Invest in a branded smart home ecosystem today and you will likely find yourself locked into that ecosystem in perpetuity. A lack of technology standards has led companies like Amazon and Google to develop proprietary systems that lack interoperability. Thus, the industry is terribly fragmented. That may be a thing of the past if the Zigbee Alliance has its way.
The Alliance represents a number of well-known companies including Samsung and IKEA. This past December (2019) they teamed up with Google, Amazon, and Apple to announce a project they hope will lead to some sort of smart home standardization. If such a partnership seems unholy to you, relax. It should end up being a good thing for everyone involved.
Lack of Standards Causes Problems
Any market with significant fragmentation finds itself facing interoperability problems. It is all about proprietary rights. One company wants to protect its intellectual and technical property but still try to win its competitor’s customers. Unless that company can distinguish itself in some other way, it’s a losing battle. Thus, approaching fragmentation by blurring the proprietary lines between companies is often the only way to fix the problem.
This is where the smart home segment is today. There are no standards for the technology. As such, Google’s ecosystem does things one way while Amazon’s does things another way. Apple follows a completely separate direction itself. You will not find a Google device that works in the Apple ecosystem and vice versa. You will not find a Google device that works with Amazon Echo.
What happens if an Echo user wants to add a component that Amazon doesn’t support? He either has to create an entirely separate system just for that component or he’s out of luck. That’s the way it goes.
Very few companies make hardware compatible with multiple proprietary solutions. Vivint SmartHome is an exception to that rule. Vivint sells a variety of smart home and security equipment that can be utilized separately or in tandem with Google and Amazon smart speakers. Still, some proprietary barriers remain.
We’ve Seen This Before
What we are observing in the smart home arena is not unique. We have seen this before. Do you remember the browser wars of the 1980s and 90s? Microsoft got itself into legal trouble for trying to leverage its market strength in order to shut down Netscape and other competitors. They leveraged their proprietary advantage so well that they almost succeeded. Only the courts prevented Microsoft from dominating completely.
Microsoft has also used its proprietary advantage to push its Windows operating system and office software. Their document formats are nearly universal. But thanks to the Open Document Foundation, the world now has standard file formats that work just fine in nearly every office suite.
Standards Help Everyone
As standards were developed for word processors and internet browsers, a lot of the smaller players that would have otherwise been locked out were allowed to flourish. That continues today. They were helped by standards much the same way tech companies in the smart home industry would be helped by future standards implemented by the Alliance.
If the Alliance has its way, virtually any video camera will work with any hub. You will be able to use your Amazon Echo device to manage a Ring video camera and smart electronic door locks from a small-time manufacturer no one has ever heard of.
This would be good for the industry and customers alike. Standardization would force manufacturers of all sizes to put more effort into product quality and customer service. It would encourage new startups to enter the space, thereby increasing choices and keeping prices in check.
Consumers would benefit by not having to choose an ecosystem and stick with it. Being able to mix and match components would give them a lot more flexibility in designing their smart home systems. It would allow them to stay within their budget more easily.
No one knows where all of this is going. What we do know is that there is now a concerted effort to bring standardization to smart homes. Let us hope the Alliance succeeds. If they do, it will be a win for everyone.