What is a smart-home ecosystem?
The smart-home ecosystem is made up of apps, smart devices and Cloud service. Within the ecosystem, you can easily manage, control, and monitor every smart device in your home no matter where you are or when you want.
The ecosystem provides an easy and efficient way to manage your smart home. It unifies your smart devices and gets them connected and working together. You can create scenes or set routines to make the devices automatically work together. By doing so, they will satisfy your demands at different times, whatever the circumstances.
First, let’s explain the key roles in the smart ecosystem.
The controller is the device that provides a user interface for you to control the whole system. The most common way is App-Controlling, in which case the controller could be a smartphone, wearable device, tablet, or hub with touchscreen. Another popular way is Voice-Controlling; with a smart speaker you use some specific word as a command. If you want to turn on the living room light all you need to do is say “Turn on the lights in living room”.
The Cloud platform analyzes your command and tells the device what you want to do. It is also the key for home automation and away-from-home control. The good news is the Cloud is a software platform, so its functionality can be improved, be extended or allow the addition of new devices. The bad news is that an internet connection is essential for a Cloud-based ecosystem. Without internet you can’t do anything.
There are so many different types and sizes of smart devices, it is impossible to describe them all in a few words, so I will simply classify five major types of smart device based on their purpose in the ecosystem.
A hub or smart speaker can connect to other devices. In doing so, such an item plays a central-control role in the smart-home ecosystem.
Smart Lighting includes light bulbs, lightstrips, light switches and a variety of lamps. They don’t look significantly different from standard fittings but you can wirelessly control them – forget the old-style switch or dimmer, wireless control will give you a great experience. It’s more fun than you might imagine!
Heating and Cooling
To keep your home at a cozy temperature and full of fresh air when you are home, you can’t miss the smart thermostat. Once you install a smart thermostat you can transform a traditional HVAC system into a smart one, which is inexpensive compared to replacing the whole HVAC system.
Home security systems include a lot of devices like security cameras, smoke detectors, monitoring sensors, door locks, doorbell and garage door opener. The wireless technology combined with the concept of the Internet of Things (IoT) make the work much easier for people like you and me. A smart security system will watch your home 24/7, keeping your home safe from intruders or danger.
Home or Kitchen appliances
From large (e.g. refrigerator) to small (e.g. wall outlet), there are many appliances which accomplish household functions for us. Almost any electrical/mechanical appliance you use today can be replaced with a Wi-Fi-connected one, but not every appliance is worth replacing. To make a wise investment, focus on the appliances which you use most or are most important to you, like a Wi-Fi router or coffee maker.
Before we go any further, there is some basic knowledge you must know.
User interface for controlling
Voice controlling or App controlling – you can use one of them or both.
App to Device
The dominant way is to use Wi-Fi, and a common secondary method uses Bluetooth. Cellular signals can also be used in smart security systems, but as a backup plan.
Device to Device
The wireless protocols used on smart devices are many and varied. The protocol is decided by the purpose the device was designed for.
Thread, Zigbee, Z-Wave and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) are used for devices that require long-running at low energy cost. Such devices – such as light bulbs or sensors – should also be satisfied with low-speed data transfer. For high performance and convenience reason, some devices still use Wi-Fi, for example, a smart TV requires high-speed data transfer for media streaming, in which case the energy cost is of secondary concern.
Most functional devices use one protocol, but non-Wi-Fi-connected devices still need to connect to a Wi-Fi network, so there is another kind of device which uses more than one protocol. Usually we call them a hub or bridge or gateway (again, the name is decided by its purpose) and their job is to make sure non-Wi-Fi-connected devices can talk to Wi-Fi-connected end devices like our smartphone.
Except for low-energy cost devices like sensors, almost all smart devices use wired power. Some of them use wired power as their main power source and use a battery as backup, like the Nest Thermostat.
- Connect directly to mobile device: App + Device
- Connect indirectly via secondary devices, such as a hub, that is controlled by the voice command provided by the hub manufacturer: App + Cloud service + Hub + (Bridge) + Device
- Soft-Connect: App + Cloud service + (Bridge) + Device
Type of ecosystem
Voice control ecosystems
Some big brands use voice control as a beachhead to expand their influence in the smart-home market. Around their voice service, many devices are designed, including both own brand and other brands.
The first Echo product, released in 2014. Tens of millions of devices work with Alexa now. The core of any Amazon Alexa ecosystem is a series of Echo devices, which connect to the voice-controlled, intelligent personal assistant service Alexa. In addition, Amazon offers the “Works with Alexa Program” to certify the third-party devices which can integrate with Alexa.
