As both a smart home and IoT enthusiast, as well as an API strategist by day, I’ve been very disappointed with how many of the companies involved in the connected home space have approached making their products work with each other. From the show floors of CES, to the aisles of Home Depot and Best Buy, the range of new smartphone-controlled lights, appliances, and entertainment devices is growing by the day. But while products are quickly becoming connected things, many companies don’t seem to be doing much actual connecting.
For many companies, interoperability often takes a back seat to delivering the simple out-of-the-box experience, and this is an entirely reasonable priority. Once the customer goes through the trouble of hauling out the step ladder and putting in a smart bulb, they want the immediate gratification of being able to turn it on and off from their phone.
Fast forward to a few weeks later. Emboldened by their first foray into the smart home experience, our newly connected customer gets a fancy new smartphone-controlled door lock. Now, they’ll never be locked out again. Pretty soon, light switches, thermostats, speakers, and even the bathroom scale are connected to apps on their phone. The Jetsons future seems perfect.
One day, though, it occurs to them that when their smart lock activates upon leaving the house, the smart lights should shut off too. And maybe those smart speakers should go silent as well. They vaguely remember something in the clever advertising that sent them on this journey promising this was possible. They open up a web browser to research this, and that’s when their happy connected life starts to unravel.
The sad fact is that while most connected product vendors paint a pretty picture of everything working together in perfect harmony, the reality is anything but. Many devices are limited to what they can connect to via their basic hardware – even assuming they’re using “standard” wireless connectivity, like Bluetooth, ZigBee, Z-Wave, or Wi-Fi. Every consumer on the market really needs to make sure their new devices have some way to connect to the cloud.
The big picture is interoperability. Connected products need to connect to each other. So, what makes this possible? Two important things – APIs and developers.
Connected things need an API
Every connected product needs to have an Application Program Interface (API). These are the software “hooks” that other products and programs can connect to and create that interoperability. It has to be easy for developers to get access to these APIs, learn how to use them, and build great apps to take advantage of them.
Seems pretty simple, right? Not so fast.
APIs have been de rigueur in the web world for some time now, but for a variety of not-so-good reasons, a lot of companies making hardware seem to get them wrong. In an ideal world, any developer should be able to find your company’s APIs on your website and sign up to use them via a self-service developer program. However, too many companies today lock down their APIs behind a private partner program.
Smart companies like Philips, with its Hue APIs, know that a developer ecosystem is a powerful advantage and make it easy for developers. Samsung’s SmartThings Hub has a great developer program as well, as does Nest. Amazon’s Echo and Alexa Voice Service is rapidly becoming the sleeper hit of the connected product world, largely propelled by the robust API capabilities Amazon has made available to developers to voice-enable anything they can imagine.
Other vendors could learn from these – I love my Sonos speakers and the August Smart Lock is a beautiful design, but both of these companies are missing out on a tremendous opportunity via APIs to deliver more value to their users and grow their own businesses.
Even worse than the closed APIs are the walled gardens. Rather than embracing open API interoperability, many vendors see the opportunity to try to bring order to the chaos in the form of platform plays. The result is that users have to choose “teams,” only buying products that are part of the platform they’re forced to pledge allegiance to. This is sadly a continuation of what we’ve seen in the mobile world.
The phrase “software is eating the world” is often bandied around and we’re told “every company is becoming a software company.” We’ve gone from working at computers, to carrying computers, to wearing computers, and now living within them. At every step along the way, it’s been APIs that have made it possible for ecosystems to be built as developers create new value for users by linking software together. As software moves into every product we use, we need to make sure that open APIs make it possible for these so-called connected products to truly connect to each other.