After spending recent years readying new products and systems, players both new and old in the home automation arena are ready to battle it out for consumers’ attention. But who will be left standing?
As rapidly as the home automation, Internet of Things or connected-device space has evolved—whatever you wish to call it—the industry and its market are still relatively small. Aside from geeks or those with disposable incomes, home automation has continued to remain a bit of a luxury purchase. But with new players coming into the market, both makers of home automation devices, like SmartThings, and companies like Apple and Google who have developed connected-device platforms, that may finally be changing.
On that note, one of the first home automation announcements for 2016 is from Samsung. They recently said that all of their smart TVs this year will have built-in connections to SmartThings, the home automation platform that Samsung acquired in 2014. The announcement did not specify whether this was a specific hardware or software upgrade, or whether Samsung’s existing smart TVs could be updated to work with SmartThings. Samsung will show off their new smart TVs with IoT integration at CES 2016. [Read the press release]
Three general strategies in the home automation or “Internet of Things” industry are going to continue in 2016: Enable communication to legacy devices and/or other platforms via new frameworks such as HomeKit and Thread, integrate home automation technology into common devices such as TVs and streaming devices like Apple TV, and build platform-specific hubs that can speak multiple technologies via the above-mentioned frameworks.
But overall, the "killer app" of home automation that needs to debut in 2016 is a combination of ease-of-use without sacrificing power-user features, wide device compatibility and a price drop. This is what we want to see it. But who will deliver it?
Here’s a few of our specific predictions for 2016, listed by technology/company:
We here at Lighting Answers use and love Insteon products, but we’re worried. The Insteon Hub Pro that debuted in 2015 was met with bad reviews and a buggy app experience, not to mention having less features than the standard Insteon Hub—heck, we haven’t even reviewed it yet! Insteon is one of the older home automation technologies, but their own consumer-friendly hubs don’t even allow you to do everything that Insteon devices can do, especially with their sharp-looking KeypadLinc multi-button in-wall controllers. We’re worried that, even with their Microsoft partnership, that Insteon is going to slowly lose market share if they don’t launch a new hub device soon that easily integrates with other platforms, and yet offers an easy-to-use, feature-rich user experience. The Revolv hub, purchased by Nest and ultimately shut down, was a beacon of hope for Insteon, since it integrates with the platform and nearly every other home automation technology.
The bottom line: Insteon continues to be the “Apple” of the home automation world, and if it continues down that path it may become irrelevant in the market. But it’s still awesome, and we recommend it.
Now that SmartThings has been assimilated by Samsung (no longer just called SmartThings, ouch!), look for more rapid integrations with Samsung’s own products, just like the story above abou their 2016 smart TV line-up. Assume also that somehow they will work to integrate ST into the Galaxy and Note phones and tablets, along with Samsung microwaves, refrigerators, dust-mops and the unannounced Samsung hydrogen car (alright, forget that one!).
The bottom line: In all seriousness, SmartThings is going to far this year and expand everything and anything that its ecosystem integrates with, but probably not including HomeKit. The currently-disabled Bluetooth radio in their 2nd-generation hub is expected to be turned on this year, for greater device compatibility. Get started with a SmartThings Home Monitoring Kit.
While HomeKit is now fully deployed into several of Apple’s products and operating systems, its lack of adoption in home automation products, specifically products using the full HomeKit feature set, has limited the uptake by consumers. 2016 will see more product roll-outs, ultimately generating more chatter and interest among consumers about home automation via Apple’s devices. If Apple Watch 2 debuts in the spring as rumored, it may bring more HomeKit tricks and better Siri integration, along with hopefully better battery life. Siri, in general, needs to improve a bit more for HomeKit to be more widely used. It’s hard to know specifically what to say to Siri to accomplish basic automation tasks right now. Also, Apple can make 2016 "The Year of HomeKit" by introducing a slick, centralized "Home" app, similar to their "Health" app for HealthKit, and really, really pushing out with an aggressive HomeKit marketing campaign once more HomeKit products hit the market. Perhaps this will surround an Apple Watch 2 event, or iOS 10 in at WWDC. We'll keep you updated.
The bottom line: Do you love Siri? Then it’s safe to start buying HomeKit-compatible stuff right now. Here’s some of our reviews on HomeKit products, and information.
Google (and Nest):
At Google I/O 2015, they announced Brillo and Weave, two Internet of Things projects designed to help standardize how connected devices talk to each other. The plan was to roll-out the full specification by the end of 2015, which would mean that companies are probably just now starting to work on integrating these technologies, with Weave most likely being integrated first. Speaking of that, we believe that devices that have been released that are HomeKit compatible may also be Weave-compatible, as both systems use similar, if not the same chipsets.
