Home Future-Proofing The Smart Home: Staples Thinks It Has The Answer

Future-Proofing The Smart Home: Staples Thinks It Has The Answer

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

There’s a hard truth about consumer electronics: Today’s top-of-the-line devices speed toward obsolescence pretty fast these days. The smartphone, tablet, TV, watch or appliance you bought today is going to look absolutely archaic tomorrow. That’s even true for nascent technologies like the smart home, a small but burgeoning market starting to fill up with a quorum of contenders.

Staples believes it has found the answer. The office supply retailer wants to appeal to both mainstream and hardcore techies, so it has announced that its smart home product—Staples Connect—now has broader retail availability, new device integrations and lower pricing.

The newly announced Staples Connect enticements might help usher customers through the door, but the retailer is banking on something else to battle the obsolescence and keep customers in the eco-system: future-proofing.

Zonoff, a software platform provider whose technology powers Staples Connect, has made future-proofing a rare selling point. It lets users add additional wireless radios to the Staples Connect hub, a small device placed in the home to act as a conduit between your mobiles and your connected home appliances. The process, says Zonoff, is easy—just a straightforward matter of adding plug-in adapters, no hardware hacking required.

Taken together, Staples approach could amount to an appealing smart home platform that costs less, is widely available and can be controlled from anywhere, with the added benefit of remaining useful for several years.

At least, that’s the plan.

An Unlikely Smart Home Contender

The Staples Connect platform is not really a household name, and there is no guarantee that it ever will be. As a product, it has been available since 2013, but only as a limited test through the Web and in select stores. The company wanted to gauge consumer interest before going in too deeply.

“We launched our 32-store test back around Black Friday in 2013,” said Peter Gerstberger, Staples director and divisional merchandise manager, new business development. “We took that 16-week period following the launch to really analyze how customers would react to the system.”

There is plenty of reason to wonder how well Staples would fare in the smart home world. As an office supply superstore known for printer cartridges and Pendaflex folders, it doesn’t seem like a natural choice as a smart home provider. Other big-box retailers—such as Lowe’s and Home Depot—already offer their own smart home systems or feature dedicated home automation and control sections in their stores. Sources tell me that Best Buy is also mulling over its own smart home initiative.

So far, Staples says that customer reaction to its pilot program has been very positive. Prompted by that feedback, the company has upgraded Staples Connect into a full product rollout set for July 15 across 500 locations.

The timing’s noteworthy. Just last month, Apple announced HomeKit, its attempt at unifying diverse smart home devices. And although Google didn’t breathe a word about any sort of Android@Home initiative at Google I/O last week, its ambitions seem pretty clear after it bought smart thermostat maker Nest, which in turn recently acquired popular connected camera startup Dropcam.

For decades, home automation and control has been a quietly evolving industry, with its