The idea of a connected home — one smart enough to know your schedule, your routines, when you come and go, and adjust itself to meet your every need — is a decades-old concept. But in a world where companies are making refrigerators that you can send tweets from, we’re still sorely missing truly intelligent home appliances. Apple and Google are trying — Apple with its just-announced HomeKit iOS features and Google with its purchase of Nest — but there still isn’t a complete vision from either company.
Now, the massive industrial conglomerate / prototypical thermostat maker Honeywell is rethinking the way it tackles home automation with Lyric. It’s a $279 Wi-Fi thermostat (available today to purchase through HVAC contractors; it’ll be available in Lowe’s stores by August) that is one of the most visually appealing products in the space, as well as an obvious response to the Nest Learning thermostat. But perhaps more importantly, Lyric is also a platform. The company’s ambition is to launch a full suite of Lyric products that can all be controlled your smartphone.
The company is certainly hitting the buzzwords. "We’ve designed [Lyric] to be mobile-first and DIY," says Beth Wozniak, president of Honeywell’s environmental and combustion control division (the company’s heating and cooling arm). "The timing was right in terms of everyone having phones, multiple people in homes having phones, and everyone’s comfort level in using their phones to control their lifestyles."
A whole suite of products is still a ways off, but Lyric marks Honeywell’s renewed efforts at building a home-automation system people will actually want to use. While Honeywell has offered a number of Wi-Fi-enabled thermostats for several years, this one marks probably the first true competitor to the Nest Learning Thermostat. "Most thermostats are built by plumbing companies," said Tony Fadell when the Nest first launched, a clear dig at the kinds of products Honeywell has been making for years.
Lyric’s design, however, is a huge (and much-needed) departure from the company’s other Wi-Fi thermostats. It conveys in equal parts the company’s iconic "Round" thermostat as well as the more modern Nest, with its large display and outer ring that smoothly rotates to adjust the temperature up and down. Customer feedback said the continuous rotation was preferable to a more mechanical-feeling wheel, but people also wanted some sort of feedback. Honeywell built in an audible clicking tone that sounds with each degree you adjust the thermostat — the smooth, uninterrupted scroll of the wheel combined with the clicking feedback brings to mind the iPod’s iconic wheel as well as the Nest thermostat. It may not be the most original design decision, but it works.
Despite an abundance of plastic, the Lyric prototype I had a chance to play with felt like a solid piece of hardware that could stand up to daily adjustments. The front only has two buttons: one to toggle between your preset "at home" and "away" temperatures, and one to pull up a 12-hour weather forecast — a layout mimicked when you open up the smartphone app. "Our concept here was our homeowners and our consumers said, 'We want it to be simple on the wall,'" explains Wozniak. "'We don’t want to have to stand at the wall and enter in information and program it.'" As such, Lyric is a much friendlier and simpler device when compared with Honeywell’s voice-activated Alto thermostat, which is dominated by a large screen and an overabundance of information.
While it’s a classy piece of hardware, the most innovative feature of the Lyric thermostat isn’t its physical design — it’s the usage of geofencing to update your house’s climate based on whether anyone is home or not. Once the thermostat is set up and you’ve installed the corresponding app on your iOS or Android device, Lyric will know when you’ve left the house and will adjust your heating / cooling system to your pre-chosen "nobody home" setting. When you reenter the geofence, the system kicks back on so it’ll be comfortable when you return.
Honeywell is including two different geofence settings — there’s a 7-mile radius for suburban settings in which you’ll likely be farther from home, and a 500-foot setting that’ll likely be more appropriate for city-dwellers. And multiple devices from different household members can be added to your account, so the system will truly only switch modes if the house is entirely empty. The company sees geofencing as the next evolution of the "schedules" that most people put their thermostats on now. "The fact that you don’t even have to think about your temperature when you’re coming and going means that you don’t have to learn a schedule; you don’t have to program one in," says Wozniak.
