The smart home hub died, but HomePod, Echo and Nest are reincarnating the idea

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Amazon’s newest Echo smart speaker can do more than play music: it can lead an impressive smart home.


Chris Monroe/CNET

In the beginning — before Alexa took the smart home by storm, before tech giants like Google, Amazon and Apple became the power triumvirate in the market, and even before most people had heard of connected light bulbs, let alone installed any — there was the hub. The hub was one of the first great ideas in the smart home: if an app was the brain, letting you automate and monitor dozens of connected gadgets all over your house, the hub was the nervous system, facilitating the transfer of all that information, the translation of various communication protocols into signals your phone could understand.

The hub was key to the dream of the automated home, and in the early 2010s, it became more accessible than ever. Upstart developers like Revolv, SmartThings and Quirky found fierce support for their affordable hubs, which led to short order buyouts by giants like Google and Samsung.

Then Amazon launched the Echo smart speaker, reorienting the whole smart home market away from automation and toward voice control.

Four years ago, I wrote about the meteoric rise and fall of smart hubs, and predicted a reincarnation to come. Now in 2020, hubs are indeed coming back, bringing with them the deferred dream of automation, of a home that can do more than simply listen to your commands.

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Revolv, a popular smart home hub bought by Google in 2014, was bricked less than two years later.


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Smart home’s hub(ris)

To understand the importance of hubs, you have to understand the limitations of smart home technology, namely power. While smart speakers and light bulbs have direct power sources, many smaller devices — such as security sensors, smart locks and flood detectors — rely on batteries. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth drain those batteries quickly.

Luckily, low-power radio protocols, like Z-Wave and Zigbee, keep those batteries working much longer. Problem is, your phone and router (usually) don’t use those protocols. The solution: a smart home hub, which translates various protocols, helping every device on your network communicate, regardless of its “language.”

And yet, as quickly as affordable smart home hubs entered the market — offering a solution to a fundamental problem — they seemed to fall by the wayside. Google bricked Revolv soon after acquiring it, and competitors like Staples Connect and Quirky folded years ago (though its Wink Hub has found a second life of sorts). SmartThings provides a minor counterexample, thanks to Samsung’s commitment, but tracking these hubs is much like watching the trajectory of child celebrities: even the success stories are fairly muted.

Amazon’s first Echo smart speaker was largely to blame, but the tepid response to hubs made more general sense, too. As Google likely discovered after investing billions in smart home acquisitions (including most notably that of Nest), an automated home is more difficult to sell than a single product, like a smart speaker: automation is immaterial, harder for prospective customers to envision than a futuristic voice assistant.

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Google’s newest Nest Thermostat is a great product, but it got little of the fanfare received by the Nest Audio smart speaker.


Google

Over the five years after those pricey acquisitions, the most popular device using the Nest name would become a speaker, the Nest Mini.

At the same time, smaller developers found workarounds to connect with the smart speakers gaining such quick popularity. Door lock, light bulb and home security manufacturers sold starter kits that included proprietary hubs — for a small price bump that customers had no choice but to swallow when they bought into a given system.

But broadly speaking, the automation allowed by an interconnected network of small, specialized devices, was forgotten. Why fiddle with so many devices to achieve minor conveniences, customers seemed to wonder, when you can talk to a brilliant voice assistant instead?

An Echo from the past

In 2014 Amazon’s Echo speaker disrupted the mission of automation in the smart home. And ironically enough, in 2020 Amazon’s Echo speaker revived that mission.

The 2020 Echo not only has a Zigbee receiver built into it (2018’s $150 Echo Plus and Eero’s most recent routers have the same), but it also appears to be upping the ante on integrated home networks with the built-in Amazon Sidewalk Hub. Sidewalk essentially slices off a piece of your network’s bandwidth to strengthen the reach of non-Wi-Fi protocols, like Bluetooth, extending the range of your device network. That means connected cameras, reactive lights and mailbox sensors at the edges of your property will maintain more reliable connection.

I’ve installed a handful of Zigbee devices using just the Echo, and it works as well as any of the hubs of yesteryear. And while Sidewalk has yet to launch in earnest, and its privacy implications will not be fully apparent until it does, the concept alone is exciting.

Amazon is not alone in its innovations: Apple’s soon-to-launch HomePod Mini offers one of the more interesting integrative features in recent memory with Handoff — when your iPhone has Bluetooth turned on and is on the same Wi-Fi network as your smart speaker, you can hover the phone close to the speaker to transfer audio to it and back again. This sort of intuitive cooperation with phones, easily our most-used smart devices, is long overdue.

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Apple’s HomePod Mini is a promising smart speaker with a few welcome features — but home automation still feels like a secondary feature.


Chris Monroe/CNET

HomePod Mini’s Handoff and Nest speakers’ support for Google services — as well as Apple’s and Google’s moderate efforts to expand their in-app scheduling and device integration — are important to note, but the automation originally encouraged by hubs has largely remained in the background, available to a limited degree for the curious, but not central to the voice-driven platforms. 

Amazon by contrast is actively selling home automation to customers through a slow process of suggestion — literally. Alexa is initiating actions in the home through “Hunches,” suggesting that you lock your door when you’re turning off the lights at night, for instance, and even beginning to act without prompting. According to Daniel Rausch, Amazon’s vice president of smart home and Alexa mobile, customer response has been overwhelmingly positive.

In the same way that Nest’s thermostat introduced customers to machine learning — in which user behavior over time “taught” the device how to behave — Alexa is now introducing users to what it calls an “ambient home.” In other words, Alexa customers are starting to get regular soft pitches for a more automated home.

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Amazon’s Echo not only works with Zigbee, but introduces more automation features, too.


Chris Monroe/CNET

The comeback kit

While Amazon is the first to reincarnate the smart home hub as something equal parts new and tried-and-true, competitors would be wise to follow suit. When Nielsen last published data on smart speakers, in 2018, a quarter of the US consumer population owned one, and a vast majority of those expressed excitement to learn to do more with the devices.

Two years later, ownership is likely much higher and interest in learning more about smart speakers’ home automation potential (given our highly homebound lives at the moment) is likely as high as ever. In short, the market is ready for the smart home hub, modernized and embedded in more user-friendly devices, to come back.

And right on cue, thanks to Amazon, it is.

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