In 2016, Google launched its own smart speaker “Google Home” series to join the game officially. In the few years since then, Google Assistant ecosystems have been growing fast. Today Google claims its Google Assistant works on more than 500 million devices, including smart speakers, phones, cars, TVs, headphones, watches, and more.
Although Apple released its HomeKit in 2014 the first Apple smart speaker “HomePod” only arrived in Feb 2018. Before that you could only use Apple TV (4 gen or later) and iPad as a hub, so for once Apple is dragging its heels! HomeKit-enabled devices are much less common than those using Alexa or Google Assistant.
Cortana comes with Windows 10, which released in 2015. The first smart speaker was the “Invoke” by Harman Kardon, released in late 2017. Cortana ecosystems aren’t growing in popularity, even today. Few products work with Cortana, so Microsoft have used another strategy: enabling Cortana skills to be used on Amazon Echo devices.
The “All-in-one” ecosystem is focused on managing different kinds of device on the same platform. Some use a hub to control all kinds of smart devices on a hardware level, whereas some use app and Cloud service to control devices on a software level.
SmartThings is an American technology company owned by Samsung. It is attempting to build an open platform for smart homes and the consumer Internet of Things. SmartThings ecosystems are comprised of a hub, Cloud platform and client applications. Its most powerful product is SmartThings Hub 3 gen, and SmartThings also provides a batch of its own-brand devices like SmartThings mesh Wi-Fi, SmartThings ADT Home Security kit and SmartThings Link (turns NVIDIA SHIELD TV into a smart hub).
Wink is another brand offering smart home development. Like SmartThings, Wink provides a hub to try to unify the smart devices from different brands. The most popular product is Wink Hub 2 gen, and Wink also provide starter kits: Wink Lookout for home security and Wink Bright for home lighting.
Specialized ecosystems work for a specific field, such as lighting or thermostatic control, or you can call it a secondary ecosystem, since it is usually part of a whole smart-home system.
Philips Hue is a personal, wireless lighting system which uses the Zigbee protocol. You may call it a lighting ecosystem. Thanks to the years of experience Philips has in the lighting industry, Philips Hue offers the most comprehensive product line, including every kind of bulb, lightstrip and lamp. Several impressive Hue features can push your home entertainment up to the next level, however expect the price of a Hue light source to be somewhat higher than a common bulb.
Philips Hue can work with all the voice-controlling ecosystems above, but you need a bridge connection to the Speaker/Hub. Alexa Echo Plus is an exception since it has Zigbee built in. The bad news is that Echo Plus can only control dimming and turn on/off Hue White bulbs.
LIFX is a line of energy-efficient, multi-color, Wi-Fi-enabled LED light bulbs that can be controlled via a Wi-Fi-equipped device such as a smartphone or smartwatch. Its biggest competitor is Philips Hue, but unlike Philips Hue, LIFX products use Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11b/g/n) and a IPv6 802.15.4 mesh network, which can work without a hub.
Ecobee is a Canadian home automation company that makes thermostats for residential and commercial use. Ecobee 4 is the latest thermostat with built-in Alexa, which can be voice controlled without Amazon Echo.
Amazon invested in Ecobee in early 2018, Yet, Ecobee is still an independent company and its products still work with all voice-controlling ecosystems.
Ring is a smart-home security company owned by Amazon. It provides full home security solutions with smart devices such as Ring Video Doorbell, cameras and Ring alarm systems.
TP-Link Kasa is a closed ecosystem, which means it only works with its own brand of products, some speakers, and hubs. It only works with Google Assistant and Alexa. TP-Link Kasa’s most popular products are Smart Bulb and Smart Plug.
WeMo is a smart product brand from Belkin. The product suite includes smart plugs, motion sensors, light switches and a light dimmer. Wemo products can directly work with Alexa and Google Assistant, but you need a Wemo bridge to make them work with HomeKit.
Netgear insight enables multi-device configuration, network management, monitoring, and service deployment of select NETGEAR wireless, storage and switching devices either locally or remotely. Like Kasa, it is also a closed ecosystem, but you can enable the router to work with Alexa or Google Assistant.
The Bottom Line
There is a lot of smart-home ecosystems available today. Each seems to have its own advantages. Fortunately, you don’t need to stick with one as most smart devices can work with multiple ecosystems. Just pay close attention to the ‘Works with…’ certification on the device. Some smart speakers and smart hubs are exclusive products, so if you insist on using them then you must choose a side.