smart home hub

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”

Mark Twain


It’s a bad time to be a smart home hub, because if you believe the trade press and media, you’re dead!

I wrote about this previously ( Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Hub? ) but I guess the editors didn’t get the memo!

It seems whenever there’s a slow news day, someone somewhere is blogging or publishing an article proclaiming that the smart home hub is dead and unwanted by consumers.


Why The negative hype about the Smart Home hub?

In a word – Boredom. No big breakthroughs to “write home about”.

Bloggers and media people don’t care about what you and I want – real improvements, even if incremental, that move the home automation industry forward by solving the humdrum, boring, but serious problems or impediments to using technology to make our lives better in our homes.

Bloggers are always looking for “click bait” – that sensational sound bite (real or fake news) that will draw more people to their website to click on links from advertisers.

That’s how they make money. Actually, that’s now the *only* way they make money. So the more outrageous, the more they make your chin drop, and the most unique news scoop are what they are after.

So when the news is slow with nothing new or revolutionary, they do the next best thing – make things up by twisting something around to make it look like a disruptive new trend or repudiation of the status quo.


Don’t believe every self-proclaimed expert

So here’s the deal with the premature death of home automation hubs. It’s not true.

Sure, some early hub products like Resolve failed miserably. Others like Staple’s Connect were poor sellers and withdrawn from the market.

Walking dead Wink is still around, but barely. Insteon went under, taking their popular hub with them.

But these are the exceptions or expected trials and tribulations of a new market.

In this corner, the winner is..

There is no single winner. The smart home hub is an important and often required piece of equipment for most automation systems.

Lutron lighting, a leader in both consumer and commercial systems, continues to offer a family of products from the affordable Lutron Caseta smart home hub to the workhorse Lutron RA2 and RA3 smart home hub, and the ultra luxury HomeWorks QSX with integrated smart home hub for connecting to many other systems.

Samsung Smartthings is still very popular and Samsung has embedded the smart home hub into many of their appliances and products so “smart home hub inside” completely accurate.

Philips Hue lighting, with a range of smart bulbs, smart led strips, and specialty devices all require the
“set it and forget it” Philips Hue smart home hub to operate.

Let’s not forget that Ikea, the do-it-yourself (DIY) headquarters for everything from a simple desk or storage cube to a complete custom kitchen or closet system has an ever-expanding range of home automation products including smart lights and smart shades that all use the Ikea smart home hub.


Why they think consumers don’t want a smart home hub

The manufacturers and media trot out many excuses for explaining why they believe a hubless smart home product is better.

Here’s a few of the banal benefits they espouse (translated from marketing speak gobbledygook):

Cheaper – Without a separate hub, their super widget is cheaper

Easier to Install – No extra wires, cables, or software to deal with

Wider Compatibility – Works with everything because every smartphone has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Easier to Use – No hub means less complexity = easier operation


Time to deflate the balloon

I’ll focus on some of the easiest ways to refute their silly claims:

Not Cheaper – Building Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth into every device is much more costly. These wireless radio systems were designed for computers, tablets, smartphones and other fairly large devices, so the internal design is complex requiring a lot of silicon, power, and software.

This translates into much higher cost when trying to build smart doorlocks, sensors, switches, dimmers, and other smart home devices.

The high power requirements demand more expensive power supplies or larger batteries. You’ll be swapping out batteries in just weeks or months instead of years.

Wireless technologies including Z-Wave, Zigbee, Thread, and manufacturer RF designs are simpler hardware that can be miniaturized more easily and use much lower power.

With a bridge or smart home hub, the “heavy lifting” of connecting to Ethernet or Wi-Fi networks is only done once – inside the bridge, instead of inside every device.

A great example is the difference between a car and a bus or truck. Cars may be enjoyable to drive, but a bus or truck is much more efficient for transporting more than 1 person or package at a time.


Not Easier To Install – Physical installation isn’t the problem. Everyone can plug in a power cable or a network cable, if needed. The real difficulty with installing tech products is the complicated software, lack of clear instructions, and failsafe procedures that protect you from mistakes.

Making products easy (or hard) to install has nothing to do with whether they use a smart home hub or not.

Having installed hundreds of products myself, I can personally attest that some of the worst installation experiences has been with self-contained products. The instructions are terrible or non-existent, and the process is not intuitive or straightforward.

Installing smart home hub based products has often been much simpler. First install the hub, then install one or more individual devices. Breaking it up into two steps actually made it each simpler to do and easier to troubleshoot.


Poor compatibility of standalone products

Contrary to what is postulated by standalone product makers, I have found that hub based products hands-down have wider compatibility and better interfacing with more diverse systems.

It’s really simple – The hub or bridge is responsible for providing the interface to other devices such as consumer systems like Amazon Echo, Apple HomeKit, Google Home Assistant, or larger traditional systems like Control 4, Crestron, and Savant.

