The Open Connectivity Foundation is Simplifying the Smart Home
For all of the excitement in the tech world around the potential of the smart home, consumers haven’t been so quick to adopt the technology into their homes. According to research from Parks Associates published earlier this year, more than 100 million U.S. households did not have a smart home device as of the end of 2016. That’s out of a possible 117 million. That means smart home market penetration is around 14.5 percent right now. The numbers have been climbing, but not at the pace that analysts expect.
There are myriad reasons why this might be the case—privacy chief among them. But if there were one non-privacy-related thing holding back wider smart home adoption today, I’d put my entire life’s worth on the simplicity chip.
It’s one thing to plug in an Amazon Echo, screw in a connected light bulb, or even install a smart thermostat. Beyond that—and even the latter can be a bit tricky—the idea of converting your house into a smart home can be a bit overwhelming. For the average consumer, if a product can’t be plugged in and just work, chances are they won’t be willing to buy in. Even as someone who reviews tech products, I’ve experienced some difficulty getting all of the smart gadgets I have at home to play nicely with one another, and I’m not even talking about automated shades or whole house audio. It’s just simple things like a few speakers, a smart TV, and a few light bulbs.
The problem right now with the smart home is the fragmented nature of the hardware. There are a number of different IoT standards out there—Zigbee and Z-Wave being the more mainstream names in the space—that all of these products operate on. It is possible to get products on the different protocols to talk to one another, but in order to do so you need to have multiple smart home hubs, network bridges, and the bandwidth to support all of those different deices. All of that quickly can weigh on the end user—both mentally and physically.
Building Better Bridges
Solving those interoperability and simplicity challenges seems like a tall task. It surely is, but it’s actively being explored by organizations like the Open Connectivity Foundation. With hundreds of members involved in their efforts, OCF says it is dedicated to ensuring “secure interoperability for consumers, businesses, and industries by delivering a standard communications platform.” That platform would essentially bridge all IoT specifications, removing the need for all of those network bridges, allowing devices to simply talk to one another no matter their form factor, or what specs or operating system they run on.
It’s one standard to rule all standards.
“This standard has around 400 companies supporting it, and I think that that is a great development,” Viktor Ariel, founder and CEO of SURE Universal, an OCF member, said in an interview with Dealerscope.
Ariel’s company has been working behind the scenes to push interoperability and to simplify the smart home on a number of different levels. The company provides hardware and software on an enterprise and consumer level aimed at bringing legacy appliances and devices into the smart home fold, and making all products work together seamlessly. Recently, for example, SURE Universal showcased a software solution for set-top-box manufacturers that is capable of converting any existing set-top-box into a smart home gateway—an incredible proposition for cable companies looking to update their product portfolio for the smart home consumer.
“Set top box manufacturers want to put smart home functionality inside of the set top box. As a matter of fact, they want everything to be converging inside of the same set top box like fiber, networking, security, smart home, and TV, cable—everything should go into one set top box,” Ariel said. “That's their dream come true. We're helping them by offering our solution and software.”
Their commitment to helping the smart home and IoT industry improve in interoperability standards led SURE Universal to OCF. And, at present, they are the only software company certified by the organization. SURE, in turn, licensed their software back to OCF, which allows the organization to utilize it in its interoperability testing on different devices from member manufacturers.
“One of the main reasons that we strongly believe in interoperability is that we see that the software developed through the consortium actually works,” Ariel said. “Since we have all of the giants there like Samsung, LG, Microsoft, Cisco, Qualcomm, and Cable Labs, we essentially, on the one hand, contribute to the consortium. On the other hand, we get the benefit of having firsthand access to all of the software and protocols developed jointly by all of the members.”
Calm, Cool, Connectivity
It’s clear, in talking to Ariel, just how important the work of the Open Connectivity Foundation is to the smart home industry. Aside from the benefits of working closely with other smart home manufacturers, the foundation is helping the consumer make sense of a complicated market.
“As a consumer, myself included, I'm not going to buy different devices from different manufacturers with different software that I need to learn,” he said. “What OCF is doing—all of Z-Wave's products, for example, are interoperable. So you can buy a Z-Wave suite from one manufacturer, and Z-Wave lights from a different manufacturer, and those will all work together. That's exactly what I want as a consumer, to be able to mix and match different manufacturers and, in each particular category, pick the best product for my needs.”
