Belkin, which owns Smart Home brand WEMO and networking brand Linksys, has a unique position in the Smart Home space. It has the in-house know-how to create awesomely-powerful wireless networking equipment, but it's also been a pioneer in significantly less powerful, but perhaps just as impressive networked devices. We spent our time with the WEMO representatives, because of the way Belkin has split out its brands. Linksys isn't doing anything in the Smart Home space, as far as we can tell.
While WEMO got its start with connected lights that used a "WEMO hub," the WEMO folks made it clear that this represents a first-stage version of the Smart Home, and that hubs will not be part of the second stage. As they explained, the only reason WEMO ever used a hub was because it was impossible to integrate WiFi directly into bulbs for thermal reasons, and so a lower-powered standard was required. That's where the WEMO hub came into play, serving as a bridge between the non-WiFi bulbs and a WiFi router.
Belkin wasn't actually showing off any new gear, not publicly at least, but it was promising big new things for 2016. That sounds like a work in progress to us, but what Belkin made clear was that designing the next "Touchpoint" was where it's at in the Smart Home arena. People need a way to interact with their homes, not just program lights to turn on and off, which Belkin now views as the "low-hanging fruit" of the Smart Home world. The WEMO pont of view is that consumers are waiting for an implementation of Smart Home technology that makes their lives easier and better, and while automated lights were a start, they were just the beginning of the revolution. As Belkin stated to us, they don't want to be in the business of selling lightbulbs, so our money's on WEMO abandoning its iconic lightbulb line and exiting the smart lighting market altogether to focus on other products.
TP-Link is a feisty competitor in the home networking arena, but they were the first to admit that they're not the biggest dog in the fight. It was surprising to hear TP-Link's representatives acknowledge this, because in truth TP-Link makes some incredibly-impressive gear. They are among the only vendors of high-end PCIe-based networking equipment, and they were also the first networking company to announced an 802.11ad router at CES 2016, based on Qualcomm's cutting-edge chipset.
So it came as no surprise to us, even if TP-Link was a bit bashful about it, that the company has come up with what we think is an incredibly-obvious solution to the Smart Home dilemma, that for some reason has taken years to discover: a smart home router. All this time, we've been hanging silly hubs off of the back of our routers, or perhaps set up separate hubs that communicate wirelessly with the router, when all along the router was the key, and all we had to do was open our eyes to it. So TP-Link has taken one of its established router platforms and equipped it with a multitude of enhancements that makes it unlike anything we've ever seen. The prototype shown here, sporting multiple internal radios that speak nearly all the common home networking languages, along with a touchscreen interface to allow you to control all of your smart do-dads, would become both the nerve center of the connected home. To borrow Belkin's language, this router would be the "touchpoint." It's a great idea, but it may be just a little too late to turn the Smart Home tide.
Where the Smart Home is Going...
So what did we learn in our quest to find the Really Smart Home? Well, it makes plenty of sense to us that companies like D-Link, Samsung, Belkin, and TP-Link will be leading the way to the second generation of Smart Home products, as pioneers like TCP, Wink, and yes, maybe even Nest fall by the wayside, piling up on the clearance rack at the local Home Depot (we've actually seen some of this happening already). What people have been in search of was not ever-greater complexity and needlessly competing standards, but a unified system that would make their adoption of the Smart Home a simple affair. If the goal was to make our lives easier, Smart Home Version One didn't quite cut the mustard.
In the end, four of the world's biggest home technology companies showed us four different paths to the next generation of the Smart Home: D-Link believe all devices will communicate with existing routers, Samsung thinks the future is in the TV, TP-Link believes all devices will communicate with a next-gen integrated router, and Belkin WEMO believes that the notion of a smart home hub has to be cast aside, with a focus on putting control of the home back in the hands of the home's inhabitants. From Belkin's point of view, the next killer app won't be on a smartphone, or even on a router, but in something else all together, although Belkin wasn't ready to tell us what that something is!
One last thing we should mention: although Amazon wasn't at the show, one of its products was talked up at every Smart Home display: the Amazon Echo. From Belkin to Samsung, each company referred to the Echo as a game-changer, allowing users to interact with their Smart devices using only their voice. In hindsight, this was an obvious step in the development of the Smart Home, but it seems Amazon practically stumbled upon it. From here on out, we expect just about every Smart Home product to exclaim "Works with Echo"!