Commentary: Are smart home hubs the VCRs of a Blu-ray age?
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Five years ago, off-the-shelf smart home hubs were the hottest new automation technology. These devices plugged into routers and translated the wireless signals of countless smart home gadgets into a communication protocol phones could understand. Put simply, they were the glue that would let users easily build a DIY smart home.
But what many hailed as the future of home automation soon faltered. Through a series of buyouts and bankruptcies, the market presence of off-the-shelf hubs began to dwindle. The final catalyst of the hub's destruction was the Amazon Echo, the first Bluetooth speaker to make the smart home truly accessible using voice control.
A few hubs are still hanging on thanks to a small number of fierce loyalists and a niche appeal that no competitor has matched yet. But time is running out. Soon standalone hubs won't be viable products. But it turns out, killing the hub might be the only way to save it.
In 2012, as existing security and cable companies like ADT and Comcast expanded tentatively into automation, a small Kickstarter campaign caught fire. A year after crowdfunding over a million dollars, the company, called SmartThings, delivered DIY home automation hubs to people's doorsteps.
Hubs like SmartThings solved a critical problem in the smart home: the problem of power. Many devices -- from motion sensors to flood detectors -- relied on battery power. The problem was, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth would drain the batteries of those devices too quickly. Enter low-energy protocols like Z-Wave and ZigBee, which allowed for years' worth of battery life.
Hubs translated these low-energy radio signals into communication protocols phones could understand -- particularly Wi-Fi, since that introduced remote control via the cloud.
Other hubs had been on the market before SmartThings, but they had largely skewed high-end, company-installed, or both. By contrast, SmartThings adopted a DIY strategy, which paid off on Kickstarter. Soon, the affordable, easily installed hub became emblematic of the smart home's future -- a future that put the power in the hands of users.
Other off-the-shelf hubs quickly followed in the footsteps of SmartThings -- Quirky's Wink, Revolv, Staples Connect. Yet within a few short years, those same hubs began to face major challenges. Quirky went bankrupt in late 2015 and sold Wink to Flex for a measly $15 million. Alphabet's Nest Labs, which had bought Revolv in 2014, bricked the hub to wide criticism two years later. Mere months after Revolv's demise, Staples handed over Connect to Zonoff, a Z-Wave company whose webpage appears to be defunct less than a year later.
But the financial woes of particular brands were symptoms of a larger disease. Bluetooth Low-Energy (LE) had been released in 2011, and over the following years became a staple of the smart home. Wi-Fi devices, too, bypassed the hub by improving energy efficiency or avoiding battery reliance altogether. Some of the most popular smart home gadgets as early as 2012, like the Nest thermostat, used Wi-Fi to connect to users' phones directly, no hub required.
As hubs entered their Renaissance, the seeds of their collapse were already planted.
The latest blow to smart home hubs was the advent of smart speakers with built-in assistants, like the Amazon Echo and Google Home. These devices don't fill the same niche as hubs -- they don't communicate with Z-Wave or ZigBee; they don't let users set schedules or group automations for their home devices -- but they more successfully place themselves at the center of the smart home, proving that a compelling voice assistant with an open API can mobilize partnerships faster than any hub. Most importantly, the Echo and the Home are grabbing average people's attention (while the data isn't definitive, if 2016's trends have continued, the Echo alone has likely sold as many as 10 million units already).
Voice assistants aren't a new kind of glue to hold the smart home together; they're duct tape -- cleaner, shinier and easier to use.
How to save the hub
Hubs still control a particular territory in the smart home, thanks primarily to two features: they unify multiple communication protocols under one platform, and they offer more robust scheduling and automation controls than voice assistants. But other platforms are already encroaching on that territory.
Apple HomeKit is the most direct threat to smart home hubs at the moment. It doesn't have a smart speaker (yet), but Apple boasts a compelling platform in its Home app, which can schedule and automate as well as SmartThings or Wink. Plus, the Apple TV -- whose primary function is home entertainment -- has introduced bridging capabilities with Bluetooth LE, one of the most common communication protocols of smart home devices.
Apple, Google and Amazon haven't taken any concrete steps toward native Z-Wave or ZigBee interoperability, but if any of the three of them can nail both convenient voice assistance and home automation, hubs' corner on low-energy communication protocols won't be enough to save them from obsolescence.
Some hub developers are already taking defensive steps. Insteon, for instance, has released a HomeKit-compatible hub that positions it not only as the gateway, but also a sort of gatekeeper for non-Bluetooth, low energy radio protocol devices that work with Apple's burgeoning platform.
Samsung SmartThings recently announced the Connect Home -- a router with SmartThings built in -- to go along with Samsung's new voice assistant Bixby. Neither the router nor the new voice assistant have been tested, and not every hub is owned by a multinational corporation, but SmartThings' logic still makes sense for other brands, too.
Folding the signal translation and automation capabilities of a hub into another essential device that people already buy -- be it a router, TV or perhaps even security camera -- accomplishes two critical goals.
First, it moves standalone hubs out of the middleman position in the smart home. As the market continues to develop, customers will be less inclined to spend over $100 on a device that does nothing in and of itself besides helping two other devices communicate.
Second, combining hub features with core smart home devices moves hubs back into a central position in the smart home. If customers are already in the market for basic home devices, then added smarts for an appropriate price bump will be an easier sell (just look at the rise of smart TVs). This will have the added benefit of keeping alive effective products that use Z-Wave or ZigBee in an increasingly Wi-Fi and Bluetooth heavy market -- maintaining a higher level of market competition.
But these goals can only be accomplished if developers kill the conventional hub -- because the smart home hub will only survive if it's reincarnated as something more.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Insteon HomeKit hub worked with Z-Wave and Zigbee protocols. The text has been corrected.