There’s a ton of education and even some in-home customer service that still needs to happen, though. And that’s where the retailer comes in, Ariel said. What he’s noticing, as far as the penetration rate of smart home technology, is that it’s being driven by cable companies.
Take Comcast. As they sit in our backyard here in Philadelphia, we’ve had the opportunity to get up close with what they’re trying to do on the smart home front. Through their Xfinity Home program, Comcast is able to provide the end user an end-to-end smart home suite that includes everything from security cameras to Wi-Fi routers, to thermostats, and much, much more.
“Cable technicians already have access to your home,” Ariel explained. “It's very easy for them to do an upsell and bring you an extra box or bring an extra device into your home. And then they promise you service.”
That method of smart home adoption basically pigeonholes the consumer into a single-provider type of solution, which means limited flexibility. What it does do for the consumer, though, is simplifies the process of acquiring and (more importantly) installing smart home technology in their home.
But that’s exactly where retailers can step in, especially if the industry is able to come together to create an open environment akin to what OCF is working towards.
“If we can get smart home technology to be interoperable, where you can use any off-the-shelf device, and if you can make it easy enough to be possible for retailers to just sell the smart home and security systems to consumers directly, retailers will start to play a much bigger role in helping to spread smart home product penetration,” Ariel said.
And while selling product is great and helps the bottom line, the bigger opportunity lies in the post-sale servicing of the consumer’s home. For Geek Squad-less big box stores that might be a difficult task, but independents and regional consumer electronics retailers who have an install business to supplement their retail operations, this presents an enormous opportunity.
“If retailers learned a little bit more about the technology and provide the technical support to the consumer, particularly if you're installing a security system, and you need to know where to put your security camera and what have you—if retailers can provide that extra layer of technical support to consumers, I think the smart home industry will really take off,” Ariel told Dealerscope.
There’s also the reality that comes with testing product out. It’s been the mantra for the consumer electronics retail industry for the better part of the last five years as traditional retail continues to struggle, and it remains true with smart home technology. There’s only so much that a customer can learn about a product through an Amazon page listing. Sure, it might have a video on it that makes it pretty clear how a product works, but there’s still nothing like being able to physically touch that product. Especially with the smart home, it’s impossible (at least right now) to create an online experience that matches being able to manipulate the actions of a smart home device and actually see how it responds in a real life setting.
“You need to see it with your own eyes,” Ariel said. “Educating the consumer on the floor and explaining what camera quality actually is, how you connect your camera to the internet, whether you want to control your smart home system only within your home or if you want remote control—all of these concepts are relatively new.”
“We’re Almost There”
What’s truly unique about everything OCF is doing is that none of it would be possible without some very interesting partnerships. Companies that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find under the same umbrella organization come together with OCF and put their “rivalries” aside in order to collaborate on a truly important project.
“In Korea, Samsung and LG don't normally even talk to each other, yet they are working together on the same protocol with OCF,” Ariel said. “Of course, they're working together with the telecom companies and cable operators to develop the same standard. I think it's all pretty unique. I cannot think of another standard that had so many major players from different industries coming together and donating technologies.”
And the fruits of that labor should start to pay off in the very near future.
According to Ariel’s estimates, within the next year the OCF protocol could really start to take off. The group plans to release the production version of the protocol later this year, and more than 100 manufacturers plan to implement it into their products soon after.
Already, though, there are Zigbee and Z-Wave products available that apply these standards and allow the consumer to easily control products despite which protocol they rely on. And SURE Universal is also working on a “smart home dongle,” Ariel said, that will plug into set top boxes via USB and give the consumer remote access to their Zigbee and Z-Wave products.
“I can tell you that we just came back from a trade show, and we had very strong interest from the operators, chipset vendors, and set top box vendors, in what we and OCF are doing,” he said. “What we’re see right now is that there is a request from the operators to start promoting and integrating smart home technology. Experiences and feedback like that are exactly why I think that this market is on the way to success.”