The ‘smart’ or connected home has been the stuff of science fiction since the 1950s, and it has long been possible to automate many domestic functions such as lighting, heating, air conditioning, access, security, and communications.
Until now, home connectivity required an expensive custom installation, with a mish-mash of different control systems. Specialist manufacturers such as Crestron, Lutron and AMX dominated a market that was out of reach for all but the well-heeled. Three years ago there were at least 50 different connected home platforms available, and it was clear that not all could survive, ultimately leaving early adopters with now ‘dumb’ gadgets, all connected to a useless proprietary system.
The advent of affordable, programmable touchscreen devices such as Apple’s iPad changed the game, offering built-in hardware and software compatibility with industry-standard devices. The smartphone is capable of all the same functions, and is an even more familiar, affordable and universal device, so perhaps it is the natural centre of the connected home. So why are mobile dealers not taking advantage of this opportunity?
On the market
Samsung’s Smart Things range includes a £200 starter kit that features the iOS/Android/Windows mobile-compatible control app, a device hub containing Z-wave and ZigBee transponders, motion sensor, multi sensor, presence sensor and power outlet devices.
Panasonic’s comparable Smart Home range features a Monitoring and Control Kit, again with a central hub, connecting to a range of Smart Home devices.
Amazon’s Echo, a voice-controlled smart speaker controlled by Amazon’s Alexa AI, can do anything from playing music, providing news, weather and traffic reports and telling jokes, to integrating with the household control app from Yonomi. Lenovo’s Smart Assistant and Google’s Home Assistant are similar propositions.
British Gas’ Hive Active Heating system and Nest’s thermostat are well-established systems which can control your heating and hot water by learning your routines. Compatible with products from Whirlpool, Bosch, Amazon, WeMo, Philips and others, Nest, like Hive, has to be fitted by an engineer.
The O2 Home system is based on AT&T’s established platform and is available in a range of packages including the basic Home Connect starter pack, Home Comfort for heating and lighting, and Home View for security.
Also available are systems and products from Netatmo, Sonos, Motorola, Canary, Resmed, Withings, LG, Siemens, Sony and others.
The prime sales driver for the smart home may well be energy saving, which, it’s often argued, can cover the cost of the hardware. If this is so, systems such as Nest and Hive have a market advantage and energy providers would be strong candidates for winning the race for system control.
But despite the ‘heat’ surrounding the connected home and the Internet of Things (IoT), the stumbling block remains that connected devices will talk to your smartphone, but most won’t talk to each other. There is still a plethora of competing systems and manufacturers, including Apple’s HomeKit, Google’s Brillo, Lowe’s Iris, and AllJoyn, using different wireless protocols such as Wi-Fi, Zigbee, and Z-Wave.
A central hub, either a hardware router, mobile app or cloud software, could coordinate all smart products. This could be a voice-activated system such as Amazon’s Alexa, or Apple’s Siri. Google CEO Sundar Pichai, on the launch of its Pixel smartphone in 2016, said that Google believes the tech world is shifting from a ‘mobile-first’ to ‘AI-first’ focus.
While manufacturers fight for dominance rather than cooperating, progress will be slow. Jon Carter, strategist at Deutsche Telekom, summarised feelings at the IoT World Forum, saying: ‘Despite the hype, we’re exasperated.’
Samsung shows the way with its open SmartThings ecosystem, which now has 20,000 compatibles including Amazon’s Echo and LG’s Hub Robot. Other vendors’ products are compatible with Google’s Nest smart thermostat and Nest Cam.
Is retail ready?
David Plumb, digital director at Telefónica UK and Ireland, tells Mobile that now is the right time for the connected home; the technology is here, ‘at a decent standard, quality and price’, and it addresses important issues in society, such as mobile working, elderly care, and energy conservation.
Plumb points to O2’s Home package, which includes a hub, Samsung internal camera, two open-and-close sensors, and a smart plug. Also available is a Tado thermostat. Crucially, the system can be paid for on a monthly contract, an approach that other operators haven’t yet embraced.
‘The connected home concept involves a lot of expensive gear on day one’ Plumb explains. ‘With O2 Home we spread that cost over two years, including the cost of installation and a visit from an engineer, and we’ve built other vital elements including cloud backup and 4G backup into the package.’
