2015: The promising yet frustrating year of HomeKit, Weave, etc, and home automation interoperability

As 2015 began, there was hope and hype at the International CES in Las Vegas for the future of home automation and the so-called "Internet of Things". Unfortunately, as the year progressed, that hope faded and the landscape for connected devices became more confusing instead.

Many extensive articles have been written on the subject of home automation, the promise that it brings, and how all of our "things" will talk to each other and improve our lives. Heck, 2015 was the "Back to the Future" year, as well. So, why is it that "real" home automation seems to remain elusive, and, more specifically, so hard to accomplish? (Along with flying DeLoreans…alright, alright, just kidding.)

First, let's put aside the fact that most of our ideas about home automation come from carefully-scripted lines in movies and TV shows. Home automation at its core is supposed to simplify our lives, save energy, save time and let us lead more productive, happy lives, as shown in promo videos for connected products.

A few of the connected-device protocols, standards and companies.

A few of the connected-device protocols, standards and companies.

In 2014, both Thread and HomeKit were born. In 2015, Google introduced Weave and Brillo at its I/O conference. And while home automation products compatible with Apple’s HomeKit framework started shipping in mid-2015, there were fewer than expected, and HomeKit hasn’t quite been the smash hit that many people were hoping for. Thread- and Weave/Brillo-enabled products will most likely debut in 2016. Amazon doesn’t have their own home automation standard, but their Echo device has evolved into a home automation controller during 2015. But while industry watchers and some consumers were excited about these new developments, there are still problems with the future of home automation.

There are two main problems: Existing devices, and choice.

Do you want your existing Hue lights to work with HomeKit, and perhaps Weave, down the road? Buy a new Hue Bridge. How about Insteon devices? Buy their new Hub Pro with less features than their previous Insteon Hub. And what about new, promising devices, like Zuli's Smartplugs? Wait for an unknown date for these "things" to get upgraded and then replace them entirely, or add a hub to your smart home system.

Why can't we just say "Computer..." and speak a number of commands (or wishes) and have our "smart home" just react and do our bidding? Or even just press a button on an app and have things “just work?” Because of choice.

No one (probably) knows quite for sure, but it's unlikely that the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation was built with systems from different manufacturers that all used proprietary communication systems. The computer system seemed to be able to interface with anything and everything on-board, or within communications range. (Again, nicely scripted for television.)

But in our reality, smartphones, tablets and computers are often made by one company with software provided by another, dimmers, smart locks and sensors are made by different companies, and smart home “hubs” made by yet others. We have the choice to buy any combination of devices from any manufacturer. The challenge is that consumers have high expectations for technology these days, and when they are told they have to keep spending money

To put it another way, let’s look at this possibility: What if multiple Bluetooth-like communication systems had developed in the early 2000s and different devices couldn’t easily communicate with each other because of competing standards? What if you had to buy special wireless keyboards that only worked with certain computers or tablets? And what if only certain smartphones could connect to certain cars?

That awful outcome is essentially what’s happened to home automation and “connected devices” in recent years. Multiple companies have developed and marketed devices that operated within their own proprietary standards, and others have simply developed competing standards—which have been slowly adopted by various sets of devices. In 2015, the problem is even worse with HomeKit and Brillo/Weave/Thread competing with each other, while they’re supposed to be uniting devices and systems.

Since home automation device manufacturers must generally continue selling devices to stay in business, consumers face the daunting challenge of upgrading existing devices or buying totally new products to enable compatibility with other devices. Consumers in recent years have become accustomed to getting new technology features for free (or very cheaply) by simply upgrading to the latest operating system release for their device, or by downloading new apps.

So what’s the bottom line? It’s the opinion of this journalist that until a single, robust, universal standard for home automation and “Internet of Things” devices emerges and is adopted by all device makers, the home automation landscape is going to continue to be confusing and difficult to navigate for the average consumer.

The magic question is: Who will get there first? Even with as much market- and mind-share that Apple has, it’s unlikely that HomeKit will dominate the home automation and connected-device market. Google and Nest are late to the game with Brillo, Weave and Thread, but Google’s influence and capital might ultimately win the game in the end. What about existing systems such as Insteon, Z-Wave and Zigbee, among others? Will Samsung’s relatively-open SmartThings system become the major player? Ultimately all home automation systems will all need to easily cross-connect to each other to truly enable consumer choice.