[UPDATED] Smart Home & Home Automation Protocols Guide: Creating Your IoT Paradise

[UPDATED] Smart Home & Home Automation Protocols Guide: Creating Your IoT Paradise

Smart home popularity has risen substantially over the past few years, and even the past few months. CES 2017 set the scene for another small explosion of these devices as Apple, Google, and Amazon all expanded their smart home ecosytems – albeit at different rates – with Amazon’s Alexa assistant boasting the most growth.

Thrust into the spotlight by the success of voice-assistant enabled speakers such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home, the devices which they control have now taken center-stage. Sharing that attention, is the all too obvious struggle to maintain continuity between these technologies. With so many systems and protocols employed in the pursuit of home automation, the plight of the consumer is much like that of the creators – find a lasting and useful standard.

In the ongoing effort to help technologies find their proper homes, here’s the definitive guide to the IoT enabled home – as it stands today. Let’s start with a breakdown of the four main technologies being used to create these ecosystems.

 1. Wi-Fi

Pros: No central hub required. Supports AES 256-bit encryption.

Cons: As always, speed and signal strength are dependent on your router and your internet service provider – a dependency that may not be ideal for some. It’s also the most resource-heavy protocol, demanding more power, and consequently larger size from products which are often battery powered and require a small footprint.

Notable devices/platforms: WeMo Apple HomeKit Samsung Smartthings Insteon* Philips Hue**

*Insteon uses a combination of RF and power lines, aiding reliability in the event of an obstructed pathway. Unfortunately, this benefit isn’t applicable to devices such as door locks, which must work on RF only. Security and interoperability are chief concerns here. On this subject, Insteon says the following:

Possible encryption methods include rolling-code, managed-key, and public-key algorithms. In keeping with INSTEON’s hallmark of simplicity, rolling-code encryption, as used by garage door openers and radio keyfobs for cars, is the method preferred by INSTEON.

Insteon

**Philips Hue uses a combination of ZLL (ZigBee Light Link) and Wi-Fi. Not only is there a unique URL for each light, but for each function of the light as well – achieving control by sending a new value to a particular URL.

2. Bluetooth/Bluetooth LE

Pros: No central hub required. AES 128-bit encryption.

Cons: Bluetooth/BLE is limited to its usual 30-foot radius, not only creating the issue of dead zones but also disqualifying it from controlling any devices which are not within its range, i.e. turning off lights or locking doors when the user isn’t home.

Notable devices/platforms: Apple HomeKit Samsung Smartthings

3. Z-Wave

(Communicates via the 908MHz and 916MHz frequencies)

Pros: Uses a mesh network which means more devices, more coverage and no signal degradation. Utilizes AES-128 symmetric encryption, and an open source code.

Cons: Central hub required. May lose support as protocols advance.

Notable devices/platforms: Samsung Smartthings Over 1,500 interoperable devices, including a host of light switches, locks, and sensors.

4. Zigbee

(Communicates via 915MHz and 2.4GHz frequencies)

Pros: Uses a mesh network. Utilizes AES-128 symmetric encryption, and an open source code. Built on the IEEE 802.15.4 radio standard, Zigbee potentially has a leg up in future compatibility with IP-based protocols.

Cons: Central hub required.

Notable devices/platforms: Nest Samsung Smartthings Philips Hue Over 1,100 interoperable devices, including some set-top cable boxes, and a host of light switches, locks, and sensors.

[UPDATED] The Search for a Standard

Speaking of compatibility and future protocols, the quest for a lasting standard on which all (or most) smart home protocols can communicate gruels on. Thread – a network protocol in development under Google (Nest) and a fair amount of other companies – hopes to win this race.

Intended to work on the 802.15.4 IEEE standard, Thread comprises the network layer just below the application. Encapsulated within Thread is UDP, IP routing, and 6LoWPAN. 6LoWPAN is the low-power mechanism by which 802.15.4 can communicate with IPv6 (and therefore the cloud) while IP routing and UDP aid in routing and presenting data securely (all encrypted using AES-CCM cryptography.) The added fluency of IPv6 allows any Thread-enabled device to communicate via internet protocols such as LTE, Wi-Fi, and Ethernet. Because it utilizes an 802.15.4 chip, the Thread Group hopes to add compatibility to devices already using this chip, potentially through software updates/partnerships. Once this is done, the device becomes a part of Thread’s mesh network and can share information, not only between devices, but with the cloud as well – potentially eliminating the need for a central hub.

