Everyone agrees that the smart home market will flourish when there is a variety of popular, connected devices on the market that work seamlessly together. But exactly what it will take for that to happen is still an open debate.
Last week, Nest and Samsung announced a new mesh networking protocol, Thread, which promises to “help the internet of things realize its potential for years to come.”
But at least one major retailer that sells many of the things for the home that will connect to the internet is not that impressed by news of yet another protocol. “We’ve taken a very deliberate stance: we’re just getting out there and getting on with it,” said Kevin Meagher, VP and GM of Lowe’s smart home division.
That doesn’t mean that Meagher won’t support Thread if it ends up providing a better user experience, such as longer battery life, which will in turn allow Lowe’s to move more products. “The business of selling stuff to people doesn’t change just because Google is in the market,” he added.
Lowe’s has not been waiting around for HomeKit or Google’s Nest to sell people elements of a smarter home. “Our problem is that if everyone had sorted this out, we wouldn’t be doing this,” Meagher said of Lowe's own Iris platform.
More than two years ago, the retailer launched Iris, which integrates devices from vendors such as Honeywell, Schlage, First Alert, and Whirlpool through a hub that connects to the home’s broadband connection. The platform, which can be used for self-monitoring home security and energy efficiency, could face competition from Google and Apple, as it already does from ADT, Comcast, Alarm.com and others.
But with other entrants into the market, Lowe’s also sees new opportunity to move the whole market forward. “From a Lowe’s viewpoint,” said Meagher, “We don’t think the issue is technology and the way things communicate."
Reps of other potential competing networking protocols, such as ZigBee, offered more pointed criticism. “Thread does not seem to provide the higher-level standardization to ensure interoperability between devices,” Tobin Richardson, chairman of the ZigBee Alliance, said in a statement.
Chris Boross, president of Thread Group, argues that ZigBee is not truly designed for consumer electronic devices. He added that it was a conscious decision that Thread does not have an application protocol as ZigBee does; it is intended to purely be a networking technology.
For now, Lowe’s is working on expanding its own offerings with Iris through an open protocol. At the moment, Z-Wave and ZigBee products can be integrated onto Iris, but that should expand to Wi-Fi products in the future.
“Everyone needs to get real about this and just open up their API and let manufacturers focus on just selling devices,” said Meagher.
Forging partnerships with utilities
Even though Iris has been available for more than two years, Lowe’s has been hesitant to work with slow-moving utilities, as have some telecom providers with smart home offerings. For Lowe’s at least, that is starting to change.
Lowe’s does not just want electricity management to be a part of its smart home offerings -- it also wants to offer support and advice across the utility spectrum, including gas and water. Some of its analytics have been developed in-house, and it is also working with Genability.
But Lowe’s is not interested in offering tailored analytics unique to each utility that comes knocking on its door. “Whatever we do has to be infinitely scalable,” said Meagher.
Next quarter, Lowe’s will take the first step to see if its platform is scalable as part of a utility program. It will sell a USB stick that links the smart meter to Iris. Southern California Edison will offer its customers a rebate for purchasing the device.
Unlike bring-your-own-thermostat programs, which Iris customers might be able to participate in in the future, SCE is looking to provide energy efficiency information to Iris customers in its territory as a low-cost way to encourage savings. In the future, based on usage patterns, it could be fine-tuned to push rebates.
The Iris platform will also soon be offering a connected hot water heater from Whirlpool, which could interest utilities that are looking for new demand response devices beyond the smart thermostat. Lowe’s is in talks with some utilities about the possibility of rebates for the device, some of which could cover most of the cost of the heater, which will retail for about $400.
Lowe’s interest in working with utilities centers around allowing its customers to get the benefit of rebates and to provide more detailed information about their energy use in order to help them buy more efficient products for their home.
Ideally, Lowe’s would like customers to use Iris when it buys those products because then it can mine the data coming from those homes to offer more tailored services and products. “The real battleground is data and leveraging it in innovative new ways,” said Meagher. Savvy utilities will likely want to partner with the platforms that are providing those goods and services that can be then be tapped further by the utility, whether it’s for water efficiency or energy savings.
At the end of the day, however, Lowe’s will still happily sell the door locks that integrate with Nest or HomeKit, even if they don’t work with Iris. “Let the consumers choose,” declared Meagher, adding a qualifier: “It will be two years before the floodgates really open.”
For more on how utilities can leverage next-generation consumer analytics, join Greentech Media at The Soft Grid: Data, Analytics and the Software-Defined Utility conference on September 10-11, 2014 in Menlo Park, Calif. Looking forward to seeing you there!