Skip to main content

Situation: there are too many competing smart home standards

Surely a new one will fix it, right?

Share this story

Nest motherboard
The board from the original Nest thermostat

Randall Munroe’s classic xkcdStandards” comic is cited all the time for a reason: it perfectly describes the feeling everybody has when a new standard is proposed. I saw it flying around Twitter a bunch yesterday in the wake of the announcement that Apple, Amazon, Google, Samsung, Zigbee, and a host of others have joined up to create a new smart home standard that would be open source and based on IP (an internet protocol address, not intellectual property).

The idea behind the the standard is to make it easier to get new smart home devices onboarded on to your network and to minimize the need for consumers to have to check to see what is or isn’t compatible with their smart home control system — whether that be Alexa, Apple HomeKit, Google Assistant, or something more professional like Control4.

Think of it this way: the smart home has a plumbing problem. Imagine none of the companies making faucets or even pipes were willing to talk to each other, so every single connector was different, depending on the company. And none of them even agree on how to route hot, cold, and sewage water. Just to fix your sink you have to commit to working with a single company in perpetuity and probably make five trips to the hardware store for adapters if you didn’t.

That’s what’s happening right now when you screw in a smart lightbulb or wire up a smart thermostat. Some of that pain is made invisible by software abstraction from Amazon or Google, but it’s still a snarled mess underneath.

So: standardize the pipes. It is not a new idea — at all! Basically, if there are too many standards, of course technologists will think the solution is to make a new one to unify them and of course that new one will not actually do that and then there will be yet more standards. Will this time be any different?

Right now, signs point to “yes and no,” which is very unsatisfying but also very likely true. Don’t walk away muttering the word from the last panel of Munroe’s comic, though. Because this so-called Project Connected Home over IP industry working group not only has a very catchy name, it is also one of the most interesting developments in the smart home since Alexa.

Before I get into what the Connected Home over IP industry working group (CHOIP? Probably CHIP but CHOIP is funnier.) is trying to make, I think we need to take a minute thinking over what it is. It’s rare to see all these companies in the same headline, and it’s even rarer to see that headline be something they agreed on instead of something they’re being investigated over.

If nothing else, this working group is worth paying attention to because it has a better than average chance (for proposed open source standards, anyway) of succeeding. That’s not often the case in the smart home space. In fact, it’s usually not.

For example, earlier this year Amazon put together a similar industry group designed to ensure voice assistants could interoperate with each other — so that voice assistants could coexist on the same speaker at the same time. Over 30 companies signed up. Google, Apple, and Samsung did not.

And why would they? Right now it seems like the whole game in the smart home is getting as many people as possible locked into your ecosystem as quickly and firmly as possible. Generally speaking, if you see a company asking everybody to work together, that company is either winning so hard it can afford to be magnanimous (Amazon and Alexa) or losing so badly it needs to make sure it isn’t completely pushed out of the market by the dominant players (Microsoft and Cortana).

But now, we have all these companies actually agreeing to work with each other. Charlie Kindel, chief product & technology officer at SnapAV (and formerly on the Alexa team at Amazon) says “the fact that it includes Amazon, Apple, and Google is a pretty significant statement ... To get them together to talk at this level — which we’ve never had success in doing before — is a great start.”

A great start, but certainly not a complete solution — nor does it purport to be. The bare-bones website that was rushed up for the working group says that right now the goal is to “release a draft specification and a preliminary reference open source implementation in late 2020.” Which means that actual implementation of the standard in consumer products is surely even further out.

Think 18 months for real consumer products in the most optimistic scenario. Anybody who’s watched gigantic companies try to work together to agree on standards for web browsers can attest to the fact that these things take time.

So what exactly is this working group planning to propose? What is the thing they’re actually making and why does it matter? That, as with all things in the smart home, is complicated.

