the challenges faced by the industry as a whole. Possibly the greatest issues IoT faces are privacy and security, due to their importance and complexity. Interestingly, worldwide spending on Internet of Things (IoT) security will reach $348 million in 2016, a 23.7 per cent increase from 2015 spending of $281.5 million, according to recent predictions from Gartner.
Privacy concerns are already creeping up the agenda, as increasingly data-savvy consumers question badly structured app permission settings, unencrypted diagnostics channels and poor database protection in some cases. Although many of the data-related issues in IoT and the smart home will be familiar to any consumer-facing business today, the sheer volume and detail of the data that will be collected by the plethora of smart home sensors is unprecedented.
Continuing to build consumer trust in the industry is vital, and companies at all levels will need to be transparent about the types and proposed use of data they collect, and how they store it.
The smart home of tomorrow is guaranteed to make our current products look as outdated as some of the Jetsons tech does today, but it’s certain that the smart home is here, and here to stay. There are huge opportunities for a wide variety of businesses, from telcos and utilities, through retail, insurance to consumer hardware manufacturers. Striking strong and innovative partnerships will be the key to success, and remaining open in both innovation and platform terms the best long-term approach.