When a new category of tech product enters existence, you can guarantee a flurry of companies and products will launch, all vying for dominance in this brave new field.
The dawn of the personal computer was one example of this. During the 1980’s, competition was fraught between Apple, IBM, Sinclair, and Commodore. Ultimately, the power of market forces resulted in a duopoly, where computers now are either made by Apple, or ship with Windows. Now, in 2016, the smart home world looks set to follow a distinctly similar path.
Google and Apple are both trying to dominate the smart home world, either by releasing software tools, or by acquiring smaller companies, like a beluga whale devouring a minnow. While both companies are of similar size, and are similarly endowed, they both have radically different strategies. Here’s what you need to know.
Google: You Will Be Assimilated
Google’s stratospheric growth over the years has been largely thanks to its undeniably deep pockets. When Google wants to enter a market, it simply buys its way in.
In 2014, it became plain to everyone that smart home technology was here to stay. Rather than launch its own offering from scratch, Google bought Nest – already one of the major players – for an eye-watering $3.2 billion. In addition to the human capital that comes with making such an acquisition, it also allowed Google to include Nest’s internationally successful security cameras, smoke detectors, and learning thermostats into its burgeoning product portfolio.
But more than that, it allowed Google to buy a brand. Right now, if someone mentions “smart home”, your mind will likely immediately drift to a Nest product. This acquisition was the equivalent of someone wanting to enter the soft drink marketplace, and buying Coca Cola.
Google’s strategy for managing Nest has been unusual. In the past, when Google has bought a company, they immediately integrated it into the Google brand. When Google acquired Picasa in 2004, and Android in 2005, these companies just became components of a larger monolithic entity. But Nest is different. It still operates autonomously under the guardianship of the (deeply controversial) CEOTony Fadella.
In the few instances where Google’s branding appears on a Nest product, it’s subtle and understated. If I had to take a guess why that might be, I’d postulate that it was because Nest has a relatively untarnished brand, especially when privacy is concerned.
Nest’s autonomy and Google’s financial backing has allowed the company to make a number of acquisitions of its own. The biggest was Revolv, which produced a cloud-enabled hub, retailing for $300. This was an ‘acquihire’, which is where a company is bought to acquire the team, not the technology or patents held.
Not long after buying the company, Nest discontinued the Revolv hub. It didn’t just stop sales of the product. It actually bricked every Revolv Hub, turning them into what one disaffected user called a “$299.00 container of hummus“. Users were rightfully furious, and in the face of mounting criticism, Nest was forced to offer its users a full refund.
Beyond The Acquisitions
Interestingly, Google has realized that it cannot gain hegemony simply by buying the competition. It has started to produce its own tools and platforms, so as to allow third parties to create their own smart home devices. The most exciting of which is Google Brillo.
This curiously-named project attempts to create an operating system which would run on these devices. This would be based on Android, but with most of the components that create what we consider to be “Android” stripped out. Many of these changes have taken place on the unseen system level. For example, in order to get Brillo to run on low-powered hardware, Google has rewritten core parts of the operating system in C++, rather than the slightly more hungry Java. Some device manufacturers have already released Google Brillo-powered devices.
Brillo will undoubtedly experience stiff competition, especially from Mozilla, which recently spun off Firefox OS as a platform for the creation of smart home devices. We’re at the nascent stages of a fierce battle. One I’m not entirely convinced Google will come out of unscathed.
Complimenting Brillo is Weave. This is a secure, JSON-based standard for Smart Home interoperability and communication. Although, on the face of it, Weave is less exciting as a whole new operating system, it could result in a more coherent smart home experience for users.
Despite these confident steps forward, Google is yet to create a coherent experience for how smart home devices communicate with Android smartphones. This has been the linchpin of Apple’s strategy for smart home dominance, and it’s working.
Apple: Building The Tools
When iOS 8 launched, it was probably the biggest refresh to Apple’s smartphone operating system we’ve ever seen since the operating system first dropped. Not only were the usual performance and aesthetic tweaks present, but it also included a number of unprecedented feature additions, like Apple’s HomeKit.
HomeKit essentially allowed developers to integrate their physical computing creations with iOS. But more importantly, it lets users combine devices into groups which can be controlled as an ensemble, as well as interact with their devices using Siri. It’s undoubtedly one of the most exciting parts of iOS.
It’s also been a roaring success. Manufacturers and developers are enthusiastically releasing devices that work with HomeKit. Probably the biggest is Philips, which recently updated its Hue lightbulb starter kits to use the technology.
At face value, Apple’s strategy seems conservative, especially when contrasted with Google. It hasn’t made any major acquisitions in the smart home field. Nor has it brought an Apple-branded smart home product to market. This shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the modern history of the company.
In the early 1990s, the iconic rainbow fruit symbol could be found on a whole bunch of products – from digital cameras, to PDAs, to even games consoles. These products were, by any estimation, dramatic failures, and were a contributing factor in Apple being driven to the brink of bankruptcy.
When Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1997, the first thing he did was scrap these money-losing products. Not only did Apple hemorrhage money, but Jobs wanted to focus on Apple’s core markets of computers and software. This legacy continues to today, and Apple is extremely wary of entering new fields, and being distracted from what it does best.
As a consequence, I don’t think we’ll ever see a smart home product from Apple.It’s just not its style. Instead, Apple will let other companies – Philips, Belkin, Elgato – take the big risks and bring the products to market. Cupertino is happy to take a back seat, and just work on building the tools to integrate these devices with the myriad of iDevices in circulation.
Apple or Google: Who Will Win?
Of all the tech giants, Apple and Google are perhaps the most heavily invested in the smart home sphere. Microsoft has dipped its toes into the world of IoT (theirWindows 10 spin for the Raspberry Pi perhaps being the best example of that), there haven’t been the same kind of ambitious overtures that Apple and Google has made. It remains to be seen whether it will be Google’s aggressive strategies or Apple’s collaborative approach that ultimately pays off.