“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”
It’s a bad time to be a smart home hub, because if you believe the trade press and media, you’re dead!
I wrote about this over a year ago ( Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Hub? ) but I guess the editors didn’t get the memo!
This year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2019 edition just wrapped up a few weeks ago in Las Vegas.
Almost two hundred thousand people came to town to try and cover almost 3 million square feet of exhibit space and visit over 4500 exhibitors. (I stayed home.)
As some of you know from reading here, I try to avoid covering current events or news stories because they are well documented elsewhere.
I won’t hype the latest vaporware or fad (and there are always tons of them at CES), but I am upset that the totally false narrative about the “death of the hub” seems to be one of the big takeaways by the idiots that claim to be home automation professional journalists.
Why The Negative Hype About Smart Home Hubs?
In a word - boredom. This year’s CES did not have any revolutionary new smart home products. No big breakthroughs to “write home about”.
Bloggers and media people don’t care about what you and I want - real improvements, even if incremental, that move the home automation industry forward by solving the humdrum, boring, but serious problems or impediments to using technology to make our lives better in our homes.
Bloggers are always looking for “click bait” - that sensational sound bite (real or fake news) that will draw more people to their website to click on links from advertisers.
That’s how they make money. Actually, that’s now the *only* way they make money. So the more outrageous, the more they make your chin drop, and the most unique news scoop are what they are after.
So when the show is slow with nothing new or revolutionary, they do the next best thing - make things up by twisting something around to make it look like a disruptive new trend or repudiation of the status quo.
Did CES Did Have Some Interesting Stuff?
Now don’t get me wrong - there was some new stuff for our smart home that was worthy of attention. I’ll break my rule of not reporting news to highlight a few things that I enjoyed hearing about:
The new ConnectSense Outlet conveniently lets you control two different plug-in devices and monitor their power usage along with a convenience USB port for charging or powering other stuff.
The new version adds support For Amazon Alexa and Google Home Assistant and still supports Apple HomeKit.
If The Shoe Fits, It’s Too Expensive
LG demonstrated their amazing roll-up 65 inch OLED TV. It rolls-up like a window blind and disappears into a small rectangular box. Of course it is crazy expensive, and not something you or I can afford, but wow!
They showed it last year, but this year the say it will be shipping to customers and thus a real product.
Keepin’ Your Cool!
Lutron (my fav lighting / shades controls company) introduced a brand new Caseta ceiling fan controller.
An in-wall module that can be installed without adding a box in the ceiling and a companion Pico wireless remote make this an easy DIY project.
It works with Amazon Alexa and Google Home Assistant and Apple HomeKit compatibility will be added later (probably a time-to-market thing).
Seeing Is Believing
Netatmo, a French manufacturer that makes an eclectic mix of air quality monitors, weather stations, HVAC controls, and security lights / cameras previewed their new video doorbell.
The interesting, *but still very much vaporware* attraction is that they are claiming to be the first video doorbell that supports Apple HomeKit.
That’s true - if they ship and if the price is reasonable.
(I do need to mention that Netatmo was recently acquired by Legrand, a large traditional company that makes a lot of the switches and fixtures stuff you see for sale in your local big box stores.)
Notoriously, Ring, one of the first and still the market leader, the company that “everyone love’s to hate”, has left a long trail of broken promises for Apple HomeKit support stretching a mile long.
Ring is now owned by Amazon, so let your conspiracy theories go wild on whether you think this will help or hinder Ring finally supporting Apple HomeKit.
Back To Our Regularly Scheduled Column..
So here’s the deal with the premature death of home automation hubs: This year’s CES 2019 show was full of tons of “me too” gadgets and devices that have either Bluetooth or Wi-Fi radios built in.
Convenient, easy-to-use, straightforward to set up, and affordable. All welcome attributes for any product, but this wave of gadgets believe that’s their primary advantage.
In-wall or plug-in dimmer switch - yeah, been there, done that, but this one has Wi-Fi built-in so you don’t need a hub.
Lot’s of gadgets with the adjective “smart” that aren’t really suitable for home automation but again, with built-in Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, they are supposed to be the perfect thing.
Why They Think Consumers Don’t Want A Hub
The manufacturers and media trot out many excuses for explaining why they believe a hubless smart home product is better.
Here’s a few of the banal benefits they espouse (translated from marketing speak gobbledygook):
Cheaper - Without a separate hub, their super widget is cheaper
Easier to Install - No extra wires, cables, or software to deal with
Wider Compatibility - Works with everything because every smartphone has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Easier to Use - No hub means less complexity = easier operation
Time To Deflate The Balloon
I could write or talk forever on all the ways they are wrong; I’ll focus on some of the easiest ways to refute their silly claims:
Not Cheaper - Building Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth into every device is much more costly. These wireless radio systems were designed for computers, tablets, smartphones and other fairly large devices, so the internal design is complex requiring a lot of silicon, power, and software.
This translates into much higher cost when trying to build smart doorlocks, sensors, switches, dimmers, and other smart home devices.
The high power requirements demand more expensive power supplies or larger batteries. You’ll be swapping out batteries in just weeks or months instead of years.
Existing technologies including Z-Wave, Zigbee and manufacturer RF designs are simpler hardware that can be miniaturized more easily and use much lower power.
With a bridge or hub, the “heavy lifting” of connecting to Ethernet or Wi-Fi networks is only done once - inside the bridge, instead of inside every device.
A great example is the difference between a car and a bus or truck. Cars may be enjoyable to drive, but a bus or truck is much more efficient for transporting more than 1 person or package at a time.
Not Easier To Install - Physical installation isn’t the problem. Everyone can plug in a power cable or a network cable, if needed. The real difficulty with installing tech products is the complicated software, lack of clear instructions, and failsafe procedures that protect you from mistakes.
