Smartphones loom large in Lowes’ plans.
Lowes is rebooting its Iris home automation platform. There are two big differences: the new system is mobile-centric and it was developed in-house with support for Qualcomm’s open source AllJoyn protocols, according to a company spokesman at CES Unveiled this evening.
The platform, which currently supports about 70 products ranging from light switches to thermostats to hot water heaters, is now controlled primarily via an app that’s available for both the iOS and Android operating systems. The first generation system was accessed via a web portal.
Lowes is still cagey about technical details, but it appears that the heavy lifting is being done on its servers. Low power devices – which comprise most of the product line – talk to the hub via Z-wave, Zigbee or Bluetooth protocols (WiFi is also supported), the hub shoots the data to Lowes’ servers via the Internet, and then the servers talk to the mobile app. Bigger, less power consumption-sensitive products skip the hub completely and talk directly to the servers via WiFi (and a home router, of course).
In other words, home automation smarts are moving inexorably to the cloud. Rather than building smart hubs – that need to be configured and operated by sometimes not so smart consumers – the industry is combining hardware with an ongoing service, and only using hubs as communications relays for low power radios. Lowes offers the basic Iris service for free, but charges $10 a month for premium support. The company won’t release any subscriber figures, but if the rollout is any indication, consumer enthusiasm is less than awesome. The spokesman said that it’s available in about 1,500 Lowes stores in the U.S., which is around 80% of the total. That’s despite a pledge at last year’s CES to get it into all of their stores in 2015.
The pot calls the kettle back.
The 2015 Consumer Electronics Show will be about networked wristbands and coffee pots, if CES Unveiled – the opening press group grope – is anything to judge by. Wearables and home automation – products that lived in a geek ghetto only a couple of years ago – are the hot new categories this year.
Contenders in the wearable fitness tracker category seem to be following a common path: cram some sensors and a Bluetooth module into a sleek looking wristband, write iOS and Android apps to talk to it, then beef it up with some server-side analysis. It’s too early in the show – pre-show, actually – to know which ones are potential champs, but if tonight’s hopefuls are any indication, the winners will be determined by branding and distribution, and not by unique features and functionality.
Tomorrow is when the big boys come out and play. Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Sony and the rest will have their media extravaganzas, and one thing I’ll be looking for is whether they’ve decided to go large on wearables.
Home automation is heading away from systems built around multipurpose consumer hubs or third-party management, and toward a one-off device to cloud server to smart phone app model. Or even, it seems, to a direct device to smart phone connection.
I say seems because it often take several minutes of cross examination and an escalation from the public relations rep to the designated techie to wring an admission that the control loop involves a trip to the company’s servers. And there were just too damn many to drill down that far on all of them. But at least a couple – Kwikset’s Kevo line and Smarter’s WiFi enabled kettles and coffee makers – are making a direct connection.
From the consumer’s point of view, there’s no big picture, just a collection of apps on your smart phone screen that control appliances, locks, lights, whatever. Which looks to be consolidation enough for most people.
The leader in the one-hub-to-rule-them-all derby – Lowes – was promoting the virtual reality shopping system developed by its Innovation Lab and not the Iris home automation platform. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re pulling back on the concept, but it’s an interesting question to follow up on later in the week.
Point of sale.
“We made the investment to go national”, said Kevin Meagher, vice president and general manager for home automation at Lowes. “We’re pleased with progress to date, we have confidence in the huge potential for the market”.
He was talking about Iris, Lowe’s home automation control platform that was introduced at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show, amid predictions that it was doomed to failure. Instead, as Meagher explained at this year’s show, it’s grown to include about thirty devices from more than a dozen manufacturers. He wouldn’t give out any figures on user adoption, just saying that the initial results were good enough for Lowes to fully roll Iris out, and that it’s now in every Lowes store nationwide.
“The biggest problem is consumer awareness”, he said. People don’t know they can buy a security system or controllable thermostat for $180 and add other devices, such as a newly announced networked water cut-off valve. Meagher believes that once consumers start thinking in terms of remotely controlling devices in the home, they will want to do it via a single web portal, instead of having dozens of single function apps or manufacturers’ web sites.
Once consumers have bought a security or thermostat package that includes the Iris home gateway device, the basic service is free, with premium services – all of them – available for a $10 monthly upgrade.
Whether it’s because they accept that logic or because, as a major national retailer, the company has considerable leverage, every relevant manufacturer selling through Lowes has signed on to supporting Iris.
“We don’t make the devices, we just take our vendors devices and connect them”, Meagher said. “We’re not taking sides, we’re neutral. We’re selling their kit now”.
There ought to be an app for that.
“There is money to be made in the internet of things”, said Steve Brumer, a partner at 151 Advisors. “There is a vertical market, there is a horizontal market and there’s an ecosystem” that innovative entrepreneurs can tap into to make money. “There’s not one vertical that’s not touched by the Internet of things”.
Big companies might be building the infrastructure, but figuring out what to do with the data they collect is anyone’s game. Brumer was joined by executives from some of the major players – Lowes, John Deere, Deutsche Telekom, ILS Technology – in a conversation about challenges in search of solutions at CES this afternoon. Opportunities include…
- Sifting through the flood of data from diverse sources, aggregating it and making it useful. Data volume has outstripped the ability of companies to figure it out for themselves. “Unless it’s actionable data, it’s fairly useless”, said Niclas Andersson from DT. “You need to know what you’re going to accomplish with it”.
