Home Automation Hubs are Sold All Wrong

Today: Buy this hub, build a smart home. Try: You know all those smart devices you already bought? Buy this hub to connect them together.


“Home automation hubs don’t sell,” says Jonathan Frankel, founder of the start-up video-intercom maker Nucleus. We know this well, even if the purveyors of these smart-home hubs – Lowe’s Iris, SmartThings, Wink, Staples Connect and others — don’t come out and say it.

That’s why big retailers like Lowe’s are seeking smart home” hubs” or potential hubs that actually do something on their own … like let you communicate two-way by voice and video within the home and from far away, as is the case with Nucleus. Oh, and by the way, you can attach third-party devices and services such as Nest, Icontrol and SmartThings by way of cloud-to-cloud integration.

Lowe’s is rolling out the product in 1,000 brick-and-mortar stores, with end-caps to promote the system. As part of the partnership, Nucleus will support Iris as well, according to Frankel.

“User communication is the wedge,” he says. “Leading with communication – which is what Nucleus excels at – can help spur quicker adoption of other smart home devices such as Iris. … We’re not selling the ‘smart home.’”*

True, this wedge thesis in home automation has been generously (and wrongly) ascribed to many technologies over the years (utility demand-side management!), but at least the Trojan horse theory more aptly applies to a video intercom than a non-descript puck.

That’s the obvious part: hubs represented as hubs don’t have a big fan base beyond technology enthusiasts who buy them because they want to build a smart-home ecosystem.

But all is not lost in the hub department. I believe they can sell if they’re marketed differently.

Here's how most people buy smart-home devices:

Oh, a smart light bulb. I’ll buy one of those. But that’s all I need for my smart home.

Just a smart light. That and a smart thermostat. But that’s it. Nothing more.

Just those two things and a digital door lock. And a smart doorbell. And then I have everything I need.

Hey, how useful would it be if the light turned on when someone pressed the doorbell?

And there is the perfect customer for a smart-home hub. Yet I don’t see anyone marketing to those very people who have collected a hodge podge of connected things, and have no way to connect them to each other.

Here’s how hubs are pitched today: Buy this hub and then you can add devices to build a smart home.

Instead, how about this:: You know that smart bulb and doorbell and thermostat you bought over the past year that operate in a vacuum? If you buy this hub, they can all work together.*

As a bonus, in this scenario the inexplicable hub need not be a loss leader because consumers may very well understand why they need one.

Let’s go a step further. A service provider might advertise: You know that smart bulb and doorbell and thermostat you bought over the past year that operate in a vacuum? I can make them all work together.*

Might be easier said than done (getting them to all work together), but there are millions of consumers that bought smart locks and bulbs and other connected things back when they were really expensive — like a year ago — and don't quite know what to do with them.


About the Author

Julie Jacobson
Julie Jacobson:

Julie Jacobson is founding editor of CE Pro, the leading media brand for the home-technology channel. She has covered the smart-home industry since 1994, long before there was much of an Internet, let alone an Internet of things. Currently she studies, speaks, writes and rabble-rouses in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V, wellness-related technology, biophilic design, and the business of home technology. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, and earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a recipient of the annual CTA TechHome Leadership Award, and a CEDIA Fellows honoree. A washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player, Julie currently resides in San Antonio, Texas and sometimes St. Paul, Minn. Follow on Twitter: @juliejacobson