Control & Automation

Pros & Cons of Curated Smart-Home Ecosystems vs. Open IoT Platforms

Open smart-home ecosystems with extreme integration capabilities might look good on paper, but curated IoT solutions can improve user experience.

Pros & Cons of Curated Smart-Home Ecosystems vs. Open IoT Platforms
Some smart-home product and service providers embrace open architectures and extreme integration, but such architectures are harder to support and potentially less user-friendly than more curated IoT ecosystems.

Julie Jacobson · December 8, 2017

Which smart-home strategy is best for manufacturers, service providers and consumers? One that is (or tries to be) wide-open and interoperable with all IoT comers? Or one that is closed, or at least curated, for a more controlled experience?

Contested since the beginning of home-automation, the apporaches have never been more hotly debated than now. Instead of having fewer and fewer IoT platforms over the years, the industry produces more and more of them, with some more "interoperable" than others.

Traditional security dealers and smart-home integrators have worked with relatively closed ecosystems over the past three decades. Connectivity and reliability were almost assured because devices came from a single manufacturer or its close partners.

Today, however, open APIs and "standards"-based systems invite more interoperability from a vast array of vendors. Goody for opening the ecosystem, but it comes at a price: consumer confusion, challenging tech support, and a potentially worse user experience.

Is an open ecosystem really a good idea? There’s cybersecurity to consider, and of course technical support and the overall user experience.

How Many Options Should You Support?

For home-tech integrators, how many subsystems and end devices do you really want to support? And consider this: If you sell your business or your techs turn over, how will the new folks be able to support so many disparate products?

There’s a bigger business issue here. The reason it’s so hard to sell an integration company is because, well, there’s so much integration. The buyer, even a competitor who sells the same home-control system, probably doesn’t know the nuances of all the devices you connect to.

Taken a step further, if you want to team up with other integrators to provide, say, a 24-hour support service, you’ll all want to have similarly connected products.

The more custom your projects, the less attractive your business to would-be investors or acquirers.
— Callout Attribution

I’ve always been one to question the level of customization that many integrators offer, especially given how much fun the engineers have in designing the perfect golf-ball icon when the customer would be perfectly fine with a button. Your clever programmers can do anything, of course, but at what price?

It’s not just the price of the original programming, but the burden of supporting these systems over the long term, as employees turn over and connected devices change, affecting every link in the chain. Support becomes more burdensome with each customized element in a system.

The more custom the system, the bigger the learning curve for new employees. Worse, the more custom your projects, the less attractive your business to would-be investors or acquirers.

They want none of that.

The same can be said for manufacturers pondering just how many products they should support. Supporting “just Z-Wave” and not ZigBee, for example, still opens up a can of (smart?) worms.

The fact that Z-Wave-certified devices must meet security and interoperability standards doesn’t mean vendors should welcome every device into the ecosystem. Maybe the manufacturer or service provider doesn’t want to support certain inferior products or entire categories like door locks that may pose certain risks.

Curated vs. Open Ecosystems

Ask yourself: How many choices does the customer really need?

Even mass-market smart-home providers are rethinking their open architectures, turning to a more curated approach to connectivity.

Most of them used to pride themselves on interoperability, inviting any Z-Wave, ZigBee, or cloud-enabled smart thing to connect.

“Consumers want all those options,” they would say. “They don’t want to buy a home automation hub and not have it work with their favorite light bulb.”

Even many mass-market smart-home providers are rethinking their open architectures.

I disagree. And some of the “hub” makers seem to disagree, as well.

Many are picking and choosing and vetting the partners that make sense for their ecosystems, much like “our” vendors have always done for custom-installed smart-home systems.

Comcast curates its relatively small collection of connected devices in order to improve customer experience and provide better support. Apple of course does this with HomeKit and other services.

It’s possible Amazon chose ZigBee for “Echo Plus” because ZigBee doesn’t demand interoperability of all devices that bear its logo. Amazon, therefore, could anoint the products or partners it wants – perhaps those who pay a fee for the privilege, or promise to provide certain support, or pass some quality standard, or even include a little piece of Google sauce in their “approved” products.

I think manufacturers and dealers alike should take a good hard look at the pros and cons of supporting every – or too many – third-party products and services.