- Wrapping services around connectivity. “All of our machines are connected to a cloud based server”, said John Deere’s Keith Soltwedel. But they rely on individual dealers to identify and sell services that use it. Creating those services is an open field for entrepreneurs.
- Building tools that help consumers and small businesses find value in their data. “You have to be able save money, make money or manage some level of compliance”, said Fredrick Yentz, CEO of ILS Technology. “Otherwise it’s a cost”.
Capital is chasing the IoT, too, according to Brumer, who says there’s no shortage of investors, himself included. “I am looking for disruptive technology”.
Cloud-based server checks to see how it's running. You can look inside yourself to see if you need milk.
Three competing, and perhaps ultimately complementary, home automation business models are emerging:
- Manufacturer supported.
- Carrier managed platform.
Lowes and AT&T moved aggressively at CES last week to position themselves as leaders in the consumer and service provider categories, respectively. Several companies were pitching to manufacturers, but the leader in that space looks to be Arrayent at this point.
The focus was on “it just works” simplicity for consumers. Manufacturers determine what kind of interactive features to offer customers and Arrayent provides the server-based support to make it possible.
Whirlpool is their marquee account. The refrigerator they had on display looked ordinary enough, but connected to Arrayent's infrastructure to provide a deliberately simple feature set of diagnostic and energy management support. Other manufacturers took notice.
“Once the news got out that Arrayent is the connected product platform, CPP, powering Whirlpool’s consumer appliance line, our booth was swarmed,” said Bob Dahlberg, vice president of business development at Arrayent. “Two memorable quotes of the week were ‘where have you been for two years?' and ‘we have been struggling to connect appliances for ten years, and with cloud connectivity we have half a chance to be successful'.”
With consumers providing the Internet connectivity – either directly via WiFi or with a wireless bridge in between – the cost to manufacturers of supporting products via the cloud is low. Whirlpool expects to more than offset the cost through warranty repair savings and the value of maintaining ongoing contact with consumers.
Big appliances are long term purchases, with expected lifetimes in the ten to twenty year range. Providing server-side support allows for at least some level of continuous functionality upgrades over that period, and builds a relationship with the brand that should pay dividends when products are eventually replaced.
“It's our fault – technology and business models – we just haven't gotten it right,” said Kevin Meagher, vice president and general manager for the smart home segment at Lowes. The problem isn't consumers, who readily accept automation. “It's in our cars and none of us would buy one without it. The hurdle is getting it into the home,” he said.
Meagher was speaking at the Parks Associates Connections Summit at CES this afternoon. He acknowledged that there are some cases where propriety connectivity technology is appropriate, but if the home automation market is going to take off, standards have to be open and products have to be interoperable.
That concept was unsettling to at least one big systems guy. “We're on a slippery slope,” said Scott Burnett, director, global consumer electronics industry at IBM. “I think Lowes is going to get a little bloody on this.”
Burnett's solution is to have a coordinating group – he suggested the Consumer Electronics Association – set standards and keep things tidy. He seemed annoyed that a retailer would presume to tell the rest of the industry what consumers want to buy.
Lowes is showing their Iris home automation platform at CES. Their objective is to make it easy for consumers to mix, match, install and use any brand of connected home device. This heterogeneous ecosystem is managed by an Iris gateway that connects back to Lowe's servers, which do the heavy lifting on the management side.
The service is free. Or at least Lowes isn't charging money for it. Meagher says the value to Lowes is, first, in the ongoing relationship they build with the customer and, second, in the opportunity to make use of his or her data.
Meagher thinks consumers will accept it if Lowes delivers value in return. Which is the piece of the puzzle that the manufacturers and service providers are missing. “What they need is guys like us to execute for them.”
Now your plants can talk to you.
Three different approaches to home automation and a sleek wearable video eyepiece and camera stood out from from the crowd tonight at CES Unveiled. More than 70 companies demonstrated new products at the annual pre-show press event. Mostly, it was headphones, speakers, big displays, mobile phone cases and various other accessories.
The new OLPC XO 4 tablet/computer was a delight, more about that here.
The other standouts were…
- Vuzix Smart Glasses. Think of a big Bluetooth earpiece with a boom that extends out past your nose, put a small video eyepiece and camera on the end of the boom, and you have the Vuzix product. Pictures of the prototypes have been floating around the Internet for months, but now they have a working model. It's a definite follow up item for when the show floor opens later in the week.
- Lowes showed their do-it-yourself Iris home automation platform. It's another one I'll be looking at more closely in coming days. Technical details were lacking tonight, so it's hard to say exactly how they're doing it. But what they're doing is packaging a home automation hub (suspiciously similar to the MiOS Vera unit) into installation kits and certifying third party products – light switches, thermostats, locks, you name it – as compatible and supported. They might just be able to build a consumer-friendly ecosystem around it.
- Allure Energy is doing one cool thing now, and setting up for aggregating more products and functionality later. Their EverSense thermostat talks to a smart phone app and figures out where you are – in the house, far away or on your way home – and adjusts the temperature accordingly. The kicker is that the thermostat is also a hub. Once people get used to using it, Allure has an opening to add more devices and then piece by piece build a more comprehensive home automation solution.
- I'm not exactly sure what to make of Parrot's Flower Power plant monitor. It's a sensor you stick in the dirt next to your favorite plant and then it connects to your smart phone via Bluetooth. It lets you know how the plant is doing, stuff like whether it needs watering. In one sense, it's a one trick pony. But the idea of using your phone as the hub and connecting via Bluetooth on an every-so-often basis could have some interesting applications.
No ground-shifting product announcements tonight, but there's always tomorrow. That's when the big press conferences happen.