The time is right for Google to make a Home hub
Although I wasn’t very impressed by the smart home smarts of Apple’s HomePod, the device does share something in common with the latest Amazon Echo product: It works as a smart home hub. Surprisingly, Google doesn’t have a hub product even though its peers in the digital assistant space do. It’s time for that that to change.
To be clear, Google Home and Google Assistant are very effective at controlling smart devices in the home. And Google is in the process of adding Routines, which appear to be similar to smart home “scenes”. While those are certainly useful, they still rely on voice activation and in some cases voice is not the best user interface. A perfect example is when I’m up late in my home office and everyone else is asleep. Calling out to a Google Home or having it respond to my command can wake everyone up. There’s also no automation built in to routines and I still feel that’s the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to making our homes “smart”.
Such automations are generally done at the hub level and as I noted: Google Home is not a hub by definition. It doesn’t process data from various smart home devices and take actions based on that data. Instead, it patiently sits there, passively waiting for a voice command. Google Home devices also don’t have the radios needed to be a true hub: There’s no Zigbee or Z-Wave radio inside of a Google Home device. At least not yet.
I’m thinking there should be. Or rather, Google should take a page out of Amazon’s playbook and create its version of the Amazon Echo Plus, which does have a Zigbee radio in addition to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support. I’d take it a step further though because the Amazon Echo Plus still doesn’t natively support the automation features you find in traditional smart home hubs such as Samsung’s SmartThings or the Wink Hub.
Sure, you can use third-party services for device automation (Yonomi, Stringify and IFTTT are perfect examples), but a simple native solution would be better. And one of those services is already part of a smart home entity. Comcast purchased Stringify last year to help expand the functionality of its Xfinity Home services. I also noted last year that it might make sense for Amazon to purchase IFTTT and, more recently, thought that Yonomi would be a good candidate for Google to purchase.
Whether Google does or doesn’t make a purchase like this for future automations, it still makes sense to build its own smart home hub. Or maybe it buys Wink for its hub technology, branding, reach and the fact that some Wink products already run Android: The Wink Relay is a perfect example of that.
Without its own hub product, any Google home automation efforts are constrained to working with third-party device makers and the APIs they may (or may not) provide. By centralizing the smarts into a Google-made hub, the company can work with device makers on creating more capable APIs in a faster time frame. Heck, Google could use the existing Robots feature as an automation framework if it decided to buy Wink.
And then there’s the data. You can’t have a conversation about any Google effort without talking about the data it could capture and then use to better understand user behavior.
Today, a Google Home can tell the company when you used voice commands to turn a light on or when you locked a smart door lock on your way out of the house. Automations would provide Google even more information because they’re an entirely different method of how a smart home behaves.
That sounds more than a little creepy, of course. Instead of using a GPS-enabled phone to see when you leave home, for example, Google would know that someone left the house based on data from a Google Home hub. Tie that data into security cams and add a little image recognition for good measure, and Google would know who it is that left.
Today, the company does this from a phone. When I worked in New York City, for example, Google recognized this commute because I configured my Home and Work locations in Google Maps. With a hub, it wouldn’t need to use Maps or my phone data to see that I may have left for work. And it could then have my home do certain things upon leaving, such as arm a home security system.
While you or I may not be thrilled that a company has the information, I do want a smarter home that knows when to enable my security system without any interaction my part, although though some systems, like the Canary that I bought, do that today. Even the Nest security system relies on tags or the user manually arming or disarming the system from the app. That seems like a lost opportunity.
Maybe Google is OK being “behind” Apple and Amazon when it comes to smart home hubs. However, I’m leery of that. In fact, I thought Google’s OnHub would be a smart home hub, but that didn’t happen. I still have an OnHub and inside it is a Zigbee radio that Google never used. Instead, Google updated the firmware to make the OnHub a functional duplicate of its Google WiFi mesh networking products. Oddly, the Google WiFi products have a Zigbee radio as well; something I didn’t know initially because Google doesn’t list that on the product tech specs. (Thanks Lateef for pointing this out in a tear down link!) And yet, newer models of Google WiFi don’t have Zigbee support, per FCC testing documents. I don’t think it’s likely that Google will enable Zigbee at some point in the older units, but it’s possible.
I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Google adds a hub product to the Google Home line this May at Google I/O. Google Assistant and voice control is only part of the smart home solution and Google is surely smart enough to recognize that.
(Update: This post was updated at 3:14pm on 3/12/2018 regarding Zigbee radios in some Google WiFi units.)