A few days ago, Google launched a new product called OnHub, a router that focuses on improving the Wi-Fi network inside the home. An interesting feature included in the OnHub is its compatibility with other wireless communication protocols such as ZigBee, Bluetooth, and Bluetooth 4.0 (also known as Bluetooth Smart or Bluetooth Low Energy). According to the company’s blog, these protocols are aimed to support smart home devices in the future as well as the future OnHub devices that Google will develop with partners (e.g. Asus). The OnHub will cost $200 and will be commercially available in the coming weeks.
This is the first move Google has made to enter the smart home space since it bought Nest in early 2014 (client registration required), and in doing so, it is making a wise bet to further take its router and turn it into a smart home hub. The OnHub is not aimed to be a smart home gateway today, but the company is surely laying the basis to pursue this capability in the future. We have seen this strategy used before by Nest, when it enabled previously dormant embedded sensing capabilities in the Nest thermostat (client registration required). By supporting additional wireless communication protocols, Google is preparing to tackle the interconnectivity problem that has been plaguing the smart home industry. We have established that interoperability is a problem (client registration required), and other industry stakeholders have echoed this view. For example, during the CES earlier this year, the “Evolution of the Smart Home” panelists, including executives from Bosch, Lowe’s, Lutron, and Yetu, highlighted the challenge that users face with interoperability across the smart home platforms that are available in the market. Lutron’s executive stated that the way this company is dealing with the interoperability problem is by developing a closed ecosystem, allowing interaction with specific devices using their proprietary protocol, called “Lutron Integration Protocol.” Many smaller startups in the home automation space are also taking the same approach, by attempting to own the whole ecosystem. An example of this is Fibaro (client registration required), which manufactures its own smart home devices, focusing on aesthetics and using Z-wave exclusively as a communication protocol.
Other companies are eschewing the exclusivity of a closed ecosystem and are working together to adopt a standard specification for wireless communications, with the purpose of tackling the lack of interconnectivity between smart home platforms and separate devices. These companies formed various alliances, such as the ZigBee Alliance and the Z-wave Alliance (client registration required). In 2013, the Linux Foundation started the AllSeen Alliance, where companies like Microsoft, Qualcomm, LG, Panasonic, and Sony aim to develop an open and universal framework to increase functionality and interactions across various brands and sectors involved in the Internet of Things (IoT), with a strong focus on the connected home. Another player in this search for interoperability is the Open Interconnect Consortium backed by companies like Cisco, GE, Intel, IBM, Siemens, and Samsung. This consortium is looking to define the specifications for an open source communications framework to allow connectivity across IoT platforms. Google has chosen to align itself with the ZigBee Alliance, and is actually discussing how its “Thread” application could interface with the new forthcoming ZigBee 3.0, according to our interview with an executive.
While several companies from different industries (e.g. telecommunications, consumer electronics, IT) are working together to find a solution to the problem, there are others that are embracing and exploiting the lack of a unified communication protocol by making their own hardware to interact with the wide variety of smart home devices that exist in the market today. The figure above shows companies that offer multi-protocol gateways that can wirelessly communicate with a variety of third-party devices; in other words, they offer open home automation platforms. These companies focus on a pain point that the consumers are experiencing, having the freedom to choose the smart home devices that apply to their lifestyles and still being able to operate the whole ecosystem with one single mobile application. A clear example of this is Zipato (client registration required), a company that achieved profitability and impressive geographical expansion, while its “Zipabox” hub has only been on the market for two years. Moreover, Wink is not only offering one mobile application to operate third-party devices, but also partnered with manufacturers of smart home devices to increase compatibility. Nevertheless, devices that are not Wink-certified can still connect to the hub and feature basic support. It is important to point out that Google is not directly competing against other smart home platforms, yet. Google is aiming to replace the router in the residential space, but after it enables its smart home gateway capabilities it could become a threat. Its pricing, though higher than several of the other smart home hub incumbents, will make it competitive because it is integrating two devices in one.
By comparing compatible profiles showing the figure above, it is clear that Google is betting on ZigBee and Bluetooth, and not Z-wave. This is significant, because the OnHub likely draws on expertise resulting from Nest’s acquisition of Revolv (client registration required), a startup which produced a multi-protocol gateway which then supported Z-wave. While we recently pointed out the potential of ZigBee ([specifically the forthcoming ZigBee 3.0] client registration required), clients are also encouraged to explore the potential of Bluetooth Smart. Even when it is not widely adopted today, several startup executives with whom we have spoken have cited this as high-potential, such as Cozify (client registration required).
Clients interested in evolving smart home ecosystems should pick their allies, and act fast. It is only a matter of time before Google enables OnHub to begin communicating with other home devices, such as those running its stripped down operating system, Brillo, or other third party devices. The lack of support for Z-wave is a further nail in the coffin for closed systems, in favor of those such as ZigBee 3.0 and Bluetooth Smart. Companies interested in marketing devices need to be aware of the smart home platforms being offered, and design with compatibility in mind; Google’s OnHub would be a wise choice.