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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 How to Install and Use the Nest Thermostat to Automate Energy Savings How to Install and Use the Nest Thermostat to Automate Energy Savings If you've ever considered getting started with home automation, purchasing a Nest thermostat is the perfect way to start. In just a week of using it, we cut our energy consumption in half. Read More  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.

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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) CEO Tony 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.

 

revolv

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 How To Run Firefox OS Apps In Your Android Browser How To Run Firefox OS Apps In Your Android Browser You can now install Firefox OS apps on Android. Firefox for Android supports Mozilla's "Open Web Apps," allowing you to install and run Firefox OS apps directly on an Android device. Read More  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.

Firefox OS for IoT has a lot going for it. Firstly, when it was a smartphone operating system, its raison d’etre was to run on the types of underpowered devices that modern Android simply couldn’t. This has given Mozilla experience in working with austere hardware. Moreover, Firefox OS applications have been built around open web technologies (essentially HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript). Consequently, Mozilla will have no trouble attracting developers to their platform.

Complimenting Brillo is Weave. This is a secure, JSON-based What Is JSON? A Layman's Overview What Is JSON? A Layman's Overview Whether you plan to be a web developer or not, it's a good idea to at least know what is JSON, why it's important, and why it's used all around the web. Read More  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 iOS 8 Is Here: 10 Reasons to Install It Right Away iOS 8 Is Here: 10 Reasons to Install It Right Away If you own an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, you'll want to upgrade it to iOS 8 as soon as possible. Here's why. Read More 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 Philips Hue Works With HomeKit: How To Make The Most Of It Philips Hue Works With HomeKit: How To Make The Most Of It Philips has finally gotten round to integrating HomeKit into their Hue lighting platform, and it's amazing. Here's what you need to know. Read More .

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.

640px-Apple_Newton_and_iPhone

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 (their Windows 10 spin for the Raspberry Pi Another New Raspberry Pi... and it Supports Windows 10 Another New Raspberry Pi... and it Supports Windows 10 Read More 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.

What do you think? Will Google or Apple come to dominate the smart home world? Let me know in the comments below.

Photo Credits: Apple Newton (Blake Patterson)

  1. AlphaKilde
    August 4, 2016 at 5:17 am

    Google suck big black donky dicks ! for instance with the new pokeMONGO problems :

    There's a dedicated Reddit thread just to gripe about the changes, and another filled with players asking Apple and Google to refund the money spent on in-game purchases, arguing it's not the game they thought they were paying for.

    Surprisingly, Apple seems to be honoring those requests, while the Google Play Store is directing players on Android to contact Niantic directly instead. Here's an example of the message Google is sending:

    Full article : http://www.cnet.com/news/pokemon-go-pokevision-crack-down-players-furious/

    as expected apple takes care of their customers while google blames others while running away.

  2. Tony
    May 17, 2016 at 4:44 pm

    Wow. Apple fan boy much? Tone down praise of Apple and the utter disgust of Google a little. I was intrigued by the title but quickly found out it's mostly just an article to paint Apple in a pretty shade of gold and Good in a shade of shit.
    You also completely left out any mention of Amazon Echo, which has the ability to combine different technologies so that a person isn't tied down to one brand. Amazon, while not a tech giant, it does have some very deep pockets. Investing all your money and time into one brand is just stupid. Each brand and technology (z-wave, Zigbee, x10) all have their pro's and con's. Why limit yourself?

    • Tony
      May 17, 2016 at 4:46 pm

      Typo "Apple in a pretty shade of gold and Google in a shade of shit."

    • Matthew Hughes
      May 17, 2016 at 6:46 pm

      You're saying I'm biased in favor of Apple. The other guy is accusing me of being a Nest fanboy. I literally can't win.

      FWIW, I wrote about Apple and Google and not Amazon, because I wanted to compare the two largest technology companies that are active in this space, and to directly compare and contrast their strategies. Amazon isn't strictly speaking a tech company. It's a highly diversified retailer.

      I didn't cover the rest of the market because... Well? That's not the point of the piece, essentially.

      Also, my main laptop is an Acer, and my main phone is a Huawei. So, no. I'm not an Apple fanboy.

  3. Zone3
    May 17, 2016 at 9:32 am

    This was really interesting even though it sounded like an advertisement for nest. I've read so many articles about how people are just not interested in home automation right now. It's going to be interesting to see what happens.

    • Matthew Hughes
      May 17, 2016 at 1:17 pm

      Haha. I hope not! I thought I was pretty critical of Nest's acquisition strategy and corporate culture.

      But I do agree, the future is going to be interesting.

  4. Johng
    May 17, 2016 at 2:48 am

    I think both suck and will fail. Zwave works great and it relies on no one company. Nest is dead. It's over priced and over valued. Mainstream will never buy $250 cameras, thermostats and smoke detectors. It was dumb to even think this would be the case. I'm sure Apple is moving slowly for the same reason.

    • Matthew Hughes
      May 17, 2016 at 6:48 pm

      Nest is hardly dead. It's thriving. And people *are* buying $250 cameras, thermostats, and smoke detectors. It's a lot of money, but people who buy smart home tech overwhelmingly buy premium products.

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