Beyond the geofence, you can control the Lyric in a number of ways through its app: users can set up quick "shortcuts" to automatically raise and lower the temperature and tie them to real-world events — such as going to bed, having a large number of guests in your house, or simply just wanting to quickly bump the temperature on a cold night. "In my world, when I work out, I like it 5 degrees cooler, because you’re naturally heating up," says Kevin Werich, a Lyric product manager. "We think of temperature not as much as that [numerical] value anymore."
Lyric is built to take into account that how warm or cool you feel goes beyond just that numerical temperature: a feature called Fine Tune takes into account both indoor and outdoor temperatures and humidity levels and makes small adjustments from there. On a particularly humid day, for example, Lyric might drop the temperature a bit lower to compensate, while on a hot, dry day it might not need to run quite as frequently.
"We don’t want to have to stand at the wall and enter in information and program it."
From a feature perspective, the Lyric thermostat certainly sounds like it’ll be strong competition for Nest in the heating and cooling department, but barriers to entry for the average consumer still exist. Probably the biggest is the installation process, something Honeywell is addressing with an app-based installation guide which walks you through four distinct steps: installation, connection, configuration, and personalization.
Honeywell is including links to help videos for whatever specific step you’re on, as well as the ability to take a picture of your home-wiring setup right in the app, so you can refer to it as you install the Lyric. It’s definitely useful, and Honeywell says that Lyric will work with 97 percent of heating and cooling systems in the US, but it’ll still have to work to overcome consumers feeling like their current systems are "good enough" — at least good enough to not have to mess around with wiring in a new thermostat.
Besides, Honeywell has its eyes on a market beyond just those who want to replace their thermostat — it wants to be the first company to truly succeed at building a smart home, with the Lyric thermostat representing just the first piece of an eventual family of products. Of course, the company is going to need more than just a thermostat to do that, but unfortunately Honeywell isn’t talking about what specific products are coming next, or when they’ll launch. "Our philosophy is building this in bite-sized solutions — we know that consumers will buy these when they’re ready," says Werich. "So if they’re ready to replace a thermostat we give them that opportunity. When they’re ready for that next piece they can either start with a thermostat or start with something else."
Honeywell is keen to build out as many spokes of its connected home hub as it can. "We’ll extend Lyric into all of the other product families where Honeywell plays today," says Wozniak. That list of product families is extensive — beyond heating and cooling, Honeywell builds a variety of home security systems, video surveillance cameras, door chimes, lighting, and more. Leveraging that vast product lineup will be a key part of its strategy, but Honeywell isn’t only relying on its own products. "Having said that, we’ll also include some partners, so there will be others that will fit into piece of mind, comfort, and other areas that make sense to be part of the Lyric platform," Wozniak explains.
The company also has an army of contractors on its side, ready to help get the Lyric out into homes. For now, it's available exclusively through Honeywell’s network of approved contractors before launching in Lowe’s stores in August — wider availability is planned for the holiday season, and Lyric will hit Europe sometime in 2015. Apple is yet another ally — Honeywell is one of Apple’s supported HomeKit partners as revealed at WWDC 2014 last week. If Apple is able to push home automation forward in a significant way, Honeywell certainly stands to benefit. That said, a wide distribution network and support from Apple and contractors won’t matter if most consumers decide that simpler, cheaper, schedule-based thermostats remain good enough for their homes.
Honeywell has finally responded to Nest
Whether that’ll be enough to materially push the concept of the smart home forward remains the huge question, but Honeywell thinks that consumers are ready — their familiarity with controlling all aspects of their life with a smartphone is something the company hopes to use to push potential customers towards the Lyric lineup as it grows. And the company has the sheer size, ubiquity, and distribution platforms to help make its smart products a household fixture in a way that Nest or another smaller company new to the space might not. While the Lyric thermostat on its own won’t be enough to get the company there, it looks to be a strong opening salvo in the inevitable smart-home wars.