Home Automation and Control - Setting the Stage

The increasing popularity of home automation (HA) equipment has fueled the Internet of Things (IoT) revolution. However, the low barrier to entry (there are innumerable crowdfunded projects in this space) has resulted in a very fragmented ecosystem. Interoperability is a major concern, and different devices use different protocols. In order to get a seamless experience across all home automation equipment, consumers have been forced to go the custom installation or integrated package route. These avenues tend to keep the joys of home automation and control out of reach of the average consumer.

The current market situation is ripe for someone to come in with a home automation gateway. Vendors such as Lowes (with the Iris product line) and Staples (with the Staples Connect initiative) have made interesting forays. However, the primary aim has been to sell more connected peripherals under the same brand. Interoperability with other HA devices is not given any importance.

On the other side, we have vendors such as Securifi trying to integrate a home automation gateway into a standard wireless router with their Almond+ product. All things considered, it would be best if the wireless router at home were to act as a home automation gateway. Consumers don't need to buy yet another device to act as a gateway purely for their IoT clients. The problems would then be making sure that various HA devices can talk to the gateway and consumers have the ability to interact with all of them using one interface. Unfortunately, these aspects have contributed to Securifi delaying the retail launch of the Almond+. Under these circumstances, the slot is still open for a unified home automation controller. Logitech is hoping to fill that void with today's Harmony Living Home launch.

Logitech Harmony - A Brief Background

Logitech's Harmony lineup is very well respected in the universal remote control market. The ability of a single remote / hub device to control multiple home entertainment devices (AVR / TV / media players) coupled with one-touch control and simple setup has been well-received by the consumers. In fact, Harmony's database of over 200K devices (which is also frequently updated) is unparalleled in the industry. The only downside of the units is the pricing aspect.

Prior to today's launch, the scope of the Harmony lineup didn't go beyond control of entertainment devices in the living room. However, the current popularity of home automation devices and the IoT ecosystem (coupled with the rapid rise of mobile devices that enable easy control via apps) make the next stop for the Harmony lineup quite obvious. Logitech is launching four new product SKUs centered around a home automation gateway hub under the Harmony Living Home category:

  • Logitech Harmony Home Hub
  • Logitech Harmony Home Control
  • Logitech Harmony Ultimate Home
  • Logitech Harmony Hub Extender

Logitech Harmony Living Home Lineup - Delving Deeper

The Logitech Harmony Home Hub connects to the home network and uses RF, IR, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to relay commands from the Harmony mobile app or the Harmony remote to all supported entertainment and automation devices. The Harmony mobile apps can work over the Internet. True remote control of the various devices in one's home from anywhere on the Internet is now possible.

Logitech Harmony Home Hub and Mobile App

Consumers can purchase the hub alone for $100 and use the full functionality with just the mobile app. As with any home automation setup, scenes can be programmed involving multiple devices from different vendors. Logitech terms these scenes as experiences.

The next 'upgrade' in the Living Home lineup is the Logitech Harmony Home Control that costs $150. This kit bundles a button-only remote with the hub described above.

Logitech Harmony Home Control and Mobile App

The remote communicates via RF, enabling the hub to be placed in a closed cabinet (if necessary). The mobile apps are obviously compatible with the hub even when the physical remote is being used. This configuration can control any number of home automation devices, but only up to eight entertainment devices.

The highest end configuration is the Logitech Harmony Ultimate Home. It is quite similar to the Harmony Home Control, except for a few updates to the remote control itself: a 2.4" clour touchscreen, gesture control and additional programmability.

Logitech Harmony Ultimate Home and Mobile App

The kit including the hub and the touchscreen remote will retail for $350. This configuration can control up to fifteen entertainment devices and virtually unlimited number of home automation devices.

In addition to the above three configurations (which will be available for purchase this month), Logitech will also be introducing the Logitech Harmony Hub Extender in December for $130. This extender will expand compatibility by allowing the hub to talk to devices that communicate using ZigBee or Z-Wave. Logitech also stressed the fact that the extender will be Thread-compatible.

Concluding Remarks

The Living Home lineup is a welcome addition to the home automation market. However, Logitech faces a few challenges. There are also a few questionable decisions that have been made with respect to the operating details.

1. Entertainment device manufacturers have typically adopted a hands-off approach after selling their wares to the consumers. As such, they don't have any issues sharing methods to control their equipment with Logitech. On the other hand, many of the IoT / home automation device makers treat their customers as recurring revenue sources by adopting subscription models. Some of them also want to tightly control the customer experience within a walled ecosystem. Under these circumstances, it is not clear how willing they would be to share their APIs with Logitech or work to make their products compatible with the Harmony platform. That said, Logitech says more than 6000 home automation devices are currently compatible with the hub, and the number is expected to keep growing.

