Too Early to Speculate Winner in the Smart Home Race

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The usual way in which the media approaches emerging markets is to use the competitive paradigm: Companies A, B and C are jumping in and the race is on, and may the best business plan win.


While there is an element of truth to such an interpretation, it’s not as cut and dried. Business sectors need to evolve independently of any one company’s involvement. Each company puts its toe in the water with product introductions and acquisitions while in parallel it maps out a long-term strategy and road map. Thus, stories focusing on which companies will dominate a new sector almost always are premature, because a lot is in flux.


That said, the smart home/home automation sector is a huge opportunity and what happens early in the race is important. It’s still amorphous from both the technical and marketing points of view, and the big companies indeed are rushing in to stake their claims. Three of the usual suspects are Samsung, Apple and Google.


Last week, The Wall Street Journal looked at Samsung’s forays into the sector. The post says that Google and Apple are getting the ink, but that Samsung is excelling in a less exciting, but perhaps more vital, area:


Samsung has filed nearly 150 U.S. patent applications related to home automation in the past 14 years, roughly double that of second-ranked Sony, and will file another 60 or so this year, Thomson Reuters projects.


It’s interesting to note that Apple is 30th and Google 16th in home automation patents. Sony, LG Electronics and Flextronics are the closest to Samsung, the story says.


Home automation was one of the agenda topics at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference last week in San Francisco. Macworld reports that iOS 8, which is coming in autumn, will include HomeKit. The platform is aimed at more effectively integrating smart home products into Apple’s operating system.


Apple’s approach is not to pick a standard or its own “hub or gadget” to push. HomeKit will create a structure into which third parties will connect:


Instead, and as we predicted, HomeKit will allow users to control third-party smart-home gadgets from more places in iOS 8. HomeKit will let smart locks, lights, cameras, thermostats, plugs, and switches securely pair with your iPhone, so you can control individual devices, and even group devices together.


Google made the biggest splash in the nascent category with its January purchase of Nest Labs for $3.2 billion. It may not be done with its acquisitions, though. Android Authority reports that Google may buy Dropcam, a security camera startup. Indeed, a strategy may be taking root:


Dropcam is trying to democratize security systems, just like Google’s Nest is trying to make thermostats and smoke detectors simple and delightful. In this respect, an acquisition would make great sense for Nest, allowing it to quickly expand into home security, a major area of focus for home automation companies.


One key will be avoiding missteps such as the one Google encountered with Nest Protect. The product was recalled in April due to a shutdown feature that could be triggered by somebody waving their arms. The feature has been corrected and the product is back on the shelves – for $30 less.


Home automation/smart home development is just at its start, and its growth will be dependent on the evolution of machine-to-machine (M2M) and perhaps other tangentially connected sectors. Some very basic rules of the road are not yet established, such as the nature of the controlling platform and how various applications and products will be linked together.


For those reasons, it is important to not yet anoint a winner. But careful attention should be paid: The market is tremendous and the companies that make shrewd choices today are increasing their odds of controlling it in the future.

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