Proprietary Beams of Light

The Smart Home Is Already Broken

Philips_Hue_lPhilips was early in driving the market for smart light bulbs. The company’s Hue platform is based on a hub that acts as the nucleus for up to 50 bulbs — enough to light an entire house. It works well with Philips’ family of connected bulbs as well as certain other ZigBee-based options from manufacturers including Cree, GE and Osram.

Earlier this week, Philips released a firmware update for the Hue hub which removed support for third-party bulbs, with the company citing a need for certification for quality assurances. Other makers of ZigBee bulbs were to be required to go via Philips’ Friends of Hue process — a programme that verifies third-party products — as well as send goods to the ZigBee Alliance for accreditation.

Philips is a member of the Connected Lighting Alliance (CLA), which was founded in 2012. The CLA has since been working to drive interoperability with ZigBee lights so that, in theory, any member company with approved products should have bulbs acceptable to Philips. The addition of another layer of certification appears unnecessary, and raises costs.

Philips isn’t the first company to prevent third-party products from working within its ecosystem. Earlier in 2015, Keurig, a maker of coffee machines, introduced models that blocked pods from other suppliers. Keurig’s system was quickly hacked and eliminated as a result of the backlash.

Philips’ smart lighting system started as an open platform to encourage interest in connected lighting, and the company’s position as market leader gave it every reason to encourage the pie to grow larger. But Hue’s popularity and high-priced bulbs opened an opportunity for third-party products.

Others have introduced similar walled-garden approaches, including Apple with HomeKit and Nest Labs with Works with Nest. These programmes allow third-party accessories only after they’re vetted by the respective companies.

The complexities of setting up a smart home are being magnified by an array of varied specifications and proprietary solutions. The incompatibilities being built into the current solutions are keeping prices and complexities artificially high. Setting up the smart home remains an endeavour for technology enthusiasts and early adopters alone.

Audience protests drove a rapid reversal of Philips’ decision, but the original announcement highlights the need for agreements on common, widely adopted standards across all layers. Industries can’t develop in such a chaotic manner.

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