RELATED: Z-Wave Acquired by ZigBee, WiFi, Thread, BLE Chip-Maker




  About the Author

Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Email Julie at [email protected]

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  Article Topics


Control & Automation · Automation · News · Blogs · IoT · Z-Wave · ZigBee · All Topics
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Comments

Posted by Adroit1 on December 9, 2017

When Zigbee and Zwave were first introduced, they had to compete with each other for audience. The technical specs were shown and studied. The tests showed that Zigbee had better power and better wall penetration. It may not seem like much today, with the mesh networks making up just about all the difference, but, in the beginning, it was extremely important. I work on very large homes, built using more rebar and concrete than a production home, and yachts, mostly made of either aluminum or steel.  The barriers to getting any signal distance are significant in both cases. ZIgbee, in the beginning, promoted itself as being a direct competitor to Zwave. I had lots of corrspondence inquiring when Zigbee was going to get its act together and set up a standard like Zwave, because the Zwave network required many more units to achieve the same mesh qualities as Zigbee. I believe that is the reason that Crestron, and others, chose Zigbee for their proprietary 2 way communications between remote controls and components, rather than Zwave. There had been talk a few years ago that Zigbee was going to set up a universal platform to compete with Zwave, but that neer appeared to go anywhere. When QMotion decided to use Zigbee for its shade control, it appeared there might be some movement in that direction, but that was just Legrand making a mistake in their choice of platforms. That choice simply means one more driver for the remote control program that I would rather not have to use. More unneeded complication for the consumer

Posted by Julie Jacobson on December 9, 2017

Thanks for commenting, @Adroit 1. I’m curious why you say Zigbee is “technically a better platform.” I don’t know that it’s ever really been tested since most of the implementations are proprietary, or else the ecosystems are heavily curated by the service provider.

And for sure (as mentioned in the piece), you can’t certify Z-Wave (or other standards-based solution) for “quality.” I mean, look at Wi-Fi. Just because it wears the logo doesn’t mean it actually works. That’s why many integrators will only support ecosystems that use their choice of network devices.

That’s the big tradeoff between open/interoperable or closed/curated. A quandary for sure.

Posted by Adroit1 on December 9, 2017

As long as Apple, Google, Samsung, and Amazon refuse to agree on a platform, there will be major issues for all consumers wanting smarten their homes, and there will be job security for integrators who can make them all play together. But, it would be nice if it wasn’t all SO complicated for the consumer. ZIgbee and ZWave came on the market at about the same time. Zigbee is, technically, a better platform, but ZIgbee failed to set compliance standards, so different manufacturers used proprietary frequencies in the Zigbee range. Zigbee units only talk to each other when they are made by the same manufacturer. Crestron, RTI, and URC all use Zigbee, but don’t talk to each other. Zwave protocols mandate that all products, regardless of the manufacturer, talk to each other. One Zwave switch will talk to another brand’s Zwave switch. The mesh network is built, regardless of who made the different products in it. The huge issue with Zwave is the lack quality control among its Alliance members. Some stuff works great, and other products are an embarassment. Yeah, all the products make up a network, but half don’t work. That is a huge problem. Then Apple, and all the others, want their own platform for their products. It is no wonder consumers are reluctant to go smart. They don’t know what works with what today, and will it work together 2 years from now is a huge question. It makes it difficult for integrators to explain to customers what they should do. It also makes things far more custom than should be necessary. A single, secure platform would be ideal, and much better for all, customer and integrator alike, but, with the corporate egos, that won’t be happening any time soon. Meantime, our programming work is piling up because more and more consumers want the benefits of a smarter home, and are willing to put up with us to get them to their goals. The key for integrators who are able to get all the platforms to work together is documentation when the job is done. A DVD copy of the programming, directions, and installation notes needs to be given to the customer at the end of each job, on completion of the final payment, of course.

Posted by antoniohardeman on December 8, 2017

Thanks Julie.

For the Z-wave products and any product in general, buying from companies that have a strong reputation for quality is the key.  That’s were the provider needs to ensure that any products they certify for their systems are known for their quality.

I agree with you in regards to Lennar.  Lennar is in the process of building phase 2 of my neighborhood and they’re building their connected homes in this community.  I’ve walked through the homes and Lennar is including wired infrastructure for cable tv and the wired access point for Wifi.  Where I’m disappointed with Lennar’s efforts is in the area of integration.  Lennar is including a Smart Things hub with each of these homes, but the Lyric thermostat and Schlage bluetooth front door lock that they’re installing in each home do not integrate with Smart Things.  If you’re going to building a so called connected home, why not include devices that actually integrate with the brains of the system you’re providing to each home?  It just seems as though Lennar wanted to include a few flashy IoT devices to show that they can provide cool IoT tech.

Posted by Julie Jacobson on December 8, 2017

Great comments, Tink and Antonio. Thanks for sharing. Antonio—I think Comcast and Amazon are probably balancing consumer experience and the their own business needs well. Far be it for me to judge. I’m happy to judge Lennar’s thing, though! Absolutely nuts that they’re basically dropping DIY stuff on new homebuyer doorsteps (with a quick lesson from Amazon techs) and leaving them with no wired infrastructure.

Tink—If I were a product or service provider, I would want to incentivize customers to use “approved” products. Maybe you don’t offer tech support if there are non-vetted devices in the ecosystem. When you start getting to scores of devices in a home, the installer or hub maker is on the hook for anything that goes wrong, including cheap Z-Wave devices with bad quality control (Z-Wave doesn’t certify for quality). I wouldn’t want to take all those tech-support calls.