2. Logitech is not adopting a subscription fee model for the Living Home lineup. While this is excellent news for consumers, it would be interesting to see what keeps the cloud servers for the external control aspect running in the future. It might not be a big deal for a company of Logitech's size, but it leads to another aspect - decentralized control.

3. Based on the initial information provided to us, it looks like the Logitech Living Home lineup requires the hub to be always connected to the Internet for it to control the connected devices. This makes sense for devices that currently offer cloud-based control only. But, we are at a loss to understand why devices that can be controlled via the local network itself (such as, say, the UFO Power Center from Visible Energy and the Ubiquiti mFi mPower strips) need an Internet connection when accessed through the hub while being part of the local network. In our opinion, the control logic (i.e, processing the APIs that talk to the various devices) should be resident on the hub rather than on the cloud.

4. It is not clear whether it is possible for third-party apps to talk to the hubs. Logitech does have a developer program for device makers to make their products compatible with the Harmony home hub. While Logitech indicated that the products being launched today can talk to the recently SmartThings and PEQ hubs, the availability of APIs for the Logitech hub itself remains an open question.

In conclusion, the launch of the Harmony Living Home lineup looks to be just what the home automation market needs. If Logitech can replicate their success with home entertainment control in this space, it solves a very important problem for the consumers and will allow consumers to invest in home automation without the risk of a fragmented experience. A reputable and reliable company had to get serious about this space, and we believe Logitech has the right play here.

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  • ganeshts - Wednesday, September 17, 2014 - link

    Difference here is that the push behind 802.11ah is being made by current Wi-Fi silicon vendors - It is almost a given that future silicon for wireless routers will have 802.11ah capabilities. That solves one major problem - getting the companies to adopt the standards
  • Daniel Egger - Wednesday, September 17, 2014 - link

    > More than the range, it is the low power nature of the operation that makes it suitable for devices that are currently using Z-Wave / ZigBee.

    The problem is: ZigBee is there, quite adopted, lower power than 802.11ah, has properly defined protocols such as ZLL to do the communication (rather than the everything must have an IP stack and run a custom REST interface approach), is much more light-weight to implement (important for devices running on MCUs), does mesh, does pair easily and without security stunts. Plus no one really needs long range for home automation which is what 802.11ah is designed for! Also I have yet to see what frequencies they're going to get in Europe; which is also a funny aspect that it'll have different bands on every continent or even country.

    The only use I can really see is as a wireless backhaul for smart meters where the utilities really have troubles getting proper and reliable connectivity.

    And sorry, but using WiFi for home automation is completely braindead; whoever came up with that stupid idea should be immediately retired.
  • ganeshts - Wednesday, September 17, 2014 - link

    What is the watermark for 'quite adopted'?

    Let us analyze the devices currently popular in the home automation market - Products that immediately come to mind are the Nest Thermostats, Belkin WeMo product line and multiple smart plugs from different vendors (the main one being D-Link). The common communication protocol that is being used by these: Wi-Fi

    Whether you like it or not, the truth is that Wi-Fi is being chosen because consumers already have Wi-Fi at home. No saddling of extra cost with ZigBee hubs or anything of that sort for DIYer.

    Why is using Wi-Fi for home automation braindead ? While it might not be technically the best tool for the job, note that market requirements trump those aspects. The market needs something that users can get up and running quickly, and whether you like it not, Wi-Fi is the best bet for that. Looks like the device makers and the market in general unfortunately don't agree with your opinion.
  • Daniel Egger - Wednesday, September 17, 2014 - link

    > Let us analyze the devices currently popular in the home automation market - Products that immediately come to mind are the Nest Thermostats, Belkin WeMo product line and multiple smart plugs from different vendors (the main one being D-Link). The common communication protocol that is being used by these: Wi-Fi

    lol, you just ignored >>95% percent of the market. As I said before the lighting products from Philips alone (Hue, LivingColors, etc.) are sold more than Nest (and heck, I even throw in a WeMo); you might as well add in the lighting products from Osram/Silvana, Greenwave and GE which are all using ZLL.

    So let's sum up just for my *very* simply automated home: Lighting: 3 Living Colors and a 2 Channel RF dimmable LED Setup. Next up: Thermostats, how many Nests do you have? In other parts of the world you typically have at least one thermostat *per room* for radiators (rather then floor heating) you have one *per radiator* so in my case 12 plus window open sensors and switches/buttons to control the heating per room and and globally. Next up: Smoke and heat detectors, again at least one per living/sleeping room and emergency paths, makes 8 here (yeah, I'm being sloppy with the regulations). So counting the automation devices and sensors connected via RF (rounding down) are 30, none of which are Wifi; the only Wifi "automation" device I have is a Netatmo.

    And I really do have simple setup because I actually don't believe in automising everything. Friends of mine have eachs households with dozens of sensors and over hundred actors, including shades, thermostats, windows shutters, indivually controllable lighting, wall outlets, power metering, weather stations, RFID and buzzer for door entry -- there's not a single WiFi component involved.