Hubs or bridges usually have clearly defined software development kits (SDK) or application programmer’s interface (API) that the manufacturer makes available to outside companies wanting to interface their own products.

There is an excellent economy of scale factor – once the hub can connect to another system, all the products attached to the hub will inherit that ability for a small incremental effort.

So, for example, once Lutron added Amazon Alexa capability to their Caseta and RA2 Select bridges, all the Lutron devices (lights, dimmers, switches, etc.) gained that compatibility with much less effort.


The best defense is a strong offense

Ok, enough with defending against the claims of the hubless. It’s time to go on the offensive and tell you why having a hub or bridge is a better solution and one you should seek, not shy away from.


larger selection of compatible products

Besides these newfangled gadgets with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built-in, there exist a vast selection of existing smart home devices available for purchase.

These devices use Zigbee, Z-Wave, and vendor-specific hardware technologies that are field proven.

Having been in use for many years and installed in both small and large homes with all kinds of building materials these products are proven to work.

Radio interference, physical barriers, mechanical limitations, and good old fashioned wear and tear are the real enemies of many smart home products.

When you buy products from well-known manufacturers with a proven track record, you are reducing the risk that products will break down or fail prematurely in a few months or a year.

You are also protected against the real possibility that the latest sexy smart home startup company goes broke and out of business. What good is that cute gadget if you can’t get any software updates or repairs for it?


At your service 24 hours a day

True automation means having things happen on their own without you doing anything.

A lot of products provide automation’s poor cousin – home control – turning on or off a light using a cute app on your phone or pushing a newfangled avant-garde or retro-looking button, but have very limited automation.

A hubless product cannot provide real automation. You need something other than your smartphone or computer that is running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to be in charge of automatically doing things on your behalf.

Would you like your lights to turn on a half-hour before sunset and turn off a half-hour before sunrise? That takes an automation controller – a device that is reliable, running 24 x 7 x 365, and handling the job of remember what to do and when to do it.

Would you like a motion sensor to turn on the lights when you enter a room? Or maybe run your lawn sprinklers on a pre-determined schedule, but only if it is not raining?

Guess what? That’s call a hub!


Fake it till you make it

Hubless products do have one trick up their sleeve. They use the Internet to try and fill the role of a hub.

Their devices connect to servers located hundreds or thousands of miles away through the Internet to perform even the most rudimentary functions of a hub.

So the simple task of turning a light on or off actually requires sending a message across the Internet to a far-away server and then waiting for the response.

In addition to delays, this causes everything to require an Internet connection which reduces reliability, adds complexity, and hidden costs.

And some products can’t even do that. They rely on links to iffy 3rd party services like IFTTT, Stringify, Yonomi or other Internet “glue” that is the high tech equivalent of chewing gum and baling wire.

Rube Goldberg would be proud.

In contrast, a hub or bridge based product can operate locally without an Internet connection. True, some features will require Internet, but many things can be done without any Internet connection at all.


“It depends upon what the definition of the word ‘is’ is”

If you remember the Bill Clinton impeachment hearings, you’ll probably recognize that quote.

Those that claim a hub is a bad thing and isn’t needed are often playing a game of semantics.

While they tell you hubs are bad, they are selling you a “bridge” or requiring a “gateway” almost at the same time. That’s a distinction without a difference.

Others are a little more subtle – the hub is optional so they claim their solution is hubless because some functions work from their self-contained devices.

But when you look under the covers, you immediately see that full automation and remote access or compatibility with other systems requires a hub.

Truthfully, the worst offender here is Apple. The HomeKit system is growing more useful every year and it’s good enough for single room or smaller home systems.

But HomeKit is not hubless – it requires an Apple TV to be purchased and used as a makeshift hub for anything but the smallest setup.

The Apple TV is required for remote access and to use any automation (having stuff happen on it’s own) including the geo-fencing where lights turn on or off or other things happen as you enter or leave your home.

The Apple TV is also required as a makeshift Bluetooth repeater and controller to extend the range of Bluetooth connected devices so they are usable when your iPhone is not right nearby.

Oh, just a word to the wise, make sure to leave your Apple TV running 24 hours a day and beware of family members turning it off or rebooting it when NetFlex or YouTube gets stuck and their favorite shows or movie stops playing.


Are you still afraid of the smart home hub?

I hope you see how the benefits of using a hub-based smart home system greatly outlays the mostly false criticism levied against them.

If you are building a smart home system, whether all at once or step-by-step, if your goal is to have more than just a few lights or gadgets in a single room, it is best to embrace hub based systems earlier rather than later.

You’ll find using a hub or bridge will provide better automation, more flexibility, wider choice of devices, and lower cost for your installation.

What do you think? Are you still afraid of hubs?


Automation technologist and problem solver

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