CES 2016: LG And Samsung battle for smart home leadership

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LG and Samsung are planning to do battle for control of your home at CES. Samsung is bringing its acquired SmartThings technology to TVs to provide a central hub from which your home can be controlled. LG just announced it is going to showcase its Smarthome Hub at CES as well. Each idea has its merits and problems, but I think LG is closer to what we initially need than Samsung is. Let me explain.

The Smart Home Problem

Right now the concept of the Smart Home is a mess and it has been a mess ever since X10 went to that technology graveyard in the sky. We have a bunch of warring “standards” that don’t interoperate, mixed conformance with the standards that do exist, and the end result is that when you buy into a smart home solution, chances are you will be creating an insane stupid house that constantly doesn’t do what you paid a ton of money to get it to do.

Currently we have 4 major legacy smart home platforms: X-10 which started it all back in the 1970s but is mostly gone today, ZigBee and Z Wave which are alliances, and Insteon which is tied directly to one company. Recently a 5th joined this group called Alljoyn which was created by Qualcomm the most powerful player in the smartphone world. With smartphones becoming the most likely controller for the new smart home, there was a chance that this alliance could do what the others had not–create something that actually works.

Goal

Now—throughout all of this—often the goal, which is to actually have a house work automatically and reliably controlled either through an app or, better, by an Amazon Echo like voice interface throughout the home, was often lost.

Right now these things are fun for the technology hobbyists, but little better than the personal computer market was before Apple entered. Relatively unreliable and not for the faint of heart or anyone who has a spouse with no patience for highly-complex, unreliable things. We really needed a major consumer vendor to do that “Apple thing” and make this drop dead easy to use.

Samsung And SmartThings

Often the easiest way to enter a market is to buy someone that is already in it and has a good product. That’s how Google got into this segment, it bought NEST and suddenly its a player, but it doesn’t have a hub so its connected devices rely on someone else to connect the dots.

Samsung bought a hub company because regardless of what you want to do, it is the central controller that gets it done. The SmartThings hub looked particularly interesting because it seemed to already work with most of the stuff in market.

The problem with it is that it it came to market as more of a community-sourced open source project than an appliance that just worked. If you can code and love working off forums to get stuff to work, this is the product for you—which makes it about as far from what a typical consumer will buy as you can get.

Now Samsung plans to put this in a TV, a device that is relatively simple and easy to use right now, potentially turning that TV into a hobbyist’s dream or basically lowering the total available market to the folks that live the Big Bang Theory life. In addition, why would you want to control your home from a TV, it seems like an energy waste because you’d have to leave the thing on all the time.

LG’s Better Path

LG, at least for now, isn’t putting its hub in a TV (and to be fair Samsung’s SmartThings started out as a standalone hub as well). But the LG Hub uses Alljoyn, the newest of the alliances, and that means it is more likely to just work out of the box, albeit with fewer things. The device seems to look a lot like the Amazon Echo.

You see the model that should be used is the Apple iPod model which is where you start with a few things the device does really well then you expand this over time making sure you never break the “does really well” part. This was often the difference between Apple and Microsoft and why in later years Apple beat this once more powerful firm (and many others). Apple got that, at the start, you only need to do a few things folks want to do well and then once you had a loyal customer base you could increase capability. Microsoft tended to go feature nuts and while their products were often more capable much of what they did they did poorly and they were comparatively hard to learn to use.

LG’s approach appears far closer to Apple’s in that its hub just does a few things like music well and doesn’t require the commitment to programming that Samsung’s approach seems to. As a result LG should be more successful here than Samsung is.

Wrapping Up: But Apple, Google, or Amazon Could Sill Own This Space

While I think the LG approach is far better than Samsung’s, three companies are playing around in this space that could still own it. Apple, which hasn’t really entered yet, was the king of new devices much of last decade. If any company can pull out a product that could own this, Apple would be at the top of this list but it seems more interested in getting into the automotive market at the moment. Google is in this space with Nest and it could put the hub in the cloud, which is where it is likely to eventually reside. However, Google has the patience of a small child on sugar and seems to have mostly lost interest in Nest for now. Amazon has Echo which is, in itself, a controller. It does already does a few things very well and it actually works with Samsung’s SmartThings hub and Insteon for expansion. As a result Amazon, of all of these players, is the closest to actually having a true solution to this problem. Go figure.

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About Author

As President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, Rob provides regional and global companies with guidance in how to create credible dialogue with the market, target customer needs, create new business opportunities, anticipate technology changes, select vendors and products, and practice zero dollar marketing. For over 20 years Rob has worked for and with companies like Microsoft, HP, IBM, Dell, Toshiba, Gateway, Sony, USAA, Texas Instruments, AMD, Intel, Credit Suisse First Boston, ROLM, and Siemens.

3 Comments

  1. Rob, Thanks for describing the SmartHome problem since that market niche remains just as elusive and disjointed today as in 1957 when RCA-Whirlpool demonstrated their “Miracle Kitchen” at the World’s Fair. (Watch the video at http://mhealthtalk.com/elusive-smart-home/.)

    And in my view it’s downright stupid to add “smart” electronics to a refrigerator or any white-goods appliance, especially electronics that go obsolete in just a year or two. I made my own 15-year old fridge much smarter than the $4,000 Samsung smart fridge by attaching an iPad, and I can detach and use it at the kitchen counter, breakfast table, sofa, or toilet. (See http://mhealthtalk.com/smart-refrigerator/.)

  2. I bought the Smarthings hub and the built-in apps handle most obvious applications. One weak spot is electronic shades and/or window coverings. Ultimately, IMO, the hub that handles all common protocols will likely win market share. Hubs are easy to replace. Controls and sensors are the largest portion of the investment.

  3. Robert E. Spivack on

    The reason so much emphasis has been on the networking layers (x10, zigbee, Insteon, Z-wave) is because starting with x10 a low bar of unreliable basic operation was set in the market. For my experimentation and technology assessment, I have used Insteon and the dual-band (both line carrier and rf transmission) has performed as a very reliable mesh network for me. I know it is vendor specific and long-term status is questionable, but “it simply works” right now.

    Quick side-note: I think zigbee is the most ubiquitous hardware that no one realizes has shipped millions and millions of units. That’s because it is the “go to” tech used for cable box/set top box wireless rf remotes. They may only be used in a point-to-point (remote to cable box) mode, but the installed base is huge.

    My knee-jerk reaction to Samsung putting a hub into their TV’s was “Huh?”. But in thinking about it, a home automation hub is really a simple device – just some software running with WiFi, Bluetooth, and possibly other (Zigbee, Z-Wave) ports. Virtually all Samsumg Smart TV’s already have WiFi and Bluetooth hardware so turning it into a hub is just a little bit of extra ROM code.

    Power usage is also a red-herring — majority of TV’s today are “always on” running in a stand-by or eco-power mode. WIth proper interrupt-driven I/o, a TV hub could run in the same low-power mode since most home automation hubs are idle 99% of the time anyway.

    With the right software – apps for mobile devices, PC/Mac, one could potentially use the Samsung solution with the TV off since user interface/control would be from other connected mobile, handheld or specialty devices (Amazon echo, etc.).

    In reality, putting a hub inside a TV might make sense – it simply avoids one more little box (aka standalone hub) that current solutions from most other vendors require.

    The Apple TV (both 3rd gen and the new 4th gen) is the same kind of “stealth hub” for Apple’s HomeKit protocol, but with only WiFi and point-to-point bluetooth, it isn’t a full solution today.

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