We've been pretty quiet regarding smart home since last-2018, when we published our reviews of the market-leading Samsung SmartThings Hub and the upstart Hubitat Hub. We of course also reviewed Wink's last product, the Wink Hub 2, which was released years ago, and while we still use it, we no longer recommend it. In fact, at this point, we're going to go out on a limb and declare that the stand-alone Smart Home hub is dead, being replaced by the more user-friendly yet less sophisticated voice control hub, specifically Amazon's Alexa.
Yes, while it pains us to say this, the writing has been on the wall for several years now. The dream of highly-sophisticated do-it-yourself Smart Home installations is quickly becoming a distant memory. The reasons are manifold, but it comes down to basic economics: companies simply can't make money offering a hub and their associated smartphone apps at $100 a pop while providing extensive customer support, the bulk of which is for third-party products. There's simply no market for a system that isn't a closed, proprietary system, and proprietary systems must by nature remain the domain of professional installers.
Let's just recount some of the events that have led us to this point:
- Wink, one of the first companies out of the gate with a Smart Home Hub, survived the bankruptcy of its parent company Qwirky in 2015, only to be bought up on the cheap by Flextronics, which was the OEM for Wink, and then flipped to musical artist Will.i.am in 2017. Since then, Wink has continued to support its existing products, but as far as we can tell, no longer manufacturers or sells anything. In other words, it exists as a public service until Will.i.am pulls the plug (i.e., the funding) on this defunct project.
- SmartThings, founded in 2012 via Kickstarter, was purchased by Samsung in 2014, and while cash flow isn't an issue in this case, knowing what to do with the IP is. We're pretty sure Samsung coveted SmartThings for its potential to drive adoption of Smart appliances and TVs, but the gears just never meshed. During our tour of Samsung's enormous showfloor at CES 2019, SmartThings was nowhere to be seen, and we're pretty sure the Korean giant is preparing to write this investment off.
- The ongoing competition between Z-Wave and Zigbee for market domination has added insult to injury, as consumers simply don't need both VHS and Betamax in their lives. Based on our discussions with manufacturers, we know that Z-Wave was easier to implement, but that Zigbee is more capable. Thus, while Z-Wave had the clear lead early on, it's quickly becoming an also-ran, with its death knell being the adoption of Zigbee by Amazon for its Echo line, which we'll return to in a moment.
- Speaking of Amazon, Alexa represented a seismic shift in the Smart Home market. From its humble beginnings telling jokes in ads (and being the butt of jokes on late-night TV), Alexa has come to absolutely dominate the market. Sure, we've seen the market data saying that Google's Assistant is catching up or surpassing it at times in monthly sales, but guess what, the Google Assistant is already dead. Never mind that Google has never successfully launched and sustained a single hardware device; in this case, even if it did support Assistant, there's no turning back the Alexa tide.
- And speaking of Google, its May 2019 decision to end the "Works with Nest" program is proof-positive that its $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest back in 2014 was an unmitigated disaster not only for Google, but for all the consumers and third-party manufacturers who bought into the Nest ecosystem. Seriously, Google is not to be trusted with anything even remotely-related to hardware, and we're not sure we trust it with being the custodian of the Internet, either!
So, where do we go from here? The truth is that while hobbyists craved the hands-on nature of early Smart Home hubs, which they could tinker with until the end of time, the general public most certainly did not. And it's the general public that manufacturers need to appeal to if they hope to drive increased adoption. Our belief is that Amazon, in adding Zigbee radios to the 2nd-Gen Echo Show and the Echo Plus is now in the driver's seat. And because the Echo ecosystem is focused quite heavily on voice control, that is where Amazon will devote its attention. Consumers get voice control, it might not be perfect every time, but it doesn't need to be programmed or fiddled with, and most important for Amazon's bottom line, it probably leads to a fraction of the technical support calls that traditional smart hubs do. With that said, Amazon has been adding some automation capability to its Alexa app, which for most consumers will be more than sufficient for basic hands-off (or in this case, voice-off) controls. And thanks to its $1 billion acquisition of Ring in 2018, Amazon has a huge foothold in the DIY home security business.
Now, one thing we must mention is that many manufacturers continue to roll out Smart Home products that require no hub at all, which almost always means they rely on WiFi. Sure, WiFi is ubiquitous at this point, and it's certainly a great option for devices like thermostats, outlets, and light switches, which can draw constant power, or security cameras, which require the bandwidth of WiFi, it's a bad choice for most other devices. That includes light bulbs, which create enough heat to cause issues for WiFi reliability, as well as anything that isn't plugged into wall power, including smart locks and motion detectors. That means no matter what, the Smart Home must have some hub functionality. We've seen attempts by wireless router manufacturers to build this in on their end such as with the TP-Link Deco M9 mesh system, which seems like a natural fit, but based on our review, they clearly don't have the software expertise to make this work for consumers.
In the end, it took a consumer-facing behemoth like Amazon to really understand how to deliver the Smart Home to consumers while keeping costs in check, and as far as we're concerned, Amazon is succeeding, albeit it with a slightly diminished goal: making the Smart Home of the future a simple one. It may not be the Smart Home we all dreamed of, but despite what other pundits may say, it most certainly isn't dumb. From here on out, we're going to be recommending that most Smart Homes rely on the combination of an Amazon Echo Zigbee-enhanced device for Smart Home control, along with the excellent Amazon Ring suite for security.