I’m getting close to admitting defeat. And it hurts. I’ve long been a proponent of smart home hubs with multiple radios, particular those for Zigbee and Z-Wave, but it seems like the hub market is happy to ignore those in favor of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth only. And by “hub market”, I really mean the “big three” players who joined the game relatively late: Amazon, Apple, and Google.
Yes, there are still companies that support all four radios, which provides the widest breadth of compatible, energy-efficient products. Samsung’s SmartThings platform doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, for example. Wink is still around although, for some reason, their Hub2 hasn’t been available on many retail sites for some time. And there are some others such as Fibaro’s Z-Wave hub and Habitat’s Elevation hub, which includes the four major radios, and also includes Lutron support.
However, the “big three” have not only moved the smart home interface from phones to speakers, but they’ve also usurped smart home functionality by adding routines and a little programmability. As I noted earlier this year, these abilities to consolidate commands or automate your home is one of the key strengths of a true hub compared to a voice-activated device aggregator. And I still believe a traditional hub like SmartThings or Wink are the better solutions. I’m not sure the market agrees.
Why do I think that? Well, I haven’t seen any sales figures for the traditional hubs. But I have seen estimates of smart speaker sales. Back in August, it was reported that Amazon Echo and Google Home devices had a 50 million install base within the U.S. Apple’s figures are harder to pin down but keep in mind that every AppleTV or iPad can be a HomeKit hub and that both Siri and Apple’s Home app is available on hundreds of millions of IoS devices.
I suspect the install base of traditional smart home hubs is dwarfed by the Amazon, Apple and Google numbers. And aside from the Amazon Echo Plus devices, which do have a Zigbee radio, all of the other smart speakers and voice assistants from these three companies natively work with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Yes, adding Zigbee and Z-Wave devices to these can be done if the product supports a bridge to read in these radio signals and convert the data to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
Does the mainstream market care enough to do that in meaningful numbers? It doesn’t look like it. Instead, we smart home die-hards that want total control and a wide range of products are the only ones that care about radios whose name starts with a “Z”.
It doesn’t appear this will change any time soon either because Apple, Amazon, and Google are taking a methodical approach.
After a few years of HomeKit stagnancy limited to simple device controls, for example, Apple added automation support in iOS. Amazon and Google have more recently added support for Routines and Actions, which are more like a series of controls rather than automation but you can have smart devices do certain things based on time settings with an Echo Routine. And I wouldn’t be surprised at all if both of these companies add cloud-based automations to their products in the near future.
Personally, I’d rather have localized automations, but again, will mainstream consumers? Frankly, a little more storage and processing power in future Amazon Echo and Google Home products could mitigate that anyway.
Here are another few data points that suggest to me that quad-radio, full-featured hubs are on the endangered species list. In its quarterly results last week, Amazon said “The number of Alexa-compatible smart home devices has quintupled year to date to more than 20,000 devices from over 3,500 brands.
And when Google introduced its new Google Home Hub earlier this month, it noted that its Assistant now works with “ over 10,000 smart devices from over 1,000 brands.” Apple’s HomeKit is more limited, of course, but do you think SmartThings, Wink and other hub makers can say the same about their device and brand support?
Listen, I know this idea of doom and gloom won’t be well received by the passionate smart home readership here. And trust me, I’m not happy to share this opinion. Luckily, we can swim against the current and use our more functional hubs if we want to.
But the reality is starting to set in from my perspective: “Normals” care less about automation right now and are excited just to control their smart devices through a speaker or touch display. By the time they’re ready for a truly smart home with automations, the non-hub makers will have cloud services to provide it. And by focusing more on the user interface and brand integrations, the “big three” can always add more radio support in the future if the market demands it.