And then there’s Nest, which has been shuffled around from Google to Google’s new parent company, Alphabet. Nest is actually who is behind Weave, and is still trying to figure out how to integrate with Brillo, which is Google’s stripped-down version of Android for smart devices.
Oh yes, and don’t forget about Thread, for whom Nest is a major sponsor. Thread runs over the same 802.15.4 radios that Zigbee does, which now begs the question: Why is Nest involved in both Weave and Thread? They are similar yet seemingly competing technologies running on different physical chips and radios. The (most likely) answer, it’s the Googley thing to do, come up with zillions of different things, launch them and see what sticks. Thread has a the leg-up right now on Weave in that it has already started product certification, but Thread is more about "behind-the-scenes" compatibility rather than a "consumer" standard like Zigbee or Z-Wave.. Oh yeah, and the OnHub router? It has Bluetooth, Weave and 802.15.4 built-in…so there’s that. We’re really not sure how this mess is going to develop in 2016, but we’ll know more in May at the next I/O event. Nest, however, now separate from Google, is the wildcard here. We expect, at the least, many more product integrations this year via the Works with Nest program, and hopefully, a killer new product (think: Amazon Echo competitor) at a lower price point to draw in more consumers to the Nest ecosystem.
The bottom line: For now, Google and Nest are trying for connected-device world domination, but they’re making a big mess of it right now. We’ll find out more at this year’s CES (maybe) and Google I/O (more likely.) Itching to buy something right now? Pick up the OnHub, for starters.
Amazon is truly the “dark horse” in this entire world of home automation and connected devices. Amazon hasn’t yet invented a home automation protocol, but yet the Echo now integrates with an ever-expanding line-up of home automation devices and systems like Philips Hue, Insteon and more. The Amazon Echo has both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on-board, but no 802.15.4 or other home automation radios. As many reviews have already stated, Echo’s voice recognition is top-notch. Here at Lighting Answers, we think that always-listening voice recognition that you can talk to from virtually anywhere, while slightly creepy, is going to be the way forward. In this regard, Amazon has definitely nailed it.
The bottom line: The Amazon Echo is compatible with a lot of home automation gear, today, and is software-upgradeable. It’s only going to get better in 2016, and it’s a safe bet to add to your smart home.
We can’t really call Philips Hue a real “home automation platform” because it is limited to only lighting (for now), and generally works with only Philpis Hue products. Philips expanded their line-up of products in 2015 and also introduced HomeKit compatibility with their new Hue Bridge 2.0. We expect to hear in 2016 that the new bridge will be Weave and Thread compatible, and we should see some new Hue lighting products, too. Philips needs to update their original A19 and BR30 products to introduce better saturated colors and improved low-end dimming, as seen on their new Lightstrip Plus. We also believe that the overall pricing for Philips Hue needs to decrease for them to increase their market share and consumer interest. Additional competition from companies like LIFX and crowdfunded products like the Qube Wi-Fi Smart Bulb may put pressure on Philips to reduce its prices.
The bottom line: The Philips Hue line of products is still compelling and impressive, along with its level of integration with other systems. It can only get better in 2016. Give the Philips Hue starter kit a try!
Not many other companies make a lot of noise or press these days since the ones we’ve mentioned seem to have most of the money and marketing prowess. But there are still other home automation solutions, like Vera, HomeSeer, Logitech, X10 (no, not really), and dealer-installed, pricey systems like Control4. Each of these systems (except X10), is going to continue to evolve and adapt during 2016 to ensure it can connect with your other favorite home automation devices, those that don’t will continue to lose overall market- and mind share.
The bottom line: There are other solutions out there, and while they’re lesser known, they’re not necessarily less able to be an effective home automation system. Time will tell in 2016 how they will fare. Check out home automation products on Amazon.
What should you buy as a home automation consumer in 2016?
Ask us for our opinion in 2017! OK, that’s not the answer you were looking for. But right now, the answer is based on your preferences, especially if you’re just getting started:
Are you “all-in” on Apple and Siri? Then you’ll want to purchase home automation products that are HomeKit-compatible.
Are you a Google fanboy or fangirl? A fair bet to start is the OnHub and some products from Nest, which work currently (and future) with probably just about everything in the home automation universe.
What about Samsung? SmartThings is definitely a sure bet there.
If high-style and rock-solid reliability are important to you, then Insteon is a great choice.
What if you have no preference, you just want cool home automation stuff that works well and you can choose from a wide range of products from various companies? SmartThings.
We’ll have more recommendations as the first part of the year progresses, stay tuned!