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The Impending Home Automation Shake-Out

by Chris Taylor | Feb 04, 2015

More than 80 companies showed home automation devices and platforms at CES 2015 this January, up considerably from last year.  This does not count many of the incumbents that did not show much in the way of significant new products this year, and some small firms that just failed to catch our attention.  The total number of firms supplying home automation device and platforms probably now exceeds 190.

The many wireless protocols and device ecosystems have confused consumers and kept home automation volumes low, roughly on the order of 35 MU per year divided among Z-Wave, ZigBee, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Insteon, proprietary 802.15.4 (which includes Thread and 6LoWPAN), cellular, and various odd radio approaches in the UHF / sub-GHz ISM bands.  Based on the number of households in the world and the number of electric lights, thermostats, appliances and electronics devices, the potential for home automation is much higher, on the order of a billion or more devices per year.  Device makers have struggled with incompatible “standardized” protocol stacks and radio chips, a dearth of software profiles, and a walled garden mentality among device makers and services.  Nevertheless, this year at CES, in the spirit of embracing Internet of Things and getting a piece of the action, everyone seemed to have a new home automation platform.

How can all of the platforms and devices possibly survive?

  • Z-Wave has had the most success in the market to date;
  • ZigBee has out-shipped Z-Wave, but mainly in large-scale commercial applications, not in the average home.  ZigBee has suffered from too many protocol stack variations and a lack of device profiles, problems that the latest version of the standard has tried to address;
  • Wi-Fi is almost ubiquitous in the home, but just seems ill-suited to low-rate networking; this has not stopped Belkin and others from embracing Wi-Fi for home automation, but battery operation is a bit challenging.
  • This year, in addition to new platforms that looked like more of the same, we saw some platforms and products based on Bluetooth and Bluetooth Mesh such as Avi-On’s.  It is too early to know whether Bluetooth Mesh will displace Z-Wave, ZigBee and Wi-Fi in home automation, but it is a real possibility with Qualcomm’s acquisition of CSR, which has developed the Bluetooth Mesh used by Avi-On.

One solution to the madness is open platforms that can support multiple air interfaces and devices from multiple suppliers and ecosystems.  These include:

  • AllSeen, which has the support of Qualcomm, LG, Sharp, Haier, Panasonic, Cisco, D-Link and several other consumer electronics suppliers, is possibly the most interesting.  The Technicolor Ize platform is apparently one implementation of AllSeen;
  • Bosch Home Connect supports HA devices using Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Z-Wave, and wired connections such as KNX, and should have an impact in Europe;
  • Samsung SmartThings uses (so far) Z-Wave and ZigBee, and Samsung intends the platform to be an open one and could add support for more wireless standards and devices.  Samsung is in a good position to drive HA given the popularity of its phones and appliances;
  • Staples Connect, available from Staples retail stores, has been advertised as supporting Insteon, Bluetooth, ZigBee, Z-Wave and Wi-Fi home automation devices without a monthly user fee, but mainly uses Z-Wave.  Staples is working to test and certify additional devices for interoperability with the Connect hub, and is rumored to be working with ADT (alarm panels and services) as a future partner.

Several closed / walled-garden platforms have brand awareness, captive installed base, and a big base of ecosystem partners going for them.  The most interesting closed platforms are probably:

  • Apple HomeKit, to be joined soon by Insteon;
  • Echostar Sage (from Hughes, leveraging DVRs, STBs).  This is a TV-centric platform that uses approved ZigBee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth Low energy and Wi-Fi devices, and will be available from DISH Network in DVRs / STBs;
  • Google Nest, which uses Thread, has been joined by a long list of innovative start-up device makers, so the ecosystem is gaining momentum.

Which will survive?  Probably the open and closed platforms above and the top device suppliers that support them, but it is too early to know for certain.  The number of suppliers with incompatible products and platforms still continues to inhibit market growth, and will do so until the inevitable shake-out, which will probably result in different platforms and ecosystems aligned to slightly different market segments and regions.

For more, see the recent CES 2015 report for the RF & Wireless Components service, and also SA's Smart Home Strategies service.

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