On the most recent IoT Podcast, we talked about the Hubitat Elevation: A new smart home hub that doesn’t connect to the cloud. Instead, Hubitat keeps all of the device rules, automations and data locally. With all of the recent news about data privacy issues, social media manipulation and the like, I’ve been wondering if we really need cloud-based hubs.
To be sure, a cloud-connected hub brings several advantages over one that runs everything locally. Software updates are easier for the device maker to manage directly, for one thing. With an internet connection, you can access your home devices when you’re not at home as well. And information external to your home — think your weather and your GPS location — can be integral to smart home automations.
I think part of the cloud-based hub market is the due to the rise of mobile apps. These generally provide a clean interface to manage or use devices and to create home automations.
Prior to mobile apps, it was pretty common to use a local web address and browser to do these things. And it wasn’t pretty. These days, you just register your hub with a cloud service — generally linked by your email address — and you’re good to go.
Even so, there are downsides to cloud-based hubs. One is that your device usage patterns are or can be transmitted through the web to the hub’s service provider. In the worst case scenario, a would-be thief could use that data to determine if your house is occupied or empty, for example. Based on the patterns of your lights power on and off, they might be even be able to guess when there’s no activity in the home because everyone is asleep during certain times; motion sensor info could even confirm that. Yes, these are extreme (and unlikely) situations, but the possibilities exist.
Then there’s the more likely possibility that your internet service goes down. With a completely cloud-based hub, say goodbye to any automations or routines during the outage.
That’s a big part of the reason that Wink, and later to an extent, Samsung, began supporting a hybrid approach where their respective hubs wouldn’t lose some or all of their functionality without a cloud connection.
But they weren’t the first to do this. In fact, if you look back not too long ago, you’ll see that home automation wasn’t a cloud-based service. Fibaro’s Z-Wave Home Center hubs, for example, all run locally unless you want to remotely access your devices. And in 2010, I installed an Insteon and X10 based ISY-99i headless (meaning it doesn’t connect to a monitor but is remotely managed over a local network) server to be the local brains of my home. It took more effort for me to manage everything but all of the data and rules were local and were never provided to a third-party.
These days, we’re giving up some privacy for ease of use. With cloud-connected hubs, we gain simplicity through the smart home apps that work with our hubs but you’ll need to create an account with the service provider or device maker. And you have to trust them with any data generated from your hub as well. As data privacy issues continue to rear their ugly head, some consumers may shy away from hubs that transmit data outside of the home.
One key challenge is our desire to voice control our devices. And regardless of whether you’re using Amazon, Google, Apple or some other brand of voice assistant, you’ll be sending data beyond the walls of your home. Again, it’s a trust thing for now.
But with the rise of machine learning algorithms, specialized chips and big data pattern models, I think we we could (and should) see comparable voice assistance at a local level in the next few years.
And that’s not the only technical improvement to look forward to. We’re seeing more smarts in devices themselves and hubs that run everything locally. If nothing else, there’s a market opportunity for the Hubitat’s and Fibaro’s of the smart home world: Remove the cloud from the hub equation with the exception of external data that devices can act upon.