Posted by Tink on December 8, 2017

I couldn’t disagree more. Hub/Gateway manufacturers such as HomeSeer have proven that with the right platform, you can support every device without any problem. Z-Wave’s interoperability makes the device platform possible and the right platform for the UI and control takes care of the rest. Granted you can choose not to support a category of devices (e.g. Door Locks) for any number of good reasons, but once you enter the category and have an interoperable technology like Z-Wave, the excuses are gone. Manufacturers of hubs/gateways that have issues focus too much on the specific device and model rather than looking at what its capabilities are and providing a UI that can handle all of the capabilities individually rather than as a whole.  For example, if you had a thermostat that also had a built-in motion detector, most companies would avoid it because they have no justification (or other products) to marry those two items on the same device UI; a company that treats the capabilities separately just accepts devices like this in stride.

The real issue here is that while a better consumer experience may be had with a closed system, too many products want to be a closed system yet market themselves as open to the consumer or DIYer.  If you are a closed system, then stay closed and only offer the product to integrators. Consumers do not want to have to check a manufacturer’s website to see if every device they already own is supported, or to see what the track record is for adding support for new products. Imagine finding a product that supports enough devices for what you use today, but they never update it and you find that none of the new products on the market will work with it. Manufacturers should not be wishy-washy and try to have their cake and eat it too - either do the hard work and support all of the products in a category, or sell your product through a closed channel such as integrators or security solutions.

Posted by antoniohardeman on December 8, 2017

Nice article.  I think some of the “hub” makers went way overboard on trying to make every IoT device under the sun “work” with their hubs bc they didn’t want to lose a potential customer.  A curated system can be better for the customer than a “everything works with it method”, where everything doesn’t really work with the system; some products just show up in the app while others have deeper integration (I’ve seen this).  Or you can customize a integrator based system to the point where if someone else has to take over they’re completely lost as to what’s happening with the system. 

But a curated systems such as the ones that Comcast, other cable companies, Amazon with the Echo Plus and Lennar are trying to provide can be very limiting for the customer leaving them without a wider selection of options.

Posted by antoniohardeman on December 8, 2017

Nice article.  I think some of the “hub” makers went way overboard on trying to make every IoT device under the sun “work” with their hubs bc they didn’t want to lose a potential customer.  A curated system can be better for the customer than a “everything works with it method”, where everything doesn’t really work with the system; some products just show up in the app while others have deeper integration (I’ve seen this).  Or you can customize a integrator based system to the point where if someone else has to take over they’re completely lost as to what’s happening with the system. 

But a curated systems such as the ones that Comcast, other cable companies, Amazon with the Echo Plus and Lennar are trying to provide can be very limiting for the customer leaving them without a wider selection of options.

Posted by Tink on December 8, 2017

I couldn’t disagree more. Hub/Gateway manufacturers such as HomeSeer have proven that with the right platform, you can support every device without any problem. Z-Wave’s interoperability makes the device platform possible and the right platform for the UI and control takes care of the rest. Granted you can choose not to support a category of devices (e.g. Door Locks) for any number of good reasons, but once you enter the category and have an interoperable technology like Z-Wave, the excuses are gone. Manufacturers of hubs/gateways that have issues focus too much on the specific device and model rather than looking at what its capabilities are and providing a UI that can handle all of the capabilities individually rather than as a whole.  For example, if you had a thermostat that also had a built-in motion detector, most companies would avoid it because they have no justification (or other products) to marry those two items on the same device UI; a company that treats the capabilities separately just accepts devices like this in stride.

The real issue here is that while a better consumer experience may be had with a closed system, too many products want to be a closed system yet market themselves as open to the consumer or DIYer.  If you are a closed system, then stay closed and only offer the product to integrators. Consumers do not want to have to check a manufacturer’s website to see if every device they already own is supported, or to see what the track record is for adding support for new products. Imagine finding a product that supports enough devices for what you use today, but they never update it and you find that none of the new products on the market will work with it. Manufacturers should not be wishy-washy and try to have their cake and eat it too - either do the hard work and support all of the products in a category, or sell your product through a closed channel such as integrators or security solutions.

Posted by Julie Jacobson on December 8, 2017

Great comments, Tink and Antonio. Thanks for sharing. Antonio—I think Comcast and Amazon are probably balancing consumer experience and the their own business needs well. Far be it for me to judge. I’m happy to judge Lennar’s thing, though! Absolutely nuts that they’re basically dropping DIY stuff on new homebuyer doorsteps (with a quick lesson from Amazon techs) and leaving them with no wired infrastructure.

