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The Evolution of the Smart Home: Current Trends [Part 2]

In part one of this series, we covered how far we’ve come from the earliest smart homes, including older technologies and standards, and smart home ideas that covered the gamut from innovative to total head-scratchers. We also talked about the DIY movement in the present day and the role of open source in the smart home.

Competing standards: a thing of the past?

The smart home industry continues to grow year after year. Devices made available only recently, such as smart speakers, are now ubiquitous. New houses often come with smart features built-in such as smart locks and thermostats. Doorbell cameras have become de rigueur in many neighbourhoods.  Despite the innovation, investment, and growth in the space, smart homes have never quite lived up to their promise.

The industry still hasn’t found a way to get to the point where everything just works, and works together. Each competitor in the space wants that experience for their customers, but in the process we’ve ended up in the place described by this now famous XKCD.

It’s in this context that the smart home industry will be going through its biggest experiment ever. This year, a new standard will roll out, but this one feels different than the rest. The new standard is called Matter, and it has a massive amount of support. All of the big tech smart home platforms are bought in, as well hundreds of other device makers and smart home platforms. Will 2022 be the turning point for the smart home industry?

Though Matter has steadily gained traction through its development, it’s not without its own dilemmas. There are hundreds of millions, if not billions of smart home devices in the world now, what will become of those that can’t be upgraded to support Matter? Matter also does not address some big segments of the smart home space, for example there is currently no Matter standard to support video devices. For the moment, we can only wait to see how these factors will play out.

Long-range wireless: changing the definition of “smart home”

An open question in the smart home space is what will become of the smart home hub. Some smart home systems today run entirely on WiFi, which has no need for a dedicated hub other than a home’s WiFi router. Using WiFi only typically precludes battery powered devices, however, because WiFi requires a lot of electrical power to operate. Bluetooth uses less energy, but typically has too short of a range to be used for most smart home devices.

Existing wireless standards like Z-Wave or Thread are low-power protocols with longer range than WiFi, but they require a dedicated hub to function. That hub also needs an internet connection to connect to any backend services associated with the smart home. This adds cost and clutter to smart home solutions compared to systems that work with a pre-existing router.

There are a few wireless protocols that have gained some adoption recently which try to solve the hub issue as well. LTE Cat-M and NB-IoT both aim to connect IoT devices to cellular networks, while keeping power consumption low enough to allow for long battery life. Additionally, LoRa radios can give many kilometres of range, and several companies have set out to create their own networks based on this new protocol.

Your next smart home device could connect via cell networks

 These standards have the added benefit of an essentially unlimited range (as long as there is network coverage). This widens the definition of what a smart home is. For example, a connected trash can at the end of your driveway could let you know if the trash has been collected yet, and help the city optimise trash collection routes. One drawback of these technologies is the cost of the components. Right now, Cat-M and NB-IoT radios are significantly more expensive than the short-range radios listed above.

Security concerns

For aeons, smart device companies have gotten away with shoddy security. Smart home devices tend to be mass-market, thin-margin products that often will be obsolete a few years after they are sold. Companies have not wanted to invest the effort in locking down devices when the stakes seem low. After all, no one is accessing their bank information on their microwave, right?

While it might not seem like a big deal to have a vulnerable smart toaster in your house (do hackers really want me to burn my toast?), it actually is a big deal. Compromised devices can give third parties access to your home networks, and potentially other devices on those networks. In addition, vast networks of smart devices are regularly used as part of botnets, which wreak havoc in cyber attacks.

These security issues are not new, and they are pervasive. Just last month, researchers discovered out-of-date openSSL libraries on a multitude of smart devices from many prominent manufacturers

As more and more devices become “smart”, companies are beginning to take these concerns more seriously. Governments are, too, as we’ve seen legislation concerning the security of connected devices being drafted in the US at the state and federal level, as well as in the UK and EU.

Choosing whether to invest in security internally or to outsource is a different decision for every organisation. Ubuntu Core comes with some great features like secure boot, full-disk encryption, and over-the-air updates, which can save time and money for those who choose to go with supported Linux.

Stay tuned for the last blog in the series, where we’ll talk about future predictions in the smart home space.

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