One App to Rule Them All? Is There a Path to a Single Standard for Home Automation?

Your smart home is at the center of a classic battle in technology — Walled vs. Open Gardens

Home automation control by smart phone with three smart devices such as automated vacuum, automated coffee maker and smart home assistant

So many smart home products, so little co-existence. Today’s smart home products are rarely easily managed through one app.

Let’s face it, the promise of a connected smart home is alluring.

Transforming our domestic lives and managing our homes with a simple voice command or swipe of a smart phone definitely resonates with homebuyers. Then, reality begins to set in. It’s simply not that easy yet — and there are reasons why.

Since I get to immerse myself in the latest and greatest tech offerings for your home several times a year, I wanted to share the latest chapter in a long-running story. Taking part in key events like The International Builder Show (IBS), the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and TecHome Summit provides me with a regular look inside the best that the industry has to provide.

Do you want a walled or an open garden?

Unfortunately, a common theme continues to cloud the picture for prospective owners of smart homes. It’s an age-old battle in technology. The opposing forces are open versus closed systems, often referred to as open or walled gardens. And this battle has raged for decades. Remember VHS versus Beta?

Once again, this year this battle took center stage at the big tech events that I covered. That leaves prospective purchasers with a choice — and not an easy one. Do you want a well-integrated but incomplete or uncompetitive system that can’t control each key function of your home? Or do you want a dizzying series of one-off, rifle-shot solutions, which each do a better job of automating one aspect of your home?

Welcome to a world where dozens of separate apps clutter your smartphone. And forget about getting this array of separate apps — and the devices and the tasks in your home that each controls — to work in concert.

The promise of a single, integrated system to control all of the key aspects of your home — and that can also be simply and easily controlled by your voice — is still a vision, not yet a reality.

Another goal remains equally elusive: We need a single standard that can also easily welcome each new connected device into your home — including devices not invented yet — and manage them with alacrity. No small task, admittedly, which is why we’re still waiting for one app to rule them all.

There are several reasons for the current state of the industry. Greed and manufacturer arrogance play a role. So does the proliferation of communication standards. Today there are multiple standards competing to define the way that smart, Internet-connected products in your home will talk to each other — and then communicate with you and your smart phone.

What “standard will become the standard?

Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Z-Wave, Zigbee and now Thread from Google are some of the leading standards fighting it out in the marketplace for home automation. Throw in Amazon’s Echo, Google Home and Apple’s HomeKit and … well, I think you see the problem.

The reality today is this: Everybody wants to own the home and many players jockeying to execute all the key tasks that comprise home automation aren’t making it easy to play with others.

Each product manufacturer must decide whether to create their own ecosystem or to play in someone else’s. Then, of course, there is the separate question of who to partner with. Currently, we are in a state of awkward adolescence. A multitude of companies are hanging onto their own walled gardens at a time when standards for data, communication and collaboration continue to change and proliferate.

There is so much at stake — and so may deep-pocketed players vying for control of your home — that this battle could take some time to play out.
In the meantime, as a buyer or owner seeking a smart home, you are faced with three choices:

 Forego the benefits of digital living — a non-starter for many of us
Use a dozen or more separate point solutions — each with its own independent control system
 Throw your hat in the ring with one of the walled-garden providers seeking to create a common language to connect a myriad of smart devices that perform various tasks

If you elect the latter strategy, good luck! Whether you know it or not, you’re betting that the particular walled-garden you chose survives and flourishes. Some will. Others may not.

Whatever your choice, one thing is clear: As competing standards and visions for home automation collide in a still-evolving marketplace, there will be winners and losers on the road to simply and effortlessly connected smart homes.

In the end, a lot of obsolete tech gadgets will have had their useful lives cut short because they choose the wrong product standard — or the wrong walled garden. As for me? I’ll be back at CES, IBS and TecHome Summit again next year, and will report back to you on the state of the fight.

Tim Costello is Chairman and CEO of Builder Homesite, Inc. Dedicated to the digital transformation of the homebuilding industry, BHI is owned by a consortium of 30 leading builders and also serves thousands of client builders. NewHomeSource.com, the firm's flagship website, is the leading real estate website for newly built homes.

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