Tink—If I were a product or service provider, I would want to incentivize customers to use “approved” products. Maybe you don’t offer tech support if there are non-vetted devices in the ecosystem. When you start getting to scores of devices in a home, the installer or hub maker is on the hook for anything that goes wrong, including cheap Z-Wave devices with bad quality control (Z-Wave doesn’t certify for quality). I wouldn’t want to take all those tech-support calls.

Posted by antoniohardeman on December 8, 2017

Thanks Julie.

For the Z-wave products and any product in general, buying from companies that have a strong reputation for quality is the key.  That’s were the provider needs to ensure that any products they certify for their systems are known for their quality.

I agree with you in regards to Lennar.  Lennar is in the process of building phase 2 of my neighborhood and they’re building their connected homes in this community.  I’ve walked through the homes and Lennar is including wired infrastructure for cable tv and the wired access point for Wifi.  Where I’m disappointed with Lennar’s efforts is in the area of integration.  Lennar is including a Smart Things hub with each of these homes, but the Lyric thermostat and Schlage bluetooth front door lock that they’re installing in each home do not integrate with Smart Things.  If you’re going to building a so called connected home, why not include devices that actually integrate with the brains of the system you’re providing to each home?  It just seems as though Lennar wanted to include a few flashy IoT devices to show that they can provide cool IoT tech.

Posted by Adroit1 on December 9, 2017

As long as Apple, Google, Samsung, and Amazon refuse to agree on a platform, there will be major issues for all consumers wanting smarten their homes, and there will be job security for integrators who can make them all play together. But, it would be nice if it wasn’t all SO complicated for the consumer. ZIgbee and ZWave came on the market at about the same time. Zigbee is, technically, a better platform, but ZIgbee failed to set compliance standards, so different manufacturers used proprietary frequencies in the Zigbee range. Zigbee units only talk to each other when they are made by the same manufacturer. Crestron, RTI, and URC all use Zigbee, but don’t talk to each other. Zwave protocols mandate that all products, regardless of the manufacturer, talk to each other. One Zwave switch will talk to another brand’s Zwave switch. The mesh network is built, regardless of who made the different products in it. The huge issue with Zwave is the lack quality control among its Alliance members. Some stuff works great, and other products are an embarassment. Yeah, all the products make up a network, but half don’t work. That is a huge problem. Then Apple, and all the others, want their own platform for their products. It is no wonder consumers are reluctant to go smart. They don’t know what works with what today, and will it work together 2 years from now is a huge question. It makes it difficult for integrators to explain to customers what they should do. It also makes things far more custom than should be necessary. A single, secure platform would be ideal, and much better for all, customer and integrator alike, but, with the corporate egos, that won’t be happening any time soon. Meantime, our programming work is piling up because more and more consumers want the benefits of a smarter home, and are willing to put up with us to get them to their goals. The key for integrators who are able to get all the platforms to work together is documentation when the job is done. A DVD copy of the programming, directions, and installation notes needs to be given to the customer at the end of each job, on completion of the final payment, of course.

Posted by Julie Jacobson on December 9, 2017

Thanks for commenting, @Adroit 1. I’m curious why you say Zigbee is “technically a better platform.” I don’t know that it’s ever really been tested since most of the implementations are proprietary, or else the ecosystems are heavily curated by the service provider.

And for sure (as mentioned in the piece), you can’t certify Z-Wave (or other standards-based solution) for “quality.” I mean, look at Wi-Fi. Just because it wears the logo doesn’t mean it actually works. That’s why many integrators will only support ecosystems that use their choice of network devices.

That’s the big tradeoff between open/interoperable or closed/curated. A quandary for sure.

Posted by Adroit1 on December 9, 2017

When Zigbee and Zwave were first introduced, they had to compete with each other for audience. The technical specs were shown and studied. The tests showed that Zigbee had better power and better wall penetration. It may not seem like much today, with the mesh networks making up just about all the difference, but, in the beginning, it was extremely important. I work on very large homes, built using more rebar and concrete than a production home, and yachts, mostly made of either aluminum or steel.  The barriers to getting any signal distance are significant in both cases. ZIgbee, in the beginning, promoted itself as being a direct competitor to Zwave. I had lots of corrspondence inquiring when Zigbee was going to get its act together and set up a standard like Zwave, because the Zwave network required many more units to achieve the same mesh qualities as Zigbee. I believe that is the reason that Crestron, and others, chose Zigbee for their proprietary 2 way communications between remote controls and components, rather than Zwave. There had been talk a few years ago that Zigbee was going to set up a universal platform to compete with Zwave, but that neer appeared to go anywhere. When QMotion decided to use Zigbee for its shade control, it appeared there might be some movement in that direction, but that was just Legrand making a mistake in their choice of platforms. That choice simply means one more driver for the remote control program that I would rather not have to use. More unneeded complication for the consumer