07th November 2014

The state (and future) of Internet of Things and home automation

In October 1945, at the surprisingly young age of 28, Arthur C. Clarke wrote an article that would predict a technology that, at the time, was pure science fiction.

Writing in Wireless World Magazine, Clarke’s article, “Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?” argued that it should be possible to place satellites (he only uses the word twice in the entire paper) into stationary orbits over the Earth.

He went on to describe how these satellites could relay communications across much of the world. To further illustrate his point he created the formulae needed to place a satellite in such an orbit – AND he also described such satellites' typical lifespans (place it 35,786 km above sea level on the equator, and replace it every 30 years or so).

It would be another 21 years before the first geostationary satellite was placed in what’s now called the Clarke Orbit.

We probably don’t share Clarke’s skill for precognition (watch him predict online banking and tablets in 1964), but we can see the shape of emerging technologies. It’s a safe prediction to say that the next era of digital technologies will be dominated by ever more connected devices in the home and office. With these the lines between Internet of Things, wearable technologies, and smart devices will merge.

So, here's a prediction, home and office automation ecosystems will develop quickly but may take some time to gain a critical mass of users.

Internet of Things devices for homes and SME offices will standardise at a faster rate than retail and large office IoT but it may be many years before enough people are comfortable having these devices in their homes and workplaces.

Apple, Samsung, and Google each has skin in this game. Samsung and Google’s approaches are quite similar, both are developing hardware devices that connect to users’ phones. Apple is largely foregoing hardware (or at least it has so far), and is concentrating its efforts on turning iPhones and iPads into go-betweens for different connected things.

Apple’s concept is this – allow users to buy and install many different kinds of automation and monitoring devices, but create a single app through which they can monitor and control these. For Apple, it doesn’t currently matter if each device doesn’t talk to the other, as long as they all talk to users’ iOS devices.

As for Samsung and Google, they want to create their own ecosystems of smart home devices. Samsung’s acquisition of SmartThings in August this year hints at its plans. SmartThings was established in 2012 and grabbed a few headlines (and a Web Summit Spark of Genius award) as one of the first companies to develop and package home automation as a service.

The acquisition is a smart move for both companies. It allows SmartThings to increase its customer base – and internationalise faster. The company reports that its devices are only currently installed in “tens of thousands of homes,” so it still has some growing to do. With the acquisition Samsung hopes that consumers who buy a Samsung TV and dishwasher may be inclined to buy into Samsung’s home automation service – this would allow the company to sell more targeted products and services to consumers.

Google has a similar approach. In January this year the company acquired Nest, the makers of smart thermostats and smoke detectors. Then in June Google and Nest bought Dropcam, a company that makes and sells plug-in-and-play home security cameras. Google’s hoping that users who have already invested in Android will be more inclined to use its growing home automation platform. Separately, Google is also developing a Physical Web service that will allow users to interact with physical objects without the need to download countless apps. Google is initially pitching as a retail solution, but we’ll probably see it move into the home. Google says,

“The number of smart devices is going to explode, and the assumption that each new device will require its own application just isn't realistic. We need a system that lets anyone interact with any device at any time. The Physical Web isn't about replacing native apps: it's about enabling interaction when native apps just aren't practical.”

Currently, it looks like we will have three competing home automation standards, although both Apple and Google’s services are reasonably open. We’ll have to wait and see how closed Samsung’s SmartThings wider ecosystem will be. But that’s not the major obstacle for home and office automation’s adoption – the biggest issue is the lack of perceived benefit. And, indeed, this is the same problem that smart city initiatives face.

On the topic of home and office automation, this week we looked at how a lack of an open standard for Beacons is holding the technology back, how Google’s Physical Web standard hopes to bridge the IoT gap for retailers, and we see how Chicago is progressing with its smart city initiative.

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Illustration: Patrick Cusack