Thread is not the only group or company in this race – some of its very own partners are developing similar protocols – but they may be the most quickly moving. The Thread Group and Zigbee alliance announced a mutually beneficial and prescient partnership which displayed some of the fruits of its agreement at this year’s CES – further demonstrating their commitment and success in unifying the IoT.

Another piece that hopes to help solve the puzzle is Google’s Android Things. Meant to be a standard operating system for smart home devices, Android Things (formerly Brillo) is the stripped-down version of Android which Google hopes to implement as a low power OS for smart home products, including Thread-enabled devices. On top of this, they hope to integrate Weave as the bonding agent for communication with other radio and smart device technologies, new and old.

It may sound like a tall order, but if the success of Android Things meets Google’s expectations, the knitting of this, Thread, and Weave would sew together an infrastructure wherein API’s are shared across platforms and updates can be rolled out by developers OTA – enabling a level of support and security heretofore unseen by most smart home devices.

The main drawback for consumers and companies alike is simply giving Alphabet, Google’s parent company, such integral and large pieces of the smart home market. Some consumers may worry about the implications of one company controlling so much of their home, while companies may view the embracing of these technologies as abdicating to the competitor – despite its potential benefits. So far, this has not stopped Samsung SmartThings, Phillips Hue, and Zigbee from jumping on the proverbial bandwagon – a move that could certainly help such ecosystems as Apple HomeKit.

Voice Assistants

Amazon Echo, Google Home, and other voice-assistant-enabled devices can be both useful and fun as standalone products. Providing users with everything from current events, weather, and note taking, to music, interactive games, and shopping – all done through voice – these assistants are no doubt capable and ripe for expansion.

Google Tops Amazon in Search, No Surprise.

Right now, Google Assistant commands an unsurprising lead over Alexa in search functionality, not only finding more answers but also enabling the user to ask follow-up questions in a more conversational manner. For instance, asking Google Home “Who is the President of the United States?” gives you the answer “Barack Obama.” As a follow-up question, you can ask “Does he have any children?” In response, Google Home will provide you the appropriate answer. Unfortunately, you must preface any follow-up question with the wake-up command “OK Google” – an already clunky phrase which serves to degrade this feature, especially. Topic-specific focus can continue for a series of questions with Google’s assistant. Attempting this same line of questioning with Alexa, however, will require you to restate the subject in the question each time. This aside, the search functionalities are relatively equal.

Amazon Takes the Lead in IoT

When it comes to compatibility and support, however, Alexa has some distance between it and the pride of Mountain View. Having been released nearly 18 months ago, the Amazon Echo and Alexa are 16 months older than Google Home and its built-in assistant. In that time, Amazon has taken every opportunity to allow Alexa to be developed and integrated – free of cost, which has certainly paid off. In addition to being freely integrated by any manufacturer who’s interested, Alexa has enjoyed over 5000 new skills made by developers via the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK). These skills added a wealth of abilities, including additional device fluencies and expanded app integration.

This past November, Amazon also granted developers access to Amazon Lex, which facilitates creation of Amazon-connected chatbots by leveraging the speech recognition and natural language processing technologies on which Alexa is built. Though Google has recently taken similar actions, Amazon’s earlier start remains evident in the Echo’s device compatibility and widespread use of its Alexa service.

Meanwhile, the fight for Google Assistant on non-Pixel smartphones rages on. As of yet, unwilling to extend support to OEM Android phones, Google appears to be taking the opposite approach with their voice-assistant. The company does invite developers to create for the platform but does not offer free implementation as Amazon does – only recently announcing integration with the handful of devices running (or soon to be running) Android TV. Google has hinted at upcoming implementations of their proprietary assistant, though how quickly and widespread this may be remains to be seen.

