Since the dawn of the smart home, the smart hub has been the brains at the center of the operation. But, thanks to Google and Amazon, hubs are less necessary and may soon become a thing of the past.
Hubs Were the Brains of the Smarthome
For a long time, if you wanted control of all your smarthome devices in one place from one app, a smarthome hub was the way to go. Smarthome hubs did the best job of connecting everything from Wi-Fi outlets to Z-wave smart locks. They introduced routines, automation, and a handy dashboard to control everything in one dedicated place. Devices made by different manufacturers could work in tandem when connected to a hub. You weren’t limited to a single brand, or out of luck if your favorite brand didn’t make a particular type of device.
Smarthome hubs also made Z-wave and Zigbee devices truly smart. Without one, you couldn’t control a smart lock remotely, and managing codes was far more difficult. You could monitor a Z-wave or Zigbee device and managed it locally from a dedicated app from the manufacturer, but you needed a hub to extend capability further.
Hubs Do Have Downsides
Unfortunately, the smarthome hub business hasn’t been particularly stable. Lowe’s has abandoned its Iris platform entirely, and there are plenty of other hubs you probably shouldn’t use. The two biggest players in the smarthome hub business, Wink and SmartThings, have gone through buyouts that haven’t been a resounding success.
SmartThings currently requires two different apps to get to all its features and knowing which app to use when is often confusing, which defeats the ‘one app to control them all’ line of thinking entirely.
Wink’s history may even be more fraught, Quirky formerly owned the business but went bankrupt and sold Wink to Flex. Flex, in turn, sold Wink to i.am+, which was founded by Will.iam.
Wink hasn’t announced any new third-party product integrations since September 2017, and the last new product Wink announced (Lookout) came in October 2017. To make matters worse, low stock of the hubs is a frequent issue, as seen in multiple Reddit threads.
Google and Amazon Have Negated the Necessity of Hubs
Thankfully, Google and Amazon have ushered in a new alternative for hubs. Not only do Google Assistant and Alexa bring a voice control of your devices, but they replicate nearly every feature that smart hubs offer. You can set routines in the Google and Amazon app; you can connect devices from different manufacturers, create groupings, flows, and other automated tasks.
These voice assistants can also connect to a variety of devices, through Wi-Fi or third-party app integration. If you have an Echo Show or Echo Plus, you can also connect to ZigBee devices. Essentially, other than Z-Wave, and Zigbee (for Voice Assistant devices not mentioned above), it’s very likely that your Google Home or Amazon Alexa device will work with any of your smarthome devices.
You’ll receive the same benefits of single access control and automation, and get the bonus of voice control. Given the size and strength of Google and Amazon, the fear of shutdown is minimal. That strength showed at CES 2019. Nearly every smarthome device announced touted compatibility with these platforms. What was missing? Z-wave, ZigBee (outside Philips Hue), Wink, Smartthings.
The main issue of worry in a future without Hubs though is Wi-Fi, and the problems it presents.
Wi-Fi is Difficult But Getting Easier
If every smart device you connect to your network is Wi-Fi, you’ll quickly run into a few problems. Wi-Fi doesn’t have the sheer range that a meshed ZigBee or Z-Wave set of devices can achieve. It also isn’t battery friendly, and the more devices you connect, the more congestion you may cause the network.
The coming Wi-Fi 6 standard helps solve most of these problems. Wi-Fi 6 is easier on battery life, improves speed on the 2.4 GHz spectrum, and should reduce overall congestion issues.
But that’s a standard that’s coming and doesn’t entirely solve all the problems. Google and Amazon know that, and they’ve prepared for the future by jumping in on Mesh networks. Google already had a mesh router system of its own, and Amazon just announced it would buy Eero, the company that all but kickstarted Mesh.
With Mesh routers, your devices will have all the range they need, and congestion will be a problem of the past. Additionally, you won’t have to worry about running a 2.4 GHz network and a 5 GHz network, and what to use when. Mesh networks run both for you, and they do so seamlessly, choosing for you which is the best fit, which can be helpful, as many smart devices only work on 2.4 GHz networks.
Hubs seem to be slowly coming to a painful death, and Voice Assistants are poised to take their place triumphantly. Overall this is a good thing, as Google and Amazon are large enough to muscle through tough times and able to drive forward adoption and work towards lower prices. They’ve already incorporated all the best features of hubs while bringing in their unique capabilities, whether that be a display that shows your best pictures, or an intercom system without all the wiring.
Smarthomes implementation is constantly in a state of flux, and the future of hubs is just one more example of how quickly things change. And how much early adopter pain you must be willing to accept to have a smarthome now, instead of waiting until the standards are truly standards, and not just hefty promises.