The O2 Home offering is built on the established AT&T Digital Life platform. ‘But it’s open and interoperable, and AT&T is working on its own AI system and compatibility with others, so it does not lock users into one standard’ says Plumb.
Plumb seems relaxed about the fairly low-key start to the market, with O2 Home rolled out initially in only the South East, and sales running at around four per store per week. Dedicated areas in Tottenham Court Road and Westfield were scaled back, as in Plumb’s words: ‘We found the locations weren’t reaching the home-owning customer.’
Seb James of Carphone Warehouse also sees a future in bundling services as part of the smart home proposition, and in line with wider buying trends. He tells Mobile: ‘We think a combination of not just hardware, but finance, accessories, services, installations and support is what customers want in the future for a very predictable monthly fee – and what’s more they’ll want to have the newest technology, to be upgraded as soon as possible.’
Voices vs mobile
Brightstar’s Joyce Mercer called the launch of its Smart Living proposition in 2015 just the start of a major push into the connected market: ‘We know that growth will come from connected and SIM-enabled products, but until now very few retailers and operators have managed to find a way to successfully take them to market.. . while there is no shortage of interest in connected products, it’s fair to say that most haven’t yet capitalised on the opportunity or defined their strategy.’
Rod Slater, head of Smart Tech and IoT at technology distributor and service provider Exertis, says that security, energy, entertainment and convenience are the key categories driving interest in the area. ‘Not surprisingly, home security has been one of the most influential drivers in this market and has been top of the list for many households. The ability to obtain instant monitoring with high-quality video direct to a mobile device from a small and convenient smart camera has clear benefits.’
But Slater isn’t wedded to mobile phone control. ‘Mobile device control of smart home features is probably acceptable when you have one or two Smart Tech brands. When each product has its own app, it starts to get complicated and time consuming.’
Slater believes that mobile stores are currently providing neither the display space nor the training to sell smart home. ‘Other channels such as hardware and DIY superstores have embraced the opportunity, but it would require a change to traditional mobile store display and their range of products. ‘The mobile channel is in the unique position where it could become the main protagonist of the smart home; millions of active customers being regularly billed can reap huge rewards for the mobile channel. Many of the processes and systems to support this model already exist, it’s just rethinking the role, strategy and execution methods.’
And Chloe Woodhead of John Lewis’s Home and Tech division says that there are other challenges in selling the ‘connected home’ concept, one of which is consumer awareness.
‘Smart home is still a category that has relatively low awareness in the mass market. Retailers have to overcome two key barriers: perceived complexity of the technology, helping consumers understand the potential benefits, as well as the knowledge that Smart Home products actually exist,’ she says..
Woodhead sees the strongest areas of connected home being heating, lightning, entertainment and home monitoring, and points to natural connections to utility services, for example smart thermostat and energy provider such as Hive and British Gas.
But she points to another stumbling block in the way of the mobile market. ‘In many cases smart home products require a smartphone or tablet in order to set up and control, and at this stage it is probable that it is the centre of connected home. ?However, I think it is also a barrier, as it's not a natural behaviour, and not always convenient to use.’
It seems certain, then, that the connected home will find a market; but it’s still unclear whether this will work to the benefit of telcos using a contract model, utility companies billing their household customers, or hardware manufacturers selling bundled solutions. Most likely, they will all need to work together.
Connected Home on the High Street
The O2 Home system is available to customers in the South East, and is on demo at branches in Balham, Epsom, Kingston Bentalls Centre, Uxbridge and Watford
The flagship London Oxford Street store has four Smart Home interactive zones: Kitchen, Entertainment, Sleep and Home Monitoring, demonstrating everything from smart heating and lighting to audio, TV and appliances.
The Fonehouse chain and its Techhouse accessory outlet have stores in Bluewater, Bromley, Lakeside, High Wycombe, Romford and Watford.
Maplin Electronics has 218 stores throughout the UK and Ireland. Its Smart Home range includes the Nest thermostat, Panasonic products and LIFX lighting. It has a new connected range due later this year.
Home improvement giant Homebase has more than 200 stores throughout the UK and Ireland, and features the Yale Smart Living lock, alarm and camera kits, and Warmup smart thermostat.