Standards in the tech industry can be a very, very tricky thing. We have standards that we see and interact with every single day and they make everything a lot better. Standard plug sizes, standard batteries, standard code for the web, etc. When companies can come to agreements around certain things they are OK with not keeping uniquely to themselves, the consumers using the resulting products are usually the benefactors.
Standards make things simpler to interact with, repair, and build. Imagine if every flashlight had a unique battery. Imagine if every browser rendered the internet in its own, special way. Imagine if we had multiple types of fuel for our vehicles. You can come to the conclusion quite quickly that standards – when used well – make life a lot easier for consumers.
But they are hard to get established. One of the newer standards trying to make a dent in the tech industry is the Universal Stylus Initiative, and based on the nascent selection of USI pens on the market, I’d wager it isn’t going well so far. The promise is great: create a stylus standard so that any device works with any stylus. The execution has not been thus far.
The reason? Companies like Samsung and Apple have spent years getting their pens to do things that are unique to their products, so convincing them to adopt some sort of generic standard is going to be a tough thing to do. And without support from the big players, standards have a hard time making any real impact.
What’s different this time?
The biggest difference with this new Project Connected Home over IP (likely to be coined as CHIP, though some really want it to be called CHOIP just for the giggles) is the fact that they already have most of the major players signed up and on board. Here’s a snippet from the CHIP site:
Amazon, Apple, Google, and the Zigbee Alliance joined together to promote the formation of the Working Group. Zigbee Alliance board member companies IKEA, Legrand, NXP Semiconductors, Resideo, Samsung SmartThings, Schneider Electric, Signify (formerly Philips Lighting), Silicon Labs, Somfy, and Wulian are also on board to join the Working Group and contribute to the project.
The goal of the Connected Home over IP project is to simplify development for manufacturers and increase compatibility for consumers. The project is built around a shared belief that smart home devices should be secure, reliable, and seamless to use.
The industry Working Group will take an open-source approach for the development and implementation of a new, unified connectivity protocol. The project intends to use contributions from market-tested smart home technologies from Amazon, Apple, Google, Zigbee Alliance, and others. The decision to leverage these technologies is expected to accelerate the development of the protocol, and deliver benefits to manufacturers and consumers faster.
The project aims to make it easier for device manufacturers to build devices that are compatible with smart home and voice services such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, and others. The planned protocol will complement existing technologies, and Working Group members encourage device manufacturers to continue innovating using technologies available today.
Sorry for the longer-than-usual quote, but this stuff is important to note with this new initiative. Unlike prior standards that either take forever or never actually see the light of day (*cough* RCS from cell carriers *cough*), I think there’s a real chance this initiative could actually take hold and move us into a new phase with smart home innovation.
As it stands right now, there is little interoperability between all the available assistants out there. One company may make the best doorbell while the other makes the best smart display. Yet another makes the best thermostat while the best smart locks don’t work with any of the previously mentioned devices. For consumers who want to buy hardware that simply works with their assistant of choice, the fragmentation has become a bit overwhelming and a reason to keep their distance from making any further financial investments in smart home tech.
I think this is the lynch pin. With such a broken system, general consumers are basically too overwhelmed and too lost to make purchasing decisions right now. Consumer paralysis is bad for all these big companies because no one is really winning the war. Thus, an alliance is the best way forward so that smart home tech can continue being built on a foundation that rewards new hardware features over ecosystem lock-in.
With this new CHIP standard, a focus on security and open-source development will help move the industry forward much faster than before. Instead of Google’s team working on Assistant, Apple working on Siri, and Amazon building out Alexa, they can spend that same time building out features on this new shared standard that will help each one become better over the long haul. And this will allow more attention to be paid towards security as well.
There will still be unique facets and qualities to each company’s virtual assistant, however. This new standard is more about fixing the way the hardware interacts with assistants, not the assistants themselves. For instance, Google won’t be sharing any trade secrets about machine learning and AI from the Google Asssitant for Apple to go use on Siri anytime soon. The hardware end of things will eventually clean up, however, and buying connected hardware for you home should become much simpler over time.
If this all pans out, you could ostensibly go buy smart speakers, a smart doorbell, smart locks, lights, garage doors, and appliances that could all be controlled with the assitant of your choice. This future takes the focus off of which assistant the hardware maker wants to market with and puts it back onto the actual product. If a company making a refrigerator knows that the CHIP standard means they can expect every assistant to control X, Y and Z, they can focus on building a better fridge instead of worrying about how to get the assistant pieces lined up.
In the end, as I said in the open, standards can be a great and powerful thing when implemented properly. When the big companies are all on board, pushing the standard through becomes much faster and easier, and that is what we are seeing with CHIP. In their unified agreement, the companies behind the digital assistants we all use have taken a massive step forward into what looks to be a more seamless and simpler smart home future. Consider my fingers crossed.