CES 2017: Partnerships, Integrated Ecosystems Will Drive Smart Home Scale

But smart home product integration programs also come with special  challenges, Comcast exec says
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Las Vegas -- Building partnerships with device makers and stitching them into an integrated platform  and ecosystem  will help smart home services break into the consumer mainstream and drive true scale, according to Daniel Herscovici, SVP and GM of Comcast Xfinity Home.

Herscovici, who spoke Wednesday at the Parks Associates Connections Summit at CES about connected home integration, partnerships and security, said a fully-supported and supplied ecosystem will help to push subscriber levels well past the tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands. For its part, Xfinity Home has more than 500,000 subs (Comcast hasn’t updated that figure since last summer), but Herscovici claimed that Comcast is now the fastest-growing home security company in the country.

Consumers now have a “premium expectation” that smart home devices will work together, agreed François Girodolle, head of European developer relations for Nest Labs.

That is also reflected in some recent research from Parks Associates, which found, for example, that 60% of networked camera owners want those devices to work with door locks.

Comcast and Xfinity Home is pushing hard in that direction with a curated certification program for third-party device makers that aims to support two to three “best of breed” suppliers in several key categories and then stand behind them with customer, tech and installation support. Xfinity Home this week announced the addition of a smart thermostat from Zen Ecosystems to the product mix along with the launch of a new customer portal that supports its Works with Xfinity Home program.

The program, he said, ensures that partner devices have been properly tested and integrated while also giving customers one number to call for support. He said that’ll be key to help smart home services leap beyond the early adoption phase.

Herscovici expects other large smart home ecosystems to follow Comcast’s lead, but also stressed that building partnerships with third-party suppliers doesn’t lack for issues and challenges.

Notably, Comcast must also keep pace with new iterations of products and firmware updates coming from partners.  Getting some of them to undergo “disciplined” technical changes has become a challenge as the ecosystem has grown, he said.

Herscovici also pointed out that Comcast, which can put devices into the field in bigger volumes than some suppliers can on their own, sometimes find defects that the manufacturers have yet to discover. That’s not an “extreme negative” on its own, but he also stressed that Comcast wants its partners to quickly address and fix those issues.

“A quick response is always a good indication of that future partnership,” he said.

Carrier, the HVAC giant, has also been looking to help its customers optimize and automate their home climate systems and continues to be interested in lending its expertise to smart home ecosystems and aggregators such as Comcast, Apple and Google.

But Carrier, which relies on complex heating and cooling systems that utilize its own algorithms, gets concerned when others are injecting sensors to control HVAC systems without a well-heeled partnership, Matthew Pine, Carrier’s VP of marketing, said. 

“In the first wave of integration…the deeper layer is what concerns me,” Pine said, noting that Carrier sometimes gets customer calls because of issues stemming from smart home systems that are architected in a different way than Carrier’s.

Curt Schacker, SVP, smart home at Evrything Inc., a company that provides a platform-as-a-service, held that the Achilles Heel of smart home adoption is the heterogeneous nature of today’s products, which tend to run on a wide array of protocols and operating systems.

Convergence around that will help, he said, noting that WiFi has emerged as a viable network for IoT-based solutions as it becomes less power-hungry and is used in more sensor-type devices.

“If that trend continues…[the industry] could simplify the adoption problem,” he said.

Panelists were bullish about voice-based interfaces for connected home and security services.

Voice enablement offers an “easy way for consumers to interact with their smart home,” Herscovici said, but stressed that it’s not always the most convenient or easiest way to drive interaction. “It’s a way…not the way,” he said.

Asit Goel, SVP and GM, secure monitoring and control/IoT, at NXP Semiconductors, said voice as an interface is off to a “great start,” but expects the technology to become more accurate and to support more contextual conversations as well as far-field technologies that will make voice commands a more consistent option as consumers move around the home.

According to a recent Parks Associates survey, about 26% of U.S. broadband homes now own a smart home device, up 19% from the end of 2015. The research firm also estimates that smart home device ownership has more than doubled in that last two years, and that companies will sell nearly 55 million smart home devices in 2020.