In the past decade, the smart home has been a compatibility nightmare for users hoping to select freely from the wide range of connected devices entering the market. The world’s biggest tech companies have developed products in the stubborn belief that they can outshine one another to fill homes with connected products from their brands alone.
Each has created a broad portfolio of gadgets with their own ideas about how the smart home should work, leaving the consumer to choose one brand-group for all devices. Consumers, however, want choice and seamless compatibility, which they may finally get with an unprecedented new collaboration.
“Whatever we hoped the smart home would become, it has not. Devices are still dependent on phones, third-party integrations, individual partnerships, and companies choosing which devices they will support. Products are too expensive, users are confused, and security is an abysmal mess. As a result, people are cautious about connected homes or, in some cases, actively turning away from them,” states IoT commentator, Stacey Higginbotham, in a recent article.
A surprising new collaboration between tech giants Amazon, Apple and Google, plans to change this unsustainable fragmentation in the smart home space with a landmark smart home standard. Project Connected Home over IP, or Project CHIP, is a new, royalty-free connectivity standard from the Zigbee Alliance that brings together the three major competitors in the smart home under a working group alongside member companies such as IKEA, Legrand, NXP Semiconductors, Resideo, Samsung SmartThings, Schneider Electric, Signify, Silicon Labs, Somfy, and Wulian, for the benefit of the frustrated smart home users.
“The Project aims to improve the consumer experience of trying to use smart home products that aren’t compatible with each other,” states the project’s new website. “We believe that the protocol has the potential to be widely adopted across home systems and assistants such as Amazon Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and others. If the Working Group succeeds with this goal, customers can be confident that their device of choice will work in their home and that they will be able to set up and control it with their preferred system.”
This remarkable turn of events appears to be exactly what the struggling smart home market needs — an open framework that will allow consumers to buy whatever smart home gadget they want, confident that it will work with the rest of their connected home ecosystem. The potential of Project CHIP goes beyond controlling your Google-based Nest thermostat with your Amazon Echo smart speaker via Alexa voice control, which in itself is a big step forward. Project CHIP also promises to lay the foundation for the IoT-rich connected lifestyles of the future.
“A standard like CHIP has the potential to become the equivalent of HTML for translating a real-world product’s functions to the digital world. It may start with thermostats and light bulbs, but if it becomes widely adopted in the home, products such as medical devices, appliances, and even cars would want to work with it. It’s no wonder big companies want to make this happen,” says Higginbotham. “The prize here isn’t owning the smart home. The prize here is building the digital plumbing for an era where most consumer devices are connected.”
The prize is, of course, owning the smart home. However, the major players in this space have finally realized that they may lose the whole market if they don’t enable cross-brand interconnectivity for the consumer. Furthermore, despite the open nature of Project CHIP, by coming together under this new standard the alliance puts pressure on all manufacturers to follow suit, whether they like it or not. This disruptive change may not be welcomed by all firms and could create an even more confusing landscape of feature limitation for the user.
“This is a shift or squeeze opportunity for incumbent manufacturers. You have the mega techs owning the infrastructure (AWS, Google Cloud and Azure), now with this news, the network layer and they also have the leading “apps” or user interface (voice control). Yikes!” says IoT expert Lee Odess. “It’s going to get harder for some companies to differentiate if they do not have IP, intellectual property, and a clear brand relationship with consumers. I fear we may see some weird flexes in the market by manufacturers where they hold back some features and make them unavailable unless you use their own app. Not sure yet but we will see. Not sure if this is a good thing.”
Project CHIP has set a timeline to develop the new standard by the end of 2020. In the short- to medium-term, we can expect developers to be excited by the new momentum this brings to the smart home market. However, those developers will soon realize that their long-term success will depend on their ability to compete with the likes of Google, Amazon, and Apple in creating innovative features for better user interfaces and design software that can utilize data from various sources for new services based on algorithms, which is the core value proposition of the mega techs.
Rather than the open playing field that has seen Google, Amazon, and Apple fight for supremacy of the smart home, big tech firms may have redrawn the field itself to ensure that no one else can compete with them. Furthermore, key smart home issues such as security, device onboarding, updates, and processing power demands have not been addressed by Project CHIP yet, leaving many outside of the exclusive club in the dark about how to prepare for this new smart home future.
For the user, the new standard offers hope that the futuristic smart home they have long been promised may soon become a reality, albeit potentially with only a handful of firms that are rich and creative enough to play ball. Today, we are still in the early stages of development for the Project CHIP smart home standard, too soon to call it the promise-land for the smart home or an exclusive club for big tech to rule the connected household. Either way, Project CHIP makes for a disruptive start to the new decade for the smart home.