The group wants to create a better low-level networking system for devices in the smart home. Right now, there’s a confusing mix of different kinds of radios (Wi-Fi, 802.15.4, Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy, Z-Wave, the list goes on) and each tends to handle its networking in a different way. The internet and nearly all other networks you use, by comparison, are IP-based: each device has its own address and communicates via common, agreed-upon methods.

So at its base, this is an agreement in principle that the smart home needs that same basic level of common plumbing. In many ways, it sounds quite a lot like the Thread and Weave systems that Google has completely failed to get any traction for — and in fact Google’s blog post says explicitly that it will be contributing those standards to the project.

An IP system is promising because everybody basically knows how it works and there’s also just more knowledge about how to keep that kind of system secure. It also has the benefit of being agnostic to the kind of wireless radio it communicates over — it could be traditional Wi-Fi, 802.15.4, Bluetooth, or something else in the future.

Kindel jokes that “the good thing about standards is there’s so many to choose from” and that this this proposed standard “really is the poster child” for that idea. He notes that other smart home technologies like Z-Wave or even Amazon’s proposed Sidewalk system won’t be obviated by this, in part because they support longer ranges.

This has all been a surface skim of a very technical area — if there’s a takeaway for you it’s that these companies recognize that it’s still too difficult to know if a device will work with your setup and way too difficult to actually do that initial setup. In theory, this new proposal could help with that.

If you’ve tracked the various competing technologies that gadgets have used to communicate over the years, you’d know it’s always been a mess. Here’s a story my colleague Jake Kastrenakes wrote over five years ago decrying the dumb state of the smart home.

But a funny thing happened since then: Alexa. Well, Alexa and then the Google Assistant and then HomeKit, plus a side of Samsung SmartThings. All of those systems work by adding a layer of software abstraction on top of that wireless standards mess.

So in some ways, the problem the group is trying to solve already feels, well, solved for many consumers. Most people don’t need to bother knowing about Zigbee or smart home bridges to set up their light bulbs — their smart assistants handle that for them.

Surprisingly, this may already feel like a solved problem for many consumers

Developers, however, are forced to make sure their product supports three or more different smart home software ecosystems. That’s a lot of work. And it inevitably means some will get left behind, or busted, or worst of all: hacked.

To be clear, even in a perfect scenario this new system won’t mean a beautiful, interoperable world. The very layers of software abstraction that helped simplify the smart home are going to continue to exist and compete with each other. It just seems like Apple, Amazon, and Google would rather compete head-to-head than try to dragoon third-party smart home devices makers to their various sides in some kind of Risk-esque war of attrition.

Plus, not for nothing, an agreed-upon solution for this level of smart home plumbing would mean that these companies could use the resources they have dedicated to that towards building other stuff.

Kindel believes that lots of consumers are still going to need professionals and an OS that helps make different ecosystems work together — like those at his company Control4 (which recently merged with SnapAV). “We do believe that for it to really be refined, normal human beings aren’t going to want to do it themselves. They’re going to hire local professionals, just like they don’t do their own plumbing or even paint their own rooms.”

The key to this whole endeavor might be Zigbee: the Zigbee Alliance is managing this working group and can act as a neutral arbiter between these companies. The working group is explicitly not adopting Zigbee 3.0 as its new spec, but what it’s proposing seems not very far off from what Zigbee already does. Throw in a little of Amazon’s penchant for openness, Google’s Thread networking magic, and Apple’s rigor around privacy and you might just have something good.

Maybe. One thing’s for sure, there are too many standards. Surely one more can’t make it worse?

News from The Verge

Ikea 2.0: inside the furniture giant’s big bet on the smart home

Here’s a big feature from Thomas Ricker — and a great video, too. It was completely coincidental that it landed on the same day as this weird new smart home consortium, but fitting! Ikea is a part of that group, by the way, and likely will be a much more powerful voice than you’d guess:

Ikea can easily enter homes with inexpensive solutions — it’s in plenty of them already. That’s an advantage in smart home products since the first one in is usually the ecosystem that a consumer sticks with. (Compatibility between systems continues to be a problem.) You start with a cheap Ikea smart bulb and wireless dimmer kit, and soon, you’ve got a house full of Ikea speakers, lights, blinds, and accessories because they all work together.

