Apple’s new iOS is built to control the connected home. How does it stack up against other would-be smart home platforms?
All was quiet on the HomeKit front at Apple’s event Tuesday, with new innovations like Apple Pay and the Apple Watch stealing the spotlight. Still, with developer-friendly smart home features built right intoiOS 8 and numerous big names already on board, there’s no denying that the newest iPhone is designed to better serve as a control center for the connected home.
Key among those new features is the opportunity for devices to integrate directly with Siri, which means that you’ll soon be able to manage your connected home simply by telling the virtual assistant to turn off the lights or turn up the heat. That’s the sort of smart-home sales pitch that might play particularly well in Apple ads this holiday shopping season.
The real question is whether iOS 8 will materialize into a true platform for smart home devices to build upon. Given what we’ve seen of it, there’s reason to believe that it will, with some recently announced devices already pledging their HomeKit allegiance.
Still, we’ve yet to see any kind of dedicated app or interface in iOS 8 for controlling multiple devices, and that seems like a key missing ingredient. At any rate, the smart home’s door is still open, and competitors both large and small have been making moves to try and find a way in with consumers. Here’s a rundown of some of the top contenders.
Google/Nest Learning Thermostat
The Nest Learning Thermostat was a true smart-home breakout when it made its debut in 2011, and with Apple alums like Tony Fadell at Nest Labs’ helm, many speculated that the connected climate controller was destined to wind up as a feather in Cupertino’s cap.
But the iNest was not to be. Instead, it was Google that earlier in 2014 spent $3.2 billion to acquire Nest Labs, which comes out to just under £2 billion, or nearly AU$3.5 billion. While the Nest remains fully compatible with the iPhone and with other iOS devices, it also stands to sit squarely at the center of whatever long-term smart-home play Google might be planning.
Whether that means an Android-based HomeKit competitor, hardware licensing, or something else altogether remains to be seen. Still, Google and Nest continue to make smart-home headlines, including Nest Labs’ $555 million acquisition of Dropcam (£345 million/AU$598 million) and Google’s role in the establishment of an Internet of Things standards group featuring the likes of Samsung and Silicon Labs. With the list of Nest-compatible devices continuing to grow, including products fromcompanies like Whirlpool and even Mercedes, the Nest-centric smart home is looking about as close to the mainstream as anything we’ve seen.
Just months after Google’s big buy, Microsoft announced a collaboration of its own with Insteon, a company that’s a bit of an automation old dog compared with a hot name like Nest. Though not an outright acquisition like the Nest purchase, Microsoft quickly breathed some new life into Insteon’s existing network of smart home gadgets and sensors by offering full Live Tile integration, Insteon displays in Microsoft Stores nationwide, and even some new tricks for Cortana.
The collaboration came as welcome news to Windows Phone users, who have watched connected device after connected device launch with apps for iOS and Android phones only. If you’re among those Windows Phone users (or if you’ve got a PC or a tablet that runs Windows 8.1), then you have to be pleased with the fact that Insteon offers such a wide variety of automatable devices, all of which now integrate perfectly with your operating system.
However, as smart home platforms go, Insteon is a bit of a bland one, and one that lacks the sort of direct mainstream appeal of the competition. Plus, as a PC-oriented system designed with scalability in mind, it might make more sense as a smart business platform than as one for the smart home. That said, if we’re talking about smart phones with baked-in connected home support and full voice controls, Microsoft can rightly claim that it got there first — not Apple.
A few years removed from its initial crowdfunding campaign, the SmartThings home automation suite has blossomed into an especially intelligent nervous system for the smart home, thanks in no small part to its open API and the active network of tinkerers dedicated to expanding what it can do. That focus on open development has paid dividends, with SmartThings now enjoying one of the widest selections of supported third-party devices and apps currently available.
Samsung took notice of SmartThings’ success, scooping up the Washington-based company in a full acquisition in August. While SmartThings retains the brand — and, at CEO Alex Hawkinson’s insistence, that open approach to home automation — we’re definitely expecting big developments down the line, including probable integration with Samsung’s own connected appliance platform.
Some of those connected appliances, like the Korean conglomerate’s flagship smart fridge, offer extra features to anyone using high-end Samsung phones — it’ll be interesting to see whether SmartThings takes a similar approach.
Notable supported devices: SmartThings sensors, Nest Learning Thermostat, Belkin WeMo Switches,Sonos Play/Soundbar/Connect, Connected by TCP Wireless LED Kit, Philips Hue LEDs, Quirky Pivot Power Genius, Ecobee Smart Thermostat, Schlage Camelot Touchscreen Deadbolt
If you’ve been to Home Depot recently, then there’s a good chance that you’ve seen the Wink Hubprominently displayed at the end of the gizmo aisle, flanked on all sides by the various gadgets it’s programmed to control. Fluent in many of the wireless “languages” spoken by those sorts of wireless devices, the US-only Wink Hub promises to bring them all together within a unified interface. For a time, you could even get it for just a buck with the purchase of two other connected devices.
That sort of positive retail attention is a clear sign of the steps that the smart home has taken in just the last year or so. With an attractive cost of entry and one of the best-looking control apps that we’ve tested, there’s reason to believe that Wink might help the smart home take a few more steps forward.
One viable smart-home strategy is to stick with devices that are compatible with IFTTT, a free online automation service that also boasts Android and iOS apps. With IFTTT, it’s easy to get those devices working together using “if this, then that” recipes — and the number of devices you can choose from is steadily rising.
Another option is the Revolv Hub, a classy, design-oriented smart-home control center. Like the Wink Hub, the US-only Revolv speaks several popular wireless protocols, allowing it to control a fairly wide variety of devices, including biggies like the Nest. Also like the Wink, the Revolv features a fun, well-designed app for Android and iOS devices.
What’s held the Revolv back is its $300 price tag, which seems especially expensive now that it sits next to the $50 Wink Hub on Home Depot shelves. The same can be said of the Staples Connect Hub, which offers similar functionality to the Revolv, including a new focus on non-boring design, yet retails for well under $100.
In the end, though, it all comes back to the smartphone — arguably the most important smart home gadget of all. After all, with most connected devices, the user experience exists largely within an app. That goes for would-be smart home platforms, too. All of the ones listed here — even Insteon and Nest — offer robust iOS apps.
The app-centric reality of today’s smart home is what makes iOS 8 seem like such a natural fit to anchor the connected home. For now, we’re waiting to see more from HomeKit, but if it ultimately serves up the same sort of appeal to smart-home developers as the App Store offers to app developers, then Apple could be best positioned to benefit from a smart home boom.
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