How Smart Home Lock-In Imprisons You
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That’s a real possibility when so many products are cut off from one another. Want to let Amazon unlock your door and stick packages inside your house? That requires an Amazon Cloud Cam and a specific smart lock from either Kwikset or Yale. Feel like building your own home security system powered by Google’s Nest? That requires a different Yale-branded lock, and won’t work with smart doorbells from Ring (which is now owned by Amazon). And if you’ve invested in Apple’s HomeKit system, you won’t be able to arm Nest’s security system or view your Amazon Cloud Cam feed by asking Siri.
The business motivations are clear: Tech giants like Amazon, Google, and Apple see the smart home as new territory to conquer through their respective ecosystems. While they’ve all maintained some level of openness toward outside partners, they also use their own hardware to build exclusive features. As a result, the more you buy into one system, the more you become locked out of others.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Just as the internet is designed not to block websites based on your choice of browser, the Internet of Things shouldn’t cut you off from certain services because you bought the wrong security camera or smart speaker. Smart home devices should be interoperable, and tech giants should commit–more than they have so far–to pushing standards forward. Doing so might be a big undertaking, and would go against years of tradition, but in the long run, it’ll be worthwhile for everyone.
The tech giants’ current approach to smart homes is a lot like the one they took with mobile devices a decade ago. Instead of championing interoperability, companies created their own platforms, each with their own set of tools that allowed developers to build apps. Instead of the open web, we got a bunch of separate app stores.
What resulted was a far cry from the unfettered openness of the web. “Historically, they talk about open APIs, and that’s a different thing,” says Tobin Richardson, CEO of the ZigBee Alliance, which is pushing for more interoperability in smart homes. “An open API just means, ‘I’ll let you write to my system. That’s not really an open ecosystem. That’s just saying, ‘You can talk to me.'”
On smartphones and tablets, the closed-off approach wasn’t such a bad thing, at least for Apple and Google, whose platforms became predominant. Native apps tended to be snappier and more powerful than web-based ones, and because the market coalesced around two major platforms, deciding between them wasn’t too burdensome for consumers or developers.
But smart homes are more complicated, with a half-dozen viable platforms that interconnect in some ways and compete in others. You can control a Nest thermostat from an Amazon Echo, or view a Nest Cam feed on Amazon’s Fire TV, for instance, but you can’t ask Alexa to arm a Nest Secure system or announce who’s at the door when the Nest Hello doorbell rings. Consumers must therefore anticipate whether the product they’re about to buy will work with any number of other products they might want in the future. That’s a lot tougher than deciding between an iPhone or an Android phone.
Consumers can avoid headaches to some extent by purchasing platform-agnostic products, such as an Ecobee thermostat that works with all the major voice assistants, or an August smart lock that plays nicely with HomeKit, Nest, Alexa, and more. Consumers can also lean on switchboard services like IFTTT and Stringify to connect products that aren’t explicitly designed to work together.
But at some point, keeping track of all those integrations becomes a headache. And for developers, it’s even harder. Instead of just writing apps for a couple of platforms, now they have to work with a tangle of ecosystems and a fragmented customer base.
“From a developer perspective, it’s kind of a nightmare, because now I don’t have to develop just for one set of APIs, or interfaces, or security protocols. Now I’ve got to do it three, four, or five times for all these different vendors that I know my consumer base is going to use,” says Gary Martz, a spokesman for the Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF), a group that’s creating an interoperability standard for smart homes.
Some third-party organizations are trying to solve these problems with open standards. The idea is that a company like Amazon wouldn’t have to explicitly support products from rivals like Google or Apple. Instead, each company would support the standard, which ensures that they all work together.
“Major vendor A isn’t going to go integrate with major vendor B and major vendor C directly in their devices in a lot of cases,” OCF’s Gary Martz says. “But if there’s a neutral third party that they all can agree has done things the right way, they’re going to be willing to integrate those solutions more readily.”
Still, these efforts at standardization are fairly young. The OCF (whose backers include Intel, Samsung, Microsoft, LG, and Qualcomm) has certified just a dozen smart home products, including LG and Samsung refrigerators, a washer from Haier, and some universal remotes from Sure. Martz says more are in the pipeline, now that the group has ironed out its certification process.