Ikea previews its improved 2020 smart home experience

The below seems like such a simple thing but it’s genuinely one of the most frustrating parts of a smart home. Whoever set it up might know what the buttons do, but they’re arcane mystery boxes to everybody else in the household. IKEA making their idea cheap and ubiquitous is great.

The Shortcut Buttons can be assigned to one specific scene at a time, and they will cost about $7 each. They’re scheduled to begin shipping in February with a selection of pictograms that slide beneath a translucent cover to help identify each button’s function. (You’ll also be able to draw your own.) The buttons are designed to sit on tables or attach to walls (by screw, magnet, or adhesive strip) where a single push can initiate a scene.

Labor board rolls back employee email rights after Google recommendation

This affects all companies, but in this moment it’s especially pertinent to Google. Organizers there were quite open about using Google-provided tools like Docs to coordinate.

Boeing is set to launch its new Starliner spacecraft on its first flight to orbit

Loren Grush:

This upcoming flight is essentially a dress rehearsal for the flights Boeing will perform once the Starliner is deemed ready to carry astronauts. The goal is to see how the Starliner holds up in the space environment. “It’s just a phenomenal opportunity for us to learn the truest performance of the spacecraft,” Phil McAlister, the director of NASA’s commercial spaceflight development, said during a press conference. “Computer models are great, but they only get us so far, and seeing how the spacecraft actually performs in the operational environment of space is a huge confidence-building measure.”

Instagram will start removing influencers’ branded posts that advertise vapes, tobacco, and weapons

Ashley Carman:

The influencer space has notoriously been self-run, and while that led to strange merch and other questionable ways that creators tried to make money, it gave Instagram an out: the platform could always say that this ecosystem existed outside of its machine. Now, however, if the company starts more formally recognizing the work that influencers do, it’ll also be more responsible for the posts that show up, which is why taking down branded posts that don’t comply with its rules will be essential.

PewDiePie shows how difficult it is to take a break from YouTube

Julia Alexander:

What viewers forget is that YouTubers have little job security. They have to constantly produce videos, compete with millions of others for views to ensure they earn a paycheck, and address persistent public criticism in a way other celebrities don’t necessarily have to because they work with agents and PR arms. It’s taxing. This story is about Kjellberg, but it could very easily be about any other creator.

DOJ intervenes in Faraday Future founder’s bankruptcy after ‘dishonest behavior’

Sean O’Kane:

US Trustee representative Andrew Vara argues in the new motion that Jia has “failed to uphold his fiduciary duty to the estate by engaging in dishonest behavior” and says Jia “has demonstrated an inability to manage his estate.” Vara claims Jia has “taken measures to frustrate [his] creditors,” has “obscure[d] his financial affairs,” and accuses him of failing “to make any significant progress in his Chapter 11 case to date.” All of this behavior increases the risk that the creditors will never get paid back, Vara says.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — our spoiler-free review

I saw this movie yesterday and I regret to inform you that Adi Robertson’s review is one hundred percent accurate. It’s well-written and spoiler-free, so feel free to go read it. I may write something soon, but my overall takeaway is one of exhaustion.

The characters in Rise of Skywalker don’t have time to bake bread, which is understandable for a third-act finale involving a galaxy-spanning war. Unfortunately, they don’t really have time to be human either. Abrams has assembled a sweeping conclusion to Star Wars, pulling together stories that span both real and fictional decades. He’s guiding a deeply nostalgic series past an entry that decried nostalgia: Rian Johnson’s ambitious and polarizing The Last Jedi. It’s a vision that’s far too big for one movie, though — and the resulting film is permanently on fast-forward, too busy ticking off boxes to let audiences revel in its world-shifting twists.

Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.