Since the advent of the smart home, the smart center has been the brain at the heart of the operation. But thanks to Google and Amazon, hubs have become less necessary and may soon become a thing of the past.
The hubs were the brains of the smart home
For a long time, if you wanted to manage all your SmartHome devices from one app in one place, you needed SmartHome Center. Smarthome hubs did a great job connecting everything from Wi-Fi outlets to Z-wave smart locks. They introduced procedures, automation, and a handy dashboard to manage everything in one dedicated place. Devices from different manufacturers can work in tandem when connected to a hub. You weren’t limited to any one brand, or you were out of luck if your favorite brand didn’t make a certain type of device.
Smarthome hubs have also made Z-wave and Zigbee devices truly smart. Without it, you will not be able to control the smart lock remotely, and managing the codes will be much more difficult. You can monitor and control a Z-wave or Zigbee device locally from a dedicated application from the manufacturer, but you need a hub to expand the capabilities further.
Hubs have disadvantages
Unfortunately, the SmartHome business center wasn’t particularly stable. Lowe’s has completely abandoned their Iris platform, and there are plenty of other nodes that you probably shouldn’t be using. Two of the biggest players in the SmartHome business, Wink and SmartThings, have gone through buyouts that have not been a resounding success.
SmartThings currently requires two different apps to access all of its features and know which app to use when it’s often confusing, which is completely against the «one app to control them all» principle.
Wink’s story could be even more fraught, Quirky previously owned the business but went bankrupt and sold Wink Flex. Flex, in turn, sold Wink to i.am+, which was founded by Will.iam.
Wink has not announced any new third party products since September 2017, and the last new product announced by Wink (Lookout) came in October 2017. To make matters worse, the lack of hubs is a common problem, as seen in several Reddit threads.
Google and Amazon denied the need for hubs
Luckily, Google and Amazon have opened up a new alternative to hubs. Google Assistant and Alexa not only provide voice control of your devices, but also reproduce almost all the features offered by smart hubs. You can set procedures in the Google and Amazon app; You can connect devices from different manufacturers, create groupings, streams, and other automated tasks.
These voice assistants can also connect to various devices through Wi-Fi integration or third-party apps. If you have an Echo Show or Echo Plus, you can also connect to ZigBee devices. Basically, other than Z-Wave and Zigbee (for Voice Assistant devices not mentioned above), it’s highly likely that your Google Home or Amazon Alexa device will work with any of your SmartHome devices.
You’ll get the same benefits of unified access control and automation, plus the bonus of voice control. Given the size and strength of Google and Amazon, the fear of shutdown is minimal. This strength was shown at CES 2019. Almost all SmartHome devices have announced compatibility with these platforms. What was missing? Z-wave, ZigBee (outside Philips Hue), Wink, Smartthings.
However, in a future without hubs, Wi-Fi and the problems it faces will be the main issue.
Wi-Fi is hard, but it gets easier
If every smart device you connect to your network is Wi-Fi, you’ll quickly run into a few problems. Wi-Fi does not have the range that a set of ZigBee or Z-Wave devices can achieve. Plus, it doesn’t run on battery, and the more devices you plug in, the more congestion you can cause on the network.
The upcoming Wi-Fi 6 standard helps solve most of these problems. Wi-Fi 6 makes battery life easier, boosts speeds at 2.4GHz, and should reduce common congestion issues.
But this is a standard that comes and does not completely solve all problems. Google and Amazon know this, and they have prepared for the future by connecting to Mesh networks. Google already had its own mesh router system, and Amazon had just announced that it would buy Eero, the company that was just getting started with Mesh.
With network routers, your devices will have all the range they need, and congestion will be a thing of the past. Plus, you don’t have to worry about 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks and what to use and when. Mesh networks work both for you and without problems, choosing the most suitable and useful for yourself, since many smart devices only work on 2.4 GHz networks.
Hubs seem to be slowly coming to a painful death, and Voice Assistants are ready to triumphantly take their place. That’s a good thing overall, as Google and Amazon are big enough to weather the rough times and are able to drive adoption and work on price cuts. Whether it’s a display showing your best shots or an intercom system without all the wiring, they’ve already incorporated all the best features of hubs into their own unique features.
Smarthomes adoption is constantly changing and the future of hubs is another example of how fast things are changing. And how much early adoption pain you have to be willing to take to have a smart home now, instead of waiting for standards to really become standards and not just hefty promises.