Over time, you’ll also see the Assistant come to other new surfaces, like smartwatches running Android Wear 2.0, Android-powered in-car infotainment systems and many other types of devices…

Sascha Prueter, Director Android TV

Communication With All Devices

Unfortunately, neither the Echo nor Google Home possess smart home connectivity beyond Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. As such, a communication hub of some kind is needed for most setups. When picking a hub, it’s important to consider your goals, be they simplicity or customizability. A hub worth considering should, at the very least, be compatible with Wi-Fi, Zigbee, and Z-wave to offer the best range of compatibility. Samsung’s Smartthings Hub is popular for this very reason. Although a handful of others exist, Smartthings offers the most customization and the most partnerships. A lesser known competitor may be the Wink Hub, offering the same protocols at a slightly lower price. The Wink hubs greatest asset, however, is also its greatest weakness, as its simplicity results in less customization. Again, choosing the proper hub will come down to your personal preference, but for all intents and purposes the Smartthings hub will not disappoint. Pair this with some Zigbee/Z-wave outlets and light switches, and you’re well on your way. You can also add in motion sensors, water leak sensors, door locks, and Wi-Fi cameras all with specified rules and actions defined within the Smartthings app. One such rule may include instructions to turn off the lights, lock the doors, and enable a security camera when a specific phone leaves the house.

Sadly, IR capability is one feature you won’t yet find in these hubs, effectively excluding entertainment systems from basic home-automation. For now, an additional hub – the Logitech Harmony Hub – is required. To console you for buying this extra hub, Harmony made sure to make it worth your while. Able to learn every function for nearly any IR device in existence, the Harmony Hub can control air conditioning, heaters, lights, sound systems and more – essentially sweeping up any devices left over by the Smartthings or Wink hub.

Once you have all your devices plugged in and configured, simply run a discovery in the Alexa app and everything you’ve connected can now be controlled via voice-command – even changing channels –  thanks to the Smartthings, Wink, and Harmony Skills made for Alexa. Currently, Google Home only supports one of these hubs – Smartthings and as such requires a few IFTTT recipes to bridge some of the gap. In the instance of the Harmony Hub, IFTTT can only add the ability to turn your entertainment system on or off. Channel/volume control, and other IR devices cannot be controlled. Though it’s to be expected that Google will soon add Harmony Hub support, as of right now, it remains on the sizeable list of devices that the Echo has and Google Home doesn’t.

Speaking of IFTTT, if you don’t already use it, you may want to get familiar. IFTTT can enable some stunningly seamless automation from your phone, Echo, or Google Home. For instance, a simple IFTTT recipe for Alexa can create a Google Docs spreadsheet of every song you play through the Alexa app. Or you can tell Google Home to block out an hour on your calendar. Using Evernote or Onenote? Set up IFTTT to take dictated shopping lists from Alexa and save them instantly into your preferred note-taking app. Through IFTTT [almost] all things are possible.

But what about Apple HomeKit?

Ah, yes. HomeKit. Though this year’s CES saw a flurry of new HomeKit-enabled devices (and surely many more to come) Apple is still quite far behind. Lacking support for Zigbee, Z-wave, or any of the aforementioned hubs, HomeKit is relegated to proprietary systems like Insteon (who provide their own HomeKit-enabled hub) or other HomeKit-specific devices. Running only on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth LE, HomeKit devices do not require a hub unless the user desires device control when away from home. For this, the user must have a third-generation Apple TV (or higher) set up as their HomeKit Hub. The creation of a proper Siri Hub remains to be seen.

The Fragmentation of Things

Though the Internet of Things still has a fair amount of fragmentation, this does not preclude a fully working, useful smart home solution. There are currently thousands of reliable and easy-to-set-up devices on the market and most of them have a “Z” in their name. Not so coincidentally, the hub you’ll need to control them is internet connected. Add in voice-controlled AI, and you have all the workings of the smart home that science fiction always promised us. Might a new standard come along and banish these devices to the land of obsolescence? Not any time soon. At this juncture, it seems the winning horses have already been picked, earning the coveted prize of future interoperability. If you choose wisely, you can share in that glory. Or, if you’d like to be a part of it now, follow the links below to begin developing.

Think another winner is set to emerge? Please share in the comments below.

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