Openness Is Overrated: Honeywell And Vivint’s New Smart Home Platforms

ReadWriteHome is an ongoing series exploring the implications of living in connected homes.

Honeywell, the 125-year-old company known for home appliances, and Vivint, the former 90s-era Apex Alarm company, both just unveiled two new devices to launch their smart home platforms. Third-party developers excited to see established companies bring their experience and reputation to the industry will be disappointed, though. Because, unlike some nascent efforts, these two elder statesmen of home management won’t allow just anyone to enter.

In fact, in promoting their new devices—Honeywell’s Lyric smart thermostat and the Vivint Sky touchscreen hub—the pair tout their lack of openness like a feature, equating tighter control with reliability.

It’s not a trendy stance to take these days, but it underscores the biggest underlying battle in the fight to rule our homes: “open and innovative” versus “closed and reliable.”

Honeywell’s Lyric Takes On Nest

Honeywell put a lot of thought into its new Lyric smart thermostat. This is the company’s attempt to take on Nest, the now Google-owned device that jumpstarted the smart thermostat trend. If it has a bug in its craw over Nest, that’s to be expected. Honeywell sued Nest in 2012 over patent infringement.

But Lyric is also important to Honeywell for another reason: It’s the springboard for a whole new Lyric platform. The hub-less, Wi-Fi-based system could go pretty deep, considering Honeywell’s interests across categories—from thermostats and door locking mechanisms to healthcare devices.

Just not too deep.

“We’re using our own APIs across the various categories within Honeywell,” Tony Uttley, general manager of Home Comfort and Energy Systems, told me over coffee recently. I asked about the opportunity for outside developers, and he responded, “We want to make sure that Honeywell is continued to be recognized as high quality. We want to make sure that partners have something at stake in terms of quality and that it’s a consistent experience.”

Uttley explained that Lyric will be “a curated platform,” which is code for “only select partners allowed.”

One of them may be Apple. Last week, the tech giant announced HomeKit, its own stab at unifying the fragmented smart home category. And right there on stage, Honeywell’s logo joined those of other early partners to populate the presentation screen.

Indeed, another Honeywell representative confirmed via email that the company is developing thermostats to work with HomeKit. She explained that the integration will enable users, “to securely pair and control devices throughout the house [via] integration with Siri,” which sounds like a killer feature.

But here’s the rub: Honeywell makes many different thermostats. Some are standalone dumb appliances, some are single-purpose Wi-Fi thermostats—many of which actually work with other smart home platforms. Other Honeywell thermostats come as part of a separate HVAC connected-home platform, the Evohome “smart zoning” system (which is available overseas through an installer network). So there’s no telling which one may jump on the HomeKit bandwagon and the company refuses to specify yet.

The Lyric app includes installation videos, plus photo identification, to help users identify their setups.

But the Lyric thermostat could attract interest in its own right. Like the Nest, it can be installed by users, controlled by smartphones over Wi-Fi and alternatively set via a physical rotating dial. It also happens to feature a pretty, circular design. (Though Honeywell, quick to refute copycat accusations, pointed out that it has been making round thermostats for years.)

On the outside, Lyric offers a touchscreen interface and color-coded lights for different modes, and on the inside, it boasts geofencing that knows when you’re next door (500 feet) or across town (up to 7 miles away).

I also like the differentiation between “smart” and “intelligent.” Any connected device is considered smart, but intelligence requires context, anticipation and actions. If Lyric works the way Honeywell describes, it could fall into the latter category: The device knows when you come and go, and notices your activity patterns. Using that, it offers to make adjustments. And when it connects to weather forecasts, it knows there’s a difference between a hot and dry or humid 85 degrees, and changes the interior climate control accordingly.

Nest offers some of these features, but it’s pretty much a standalone product at this point. (Sales for the Nest Protect smart smoke alarm have been suspended for now.) Honeywell’s Lyric does cost a bit more, at $279, and you can only buy it through professional heating and cooling contractors, at least until August 2014, when it launches in retail stores.

Vivint Sky’s Learning Home Wants to Manage Itself

Honeywell’s latest may be a curated platform, but Vivint’s is iron-clad.

The Utah-based home security and control company caters to about 800,000 customers and, it said, customers tend to stay loyal for as long as nine years. So it’s in no hurry to turn them off with complications, bugs or hard-to-use features. This is why its new Vivint Sky smart home platform won’t opened itself up to outside developers.

To remain seamless, the company controls everything, from software to hardware. Toward that end, it just announced a revamped touchscreen control panel interface to officially debut Vivint Sky into the marketplace.

The wall-mounted command center was released in a “soft launch” earlier this year, shipping roughly 30,000 devices. Now the full roll-out will put the hub, and its splashy new interface, in more homes. The system works with mobile apps, cloud services, cellular networks (courtesy of AT&T and Verizon), as well as Z-wave, a standard smart home wireless network. These allow for control and automation over things like video, thermostat, door locks, lighting, and other devices.

People can watch video feeds of their homes on their computers, remotely shut down lights on their phones or use the touchscreen wall panel to automate appliances or thermostats. They can even talk in natural English (thanks to smartphone microphones) to command their homes.

“[Competitors’] products look like they were developed for engineers for early adopters,” said Jeremy Warren, vice president of innovation. “Ours speak to you in English, it tells you what’s happening, and it tells you what’s really critical.” Because Vivint manages everything, he said, the customer experience is feature-packed, but still streamlined and easy to use.

I haven’t gotten the chance to test this for myself to know if that’s actually true. But something else grabbed my attention: According to Warren, Vivint Sky can actually learn from homeowner behavior and manage itself. The system culls information across the devices in its system, so it can pick up on common habits. In effect, it understands and learns from you, eventually learning enough to actually take over.

Here’s what that would look like: Vivint Sky would notice that you come home around 6pm every night, so it starts to ask you if you’d like the thermostat to warm up the place by that time, or kick on the lights in anticipation of your arrival. “If a person says ‘yes’ several times in a row, it can take a step forward and handle things,” Warren said. And then once the system learns how a person lives, it won’t need to ask anymore. It will simply handle the actions on its own—at first, alerting the homeowner, so he or she has time to decline. But eventually, even that won’t be necessary.

“It will just take the action and notify you that it did it,” he said.

Sounds great—except, if you’ve got a third-party connected appliance, you can’t add that to your smart home. Outside developers aren’t permitted into the Vivint Sky ecosystem right now, though the company doesn’t want to close that door completely. “We don’t yet publish our APIs,” said Warren. “But we’re keeping our minds open for the future, so people can write their own rules. We just have to be careful.”

If he seems cautious, that’s because he is. Reliability is paramount, he said. It also explains why the company didn’t go the DIY or self-installation route. Vivint Sky is only available via contractors and professional installers, and customers pay $54 to $70 per month subscription fee for service (with $99 installation fee).

Honeywell and Vivint’s approaches stand in stark contrast to what startups like Smart Things and Revolv offer. The former actively courts developers, and the latter is gearing up to do the same soon. Companies like Control 4, as well as Staples’ smart home provider, Zonoff, offer similarly closed propositions, but since they operate as the back-end for other brands, they have no name recognition. Neither does Icontrol, though the company’s purchase of Piper smart cameras could pave the way for a consumer line. It’s also appealing to developers through its OpenHome initiative, which just brought 11 devices into the fold. There are myriad options in between.

Now Apple and Google are both in this game. These tech giants may accelerate mainstream adoption of smart homes like never before—which means we might know very soon which approach the public will favor.

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