Making products easy (or hard) to install has nothing to do with whether they use a hub or not.
Having installed hundreds of products myself, I can personally attest that some of the worst installation experiences has been with self-contained products. The instructions are terrible or non-existent, and the process is not intuitive or straightforward.
Installing hub based products has often been much simpler. First install the hub, then install one or more individual devices. Breaking it up into two steps actually made it each simpler to do and easier to troubleshoot.
Poor Compatibility Of Standalone Products
Contrary to what is postulated by standalone product makers, I have found that hub based products hands-down have wider compatibility and better interfacing with more diverse systems.
It’s really simple - The hub or bridge is responsible for providing the interface to other devices such as consumer systems like Amazon Echo, Apple HomeKit, Google Home Assistant, or larger traditional systems like Control 4, Crestron, and Savant.
Hubs or bridges usually have clearly defined software development kits (SDK) or application programmer’s interface (API) that the manufacturer makes available to outside companies wanting to interface their own products.
There is an excellent economy of scale factor - once the hub can connect to another system, all the products attached to the hub will inherit that ability for a small incremental effort.
So, for example, once Lutron added Amazon Alexa capability to their Caseta and RA2 Select bridges, all the Lutron devices (lights, dimmers, switches, etc.) gained that compatibility with much less effort.
The Best Defense Is A Strong Offense
Ok, enough with defending against the claims of the hubless. It’s time to go on the offensive and tell you why having a hub or bridge is a better solution and one you should seek, not shy away from.
Larger Selection of Compatible Products
Besides these newfangled gadgets with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built-in, there exist a vast selection of existing smart home devices available for purchase.
These devices use Zigbee, Z-Wave, and vendor-specific hardware technologies that are field proven.
Having been in use for many years and installed in both small and large homes with all kinds of building materials these products are proven to work.
Radio interference, physical barriers, mechanical limitations, and good old fashioned wear and tear are the real enemies of many smart home products.
When you buy products from well-known manufacturers with a proven track record, you are reducing the risk that products will break down or fail prematurely in a few months or a year.
You are also protected against the real possibility that the latest sexy smart home startup company goes broke and out of business. What good is that cute gadget if you can’t get any software updates or repairs for it?
At Your Service 24 Hours A Day
True automation means having things happen on their own without you doing anything.
A lot of products provide automation’s poor cousin - home control - turning on or off a light using a cute app on your phone or pushing a newfangled avant-garde or retro-looking button, but have very limited automation.
A hubless product cannot provide real automation. You need something other than your smartphone or computer that is running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to be in charge of automatically doing things on your behalf.
Would you like your lights to turn on a half-hour before sunset and turn off a half-hour before sunrise? That takes an “automation controller” - a device that is reliable, running 24 x 7 x 365, and handling the job of remember what to do and when to do it.
Would you like a motion sensor to turn on the lights when you enter a room? Or maybe run your lawn sprinklers on a pre-determined schedule, but only if it is not raining?
Guess what? That’s call a hub!
Fake It Till You Make It
Hubless products do have one trick up their sleeve. They use the Internet to try and fill the role of a hub.
Their devices connect to servers located hundreds or thousands of miles away through the Internet to perform even the most rudimentary functions of a hub.
So the simple task of turning a light on or off actually requires sending a message across the Internet to a far-away server and then waiting for the response.
In addition to delays, this causes everything to require an Internet connection which reduces reliability, adds complexity, and hidden costs.
And some products can’t even do that. They rely on links to iffy 3rd party services like IFTTT, Stringify, Yonomi or other Internet “glue” that is the high tech equivalent of chewing gum and baling wire.
Rube Goldberg would be proud.
In contrast, a hub or bridge based product can operate locally without an Internet connection. True, some features will require Internet, but many things can be done without any Internet connection at all.
“It Depends Upon What The Definition Of The Word ‘Is’ Is”
If you remember the Bill Clinton impeachment hearings, you’ll probably recognize that quote.
Those that claim a hub is a bad thing and isn’t needed are often playing a game of semantics.
While they tell you hubs are bad, they are selling you a “bridge” or requiring a “gateway” almost at the same time. That’s a distinction without a difference.
Others are a little more subtle - the hub is optional so they claim their solution is hubless because some functions work from their self-contained devices.
But when you look under the covers, you immediately see that full automation and remote access or compatibility with other systems requires a hub.
Truthfully, the worst offender here is Apple. The HomeKit system is growing more useful every year and it’s good enough for single room or smaller home systems.
But HomeKit is not hubless - it requires an Apple TV to be purchased and used as a makeshift hub for anything but the smallest setup.
The Apple TV is required for remote access and to use any automation (having stuff happen on it’s own) including the geo-fencing where lights turn on or off or other things happen as you enter or leave your home.
The Apple TV is also required as a makeshift Bluetooth repeater and controller to extend the range of Bluetooth connected devices so they are usable when your iPhone is not right nearby.
Oh, just a word to the wise, make sure to leave your Apple TV running 24 hours a day and beware of family members turning it off or rebooting it when NetFlex or YouTube gets stuck and their favorite shows or movie stops playing.
Are You Still Afraid of Hubs?
I hope you see how the benefits of using a hub-based smart home system greatly outlays the mostly false criticism levied against them.
If you are building a smart home system, whether all at once or step-by-step, if your goal is to have more than just a few lights or gadgets in a single room, it is best to embrace hub based systems earlier rather than later.
You’ll find using a hub or bridge will provide better automation, more flexibility, wider choice of devices, and lower cost for your installation.
What do you think? Are you still afraid of hubs?