    > Why is using Wi-Fi for home automation braindead ?

    For starters WiFi is not reliable in densely populated areas and if you do crazy stuff like mentioned above you need to be certain that it is *very* reliable. WiFi is also not very secure when sloppily implemented (which it often is for cost reasons). WiFi is not energy efficient and thus totally unsuitable for devices which need to run for years on a battery. WiFi doesn't scale; ever tried having 20 stations connected to a single AP? Liked it? How about a few devices in the mix using 11g or even 11b? Now scale up...

    As I said: WiFi is for gadgets/gimmicks. The rest of world, ambitious users and especially automation pros would not even consider WiFi for anything more than maybe a few Nests and a WeMo.
  • Impulses - Thursday, September 18, 2014 - link

    Home automation via Wi-Fi is gonna get real fun when you start dicking around with router settings and need to reset it a dozen times in an hour, never mind when you switch routers... Tho I just switched routers for the first time in a decade (WRT54G finally gave up the ghost).
  • CSMR - Wednesday, September 17, 2014 - link

    Is there a reason that routers will come with 802.11ah? Is it less expensive to add to an 802.11g/n/ac chip than ZigBee (even though it requires an extra frequency)?

    I do like the idea of lower frequencies to penetrate walls in homes but it seems problematic if it's not consistent across countries.
  • Daniel Egger - Wednesday, September 17, 2014 - link

    I seriously doubt that this strategy will work. Home automation is a completely different beast to controlling entertainment devices via IR. If they seriously want to succeed they'll either have to roll out a full set of compatible devices (and convince people that their system really is extensive enough to be worth the investment) *or* they will have to make damn sure that they can talk to the vast majority of the installed devices: If I read vague statements like "This extender will expand compatibility by allowing the hub to talk to devices that communicate using ZigBee[...]" I have serious doubts about the approach; the very least this needs to read "[...]by allowing the hub to talk to devices that communicate using ZigBee like Hue or Lightify with other systems following suit".

    Communicating ZigBee and Z-Wave is nice but not worth a snitch when you're not able to actually be a controller in those networks, no matter whether that's because you cannot get the devices to pair with you or don't know the right encryption.

    And what about other protocols like KNX?
  • ganeshts - Wednesday, September 17, 2014 - link

    Z-Wave or ZigBee - the real truth is that the top selling home automation products are those like the Nest thermostat which are used over Wi-Fi. Almost all crowdfunded home automation devices are Wi-Fi based too. Just take a look at our recent piece on Broadcom's WICED platform - Bluetooth is also popular.

    It makes sense that Logitech first concentrates on Wi-Fi for home automation. They are able to claim compatibility with more than 6000 devices right now. Z-Wave and ZigBee compatibility will only increase this number further.
  • Daniel Egger - Wednesday, September 17, 2014 - link

    > Z-Wave or ZigBee - the real truth is that the top selling home automation products are those like the Nest thermostat which are used over Wi-Fi.

    Devices using WiFi are gadgets or gimmicks, not serious product. Home automation includes far more than (central) thermostats and everything else does definitely *NOT* run on WiFi. If you happen live in the USA you definitely live in a development country when it comes to home automation and yet even the US specific Wikipedia article for home automation doesn't even mention WiFi as a popular protocol:

    The most popular home lighting solutions are almost all based on ZigBee (and those alone are outselling Nest *BIG* time), you might have heard the product name Hue but there're quite some others:

    > Bluetooth is also popular

    True, and it's not WiFi as well. I don't quite get it why some are still announcing new products on Bluetooth base but okay if you don't really care about proper integration and want to control the lights exclusively via smart phone...

    The who is who in home automation is doing KNX for about everything; KNX is actually a merge of various protocols some of which were used only for commercial building automation and control but is steady and quickly trickling down into the home sector as well (also price wise).

    However there're many quite popular other protocols which are widely used for home automation, like Homematic, FS20, ZWave, EnOcean and (off course!) the venerable X10. If you want to get a feeling what really is used in the world you might want to check http://fhem.de/fhem.html which is a project that tries to cover all of it in a single OpenSource solution; I'm not saying that this site or project is any good (rather the opposite) but it contains a hell lot of information.
  • ganeshts - Wednesday, September 17, 2014 - link

    Give me numbers.

    Till then, device makers such as Nest will continue to use Wi-Fi as the primary communication method, and Belkin will laugh all the way to the bank.

    Why do you think home automation has suddenly become a hot topic when ZigBee and Z-Wave have been around for a long time? It is Wi-Fi and Bluetooth leading the revolution. As usual, Wikipedia is dated.

    I gives the Hue-ZigBee link - but, I would still like to see numbers from Philips for sales data. Let us be practical here - How many people want to buy a $150 - $200 set of few bulbs? On the other hand, smart plugs from D-Link and Belkin WeMo products priced around $50 fly off the shelves. (I have confidential data to back that up, nothing on the Philips side though).

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