While it was showing off new devices at an event today, Google also released an update on its plan to kill the Works with Nest program that it announced last May. Today’s update does what the original announcement did not. It provides a clearly stated reason for the decision. It also gives customers who have built out favored automations and routines around Nest devices a chance to bring those forward in a way that Google believes will be secure.
Google announced three updates to the Works with Google Assistant program to help assuage customer ire while keeping the smart home secure. The first update is the creation of a Device Access program that allows qualified partners (that pass an annual security exam) to access and control Nest devices. This means that devices such as your Amazon Echo (I’m assuming this is one of the partners based on how the Echo still has access to some Nest devices) can still set the temperature on your Nest thermostat without going through Google Assistant. Google offers the example of a security system with a Device Access integration letting a user view and control their Nest cameras directly from their security provider’s app. The API allowing this is available today.
The second update to the Works with Google Assistant program deals with routines, which are collections of commands that happen when a device is triggered. Google will now allow Nest devices to trigger a routine, which is one of the elements that users hated losing when Google killed the Works with Nest program. This means that your Nest security camera can detect motion and then trigger a Hue light or a siren from a security provider.
Nest and Google users can build their own routines from scratch or choose routines Google has created. Google is also allowing partners to build custom routines. Unfortunately, what Google is calling Home Routines won’t arrive until next year. We’ll see the Google-created routines arrive first with partner-made routines available later in 2020.
By taking control of routines, Google is trying to give users more control over their data, while also allowing Google to become a gateway for all of the data created by Nest devices. With Home Routines, users will be able to find the routines based on the Nest devices they own and will have the ability to opt into the data sharing required to trigger events. It also sounds like Google will pass along only the data needed to trigger an event to the third-party partners, which means that if you want to let your camera share motion detection events, but not camera images, those can stay “private” with you and Google.
Finally, Google says it’s going to let smart home enthusiasts participate in a Direct Access for Individuals program that lets them directly control their own devices for their own private integrations and automations. There’s not a lot of information about this, but I am curious if this ties back to Google’s efforts to create a local API for smart home gadgets.
How the history of the smart home led us here
Even with these updates, which are necessary but poorly communicated, Nest customers will find themselves frustrated and likely confused about what the heck is going on with their devices. Unfortunately, this is part of the pain that comes with being an early adopter in the smart home.
When Nest was created and launched back in 2010 and 2011, the smart home was full of possibilities. The hope was that the creation of standards would allow devices from different vendors to work with each other much like hyperlinks let us travel and share information around the web. But that didn’t happen. Instead, we saw the creation of several platforms that required direct integrations to work together. So if you wanted your Nest thermostat to talk to other sensors around the home, or a smart plug powering a fan, you needed to integrate with a program like Works with Nest or a hub like SmartThings.
This was painful for vendors trying to support all of the new devices because they had to develop both the links between APIs and usable services and routines. It was also painful for users because some devices could speak directly to another, while others required the use of third-party platforms such as IFTTT. It was hard work to cobble something together and once you did, things would break.
Users stayed away. The development of the Amazon Echo and the integration of Alexa with smart home gear that happened in 2015 change the picture. Voice provided an easy method of control for smart home devices and Alexa became a centralized link that could tie different devices together. Users started getting excited about the smart home once again. Google followed suit with Google Assistant and the Google Home devices.
But it still had Nest gear and the links back to the third-party integration days. It wanted to follow the Amazon model and make Assistant the control panel for the home (and the rest of the user’s life). To do that it had to bring those Nest devices and the third-party integrations under its control.
Google also saw how concerned users were around their privacy, especially in the wake of news that tech companies such as Facebook were leaking their data to all kinds of third parties who were using it in ways that neither Facebook or the user condoned. Both Google and Amazon have come to realize this year that, if they want to get people to adopt the smart home, they need to lock it down and become trusted keepers of the data.
The death of Works with Nest
The May announcement in which Google said it would kill its Works with Nest program was a bombshell for Nest users and some partners who had built up quite a repertoire of routines and automations around the platform. At the time, Google said it would run the controls for all Nest devices through the Google Assistant platform. Back then I wrote:
The move turns devices that were once capable of independent communication with other devices into a zombie controlled by Google Assistant. So for example, consumers who liked having their Nest thermostat talk to their Hue light bulbs without having a Google Home or Google Assistant device will now need such a device to mediate that interaction.
Roughly a week after Google made the announcement, and told people these changes would happen at the end of August, it backed off a bit. It gave upset users a choice to stick with Nest and lose future feature updates, but retain their existing routines, or they could switch their Nest accounts to Google accounts and lose the ability to control devices in their home from their Nest devices directly.
We explained in the Internet of Things Podcast that Google was likely making this decision because it realized it had lost control of the platform. By letting myriad outside services and devices talk to the many different Nest devices, Google had a security nightmare on its hands. It had tried to lock the Nest devices down somewhat by rigorously controlling what could be accessed by the API, but there were still a lot of potential holes.
By funneling all requests through the Google Assistant it could keep an eye on the partners and what elements of each Nest device those partners could access. And that’s exactly what’s happening with these updates. Google is trying to keep users happy by letting certain trusted partners access the devices directly, while also making sure the end-user knows and approves of where their data is going.
It’s also locking down a new model for the smart home that will rely on Google as an essential gatekeeper for Nest devices. This will keep Google in the game as it negotiates with other device makers and platforms. For example, Amazon can’t risk shutting out Google entirely because too many of Amazon’s customers have Nest devices that they want to work with Alexa. Vendors selling security systems or locks may have to dedicate resources to ensure that their systems work with both Google and Amazon because, if they don’t, customers will be outraged that their cameras and doorbells no longer feed into their monitored security.
Google’s moves here are a watermark of sorts for the smart home. We’ll look back on this as the time that a few major players consolidated their power over a home’s ecosystem and the defining moment that the digital assistants became the operating system of the smart home.
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