Interoperability in Home Monitoring and Controls Solutions


by Tom Kerber, Director of Research, Home Controls and Energy, Parks Associates

Tom Kerber, Director, Research, Home Controls & Energy, Parks Associates

Individual Connected Products

Broadband creates a conduit for many new control and management applications. Broadband connectivity enables cloud services like real-time feedback or automated controls, which can send repair notifications or synchronize operation to off-peak hours.

The connection to the Internet also allows devices to offload the computing power from the devices to central servers where extensive analytics can be performed, providing sophisticated solutions at a small cost premium.  Both broadband and the cloud allow solutions to use existing displays such as smartphones, connected TVs, or tablets to interface with connected devices in the home. Using existing screens in the home instead of a dedicated display also lowers hardware costs and allows for faster product development cycles.

Today, numerous connected products targeting the residential market are available. Lowe's premiered its Iris line of products in 2012.

In Europe, lighting dimmers from KlikaanKlikuit, smart plugs from Elro, alarm systems from Woonveilig, and IP cameras from Marmitek are widely available in retail outlets such as Saturn, where 3 percent of floor space is dedicated to home controls.

Global appliance manufacturers LG and Samsung have launched Wi-Fi-enabled appliances, while European appliance manufacturers are taking a more guarded approach to connected appliances. Instead of moving forward alone, product managers in Europe are closely watching the industry and are prepared to follow others into the market. European OEMs are busy finding partners and platforms that will provide them broader capabilities in the long term, such as the Miele and QIVICON partnership.

These offerings will provide differentiation to connected products, but in the long term, consumers will not find much use for products that do not interoperate with the other products in their home.

Connected appliances can provide services that respond to demand and price fluctuations and extend benefits to the owners, the manufacturers, and the utilities. For example, in refrigerators, the defrost cycle can be automatically delayed to a period with lower electricity demand, saving energy and money. OEMs can also add a variety of value-added features to their products, such as personalized services that recommend other features, software upgrades, and customer care services (e.g., remote diagnostics). They can also offer e-commerce services, offering extended warranties, accessory recommendations, and targeted promotions.

OEMs can also collect data on product usage to improve their understanding of their product in a real-world context and create new features based on that knowledge. Similarly, companies will collect operational history data to get specific information on time-to-failure to improve the quality of appliances.

These offerings will provide differentiation to connected products, but in the long term, consumers will not find much use for products that do not interoperate with the other products in their home.  As consumers acquire more connected products, interoperability must be prioritized.

Achieving Interoperability

Today, if an OEM wants to develop an interoperable product, it can choose from several common protocols or develop a proprietary solution.  Manufacturers can choose common protocols such as Z-Wave, ZigBee HA, or DECT ULE, which will help them create a larger connected home ecosystem by allowing its products to connect with products from other manufacturers.

In doing so, the manufacturer benefits from interoperability but may also have to give up some control of the user experience.  In addition, using a common protocol provides interoperability at the gateway, allowing consumers to manage their connected devices even when the Internet connection is lost.

Some manufacturers may want more control over the data and the interface with the customer and may choose to connect their devices directly to servers under their control.  In order to connect to other devices in the home, the OEM must connect via application programming interfaces (API) with a platform vendor that communicates to other devices in the home.

Looking forward, developing a viable ecosystem of products requires a new way of looking at the puzzle -- with a larger, more connected viewpoint, where competitors will have to collaborate.

A Tale of Two Approaches

Both gateway and cloud-based approaches to interoperability are in use today.

The gateway approach to achieve interoperability uses the gateway and common protocols as the primary mechanism to establish communication with end devices from different networks. Once the gateway has established communication with the end device, the software within the gateway provides a common method for applications to talk with the devices, abstracting the network details so that to the application software, a ZigBee HA thermostat looks the same as a Z-Wave thermostat.

The gateway approach to interoperability requires that devices within the home communicate using common protocols such as Z-Wave, DECT ULE, or ZigBee HA. Gateways can either integrate some of the more common protocols into the hardware or use USB dongles and firmware updates to add communication for a specific protocol.

In order to achieve interoperability with other products, common protocols specify the details of all layers in the OSI model.  Detailed specifications at the application layer allow devices to advertise their capabilities and connect to the network.  Because the gateway also acts as a controller, when a new application is developed, the gateway must be updated with the new application before the new product can be fully operational on the network.

The cloud-based approach uses web services and open APIs to achieve interoperability.  Individual devices may use Wi-Fi or other protocols that pass through the gateway and connect directly with servers under the OEM's control.  From the servers, the devices are then connected using web services in the cloud rather than in the gateway.  The gateway is more of a pass-through device in this approach, and control is moved from the gateway to the cloud.

A Third Option

There is also a third option, a peer-to-peer communication scheme that can be used in the home or the cloud to allow devices to coordinate activity in more of a distributed control system.

Many of today's systems use either a gateway-centric common protocol approach to provide interoperability or a hybrid approach. In the hybrid approach, the gateway is the primary connection to the home for most devices, but some IP-enabled devices and web-based data services are integrated in the cloud.

For example, Lowe's uses a hybrid approach with its Iris product, employing an Iris Hub and the cloud to balance use of multiple protocols in the home, including Z-Wave, ZigBee HA, and Wi-Fi.

Looking forward, developing a viable ecosystem of products requires a new way of looking at the puzzle—with a larger, more connected viewpoint, where competitors will have to collaborate. As more connected devices and their associated apps enter the market, the opportunity to create new interactions and applications increases exponentially.

But the complexity of adding new devices into an ecosystem means the business models for integration are not straight forward. Creative business models can unlock the value for stakeholders willing to finance all or part of the service. As stakeholders increasingly realize they cannot develop and maintain their own backend infrastructure cost effectively, there will be more willingness to leverage service providers' platforms, especially as connectivity forges a more direct and ongoing relationship with the customer. As the market moves to second-generation products and beyond, consumers will expect that product capability will be upgraded periodically. Efforts to improve customer loyalty, which is driven by the user experience with the current product, will require companies to support and upgrade existing products over their lifetime.

About the Author
Tom Kerber has worked in the utilities industry, the consumer goods industry and for Motorola in the telecom industry. He holds an MS in Software Engineering from the University of Texas and a BS in Systems Engineering from the United States Naval Academy. His roles in product strategy for a home controls company as well as experience in the utilities industry and the telecom space provide him with strong qualifications to serve our energy and home controls clients' needs.

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