Shane Dyer is surrounded by a dozen or so home appliances made by a dozen or so different manufacturers. In his hand is a smartphone running a stylish app that can speak with every single one of them. It can turn on and off a series of light bulbs, check in on a smoke detector, and even change the temperature of a nearby fridge. It's a delicate, beautiful vision of the utopian smart home, and one that could hardly exist outside of his carefully crafted world.
But inside his utopia, Dyer is smiling. "We're at the very beginning of seeing what connectivity means," he says. As the CEO of Arrayent, one of a small group of companies that's popped up to help smart appliances connect, Dyer is one of the few people who can pull off even this basic magic trick of connectivity right now. It's a feat that seems so simple, but in reality is out of reach for all but the most dedicated homeowners right now.
If The Jetsons represents the dream of the smart home — one that knows who we are, where we are, and what we want — then we still must be living in the town of Bedrock. Appliance-makers have been trying to move the smart home forward for years now, but they've ended up stumbling over themselves and each other in the process.
Meet today's connected home: a collection of appliances and home gadgets that offer enhanced functionality but won’t work together in concert unless you happen to buy them all from the same manufacturer — perhaps a Samsung fridge, a Samsung stove, a Samsung washer, and a Samsung dryer.
That's not very smart. What the smart home really needs is one single way for appliances to speak with each other — a standard that can do for appliances what Wi-Fi did for laptops, tablets, and the internet. Creating that is a surprisingly daunting task, though, and both making and agreeing on one is the point that’s tripped up manufacturers worldwide.
Right now, there are two names at the forefront of standardizing the connected home: ZigBee and Z-Wave. Both are composed of similar wireless networking technologies, and both include languages that allow devices to share select information — such as temperature or whether a light is turned on or off — over their wireless networks. But while each technology has hundreds of products already supporting it, few of those are from major appliance manufacturers, and the modern smart home won't get much smarter until the biggest names all agree on speaking the same language.
Unfortunately, there's no sign that that will happen anytime soon, and some of the industry's top figures don't believe one standard will ever come to dominate.
"I don't," Mark Walters says, "I really don't."
Walters is chairman of the Z-Wave Alliance, the organization that oversees the Z-Wave protocol. Z-Wave’s product is a great option for the home — it's supposed to let every local Z-Wave device talk to each other — but it isn't great for every manufacturer: devices aren’t interoperable worldwide, and it's not truly open to everyone.
"I think … you will see a coalescence around one standard."
Unlike Wi-Fi, Z-Wave is a proprietary system made and licensed by one company. Right now, that means Z-Wave has been able to tightly control how its devices talk to each other — vetting each one to ensure that it can actually speak with the products it’s supposed to — but it could eventually give Z-Wave the necessary weight to keep prices high and control what products can and can't do. Walters argues that being proprietary doesn't really matter. "It's irrelevant in every possible term of the word 'relevant,'" he says.
Of course, Z-Wave's biggest competitor disagrees all around. The marketing director for ZigBee Alliance, the organization that oversees the open standard ZigBee, discounts Z-Wave as even being a true competitor to his system on the grounds that it's proprietary. And ZigBee's CEO, Tobin Richardson, does see one smart home standard eventually winning out.
"You had a number of different approaches and protocols," Richardson says, suggesting that, like how accessories found Bluetooth and computing devices found Wi-Fi, home automation will eventually consolidate too. "I think … you will see a coalescence around one standard." Naturally, Richardson thinks it will be ZigBee, and that wouldn't be the worst news for consumers if it can get appliances working together.
But ZigBee's been having some trouble doing that. Right now, not all ZigBee products can communicate with each other, and that’s a major problem for what’s intended to be a standard. It's a problem that the ZigBee Alliance is working on, and Richardson says it's getting closer to solving. "For the most part [ZigBee devices] are interoperable," Richardson says. The ZigBee standard has been in the making for over a decade, and in that time it's both grown more capable and, at times, more unwieldy. Moving forward, Richardson says, "We will be improving and adapting … so that there is even greater interoperability."
Richardson has an optimistic outlook for the smart home and the ZigBee Alliance. "We're already at one of the tipping points," Richardson says. He notes that the adoption of connected appliances has been slow so far, partly because their aren't many of them and partly because they weren't easy enough to start using. "It has been a little messy," Richardson says. "It's getting cleaner." He says that 2014 will bring more devices and increased compatibility, but ZigBee still has a long way to go before it sheds fragmentation. "I think you'll start seeing that across the next 18 to 36 months."
But there's still trouble with adoption from that point forward. While it's easy to get the maker of a smart light bulb to install a ZigBee radio, convincing LG or Samsung to use ZigBee or any other standard — and let its appliances talk with a competitor's — is going to take a lot more time.
"Interconnectivity is a true barrier."
Appliance manufacturers wouldn't mind having more control over the standards either. Samsung recently announced its own open appliance language, while LG, Cisco, and a consortium of other tech companies announced another language just months ago that could tap into Wi-Fi, ZigBee, and other networks. So far, neither standard appears to have made any real progress.
"[Interconnectivity] is a true barrier," LG marketing director David Vanderwaal says. Right now, LG's smart appliances can only talk with other LG appliances. It's started to branch out by letting a third-party app control them too, but it's a tiny step forward. "It will happen," Vanderwaal says. "How it's going to happen is the big question."
That could be years out, and until then, the smart home may be dominated by middleman services that tie many of these appliances together. A number of such services have popped up in recent years, all teasing just how beautiful a connected home can be. Comcast, Verizon, Timer Warner Cable, AT&T, and other network providers actually hope to turn home automation into a new service category. They each sell pre-made packages of lights and thermostats and security cameras that all work together, and they're happy to help monitor your home for around $40 per month. But for consumers, the idea of having to pay a subscription to solve an interoperability problem seems like a bad deal.
One of the more elegant solutions is Smart Things, which sells a $99 hub that can talk to appliances over Z-Wave, ZigBee, and Wi-Fi. Once the appliances are wirelessly connected, Smart Things makes them all accessible and interactive online and through a smartphone app.
"We can, to some degree, make [standards] irrelevant to users," Smart Things CEO Alex Hawkinson says. Hawkinson suspects ZigBee will eventually overtake Z-Wave — both because of its open nature and because it works over a longer range — but he believes that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low Energy will play a role in the smart home as well. "They serve different strengths," Hawkinson says.
Dyer's Arrayent offers another consolidation service, though it's not quite as open. Instead, Arrayent might help a retailer assemble a collection of appliances it wants to sell as a package, and then get them all to communicate. Arrayent sees the world agnostic of standards though, letting devices speak to each other so long as they can sync with its internet-connected hub. "It's easier to innovate in the cloud than force one monolithic standard," Dyer says.
The smart home is being built up piece by piece
In fact, the importance of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to many of today’s most intelligent, stylish, and accessible smart devices — from the Nest thermostat to the August smart lock — suggests Dyer and Hawkinson may be right about their multi-standard approach: as it is, the products driving adoption of the smart home aren’t using so-called smart home standards. Instead, many of these devices talk to their own cloud services, and presumably at some point in the future that’s where the interoperability will happen. It's not crazy to think that's Google's line of thinking with its Nest acquisition, too.
Home automation is a mess — same as it’s been been for the last decade. What’s different now is that people are buying wireless products like the Nest thermostat, Sonos speakers, and Philips Hue light bulbs to solve very specific home automation needs. And it won’t be long until those same consumers think, "What if I could connect all of these so that the heat, music, and lights come on whenever I return home from work?" We’re already building our smart houses piece by piece, but we’re still waiting to see who can put them together into a true smart home.