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.
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.
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.”
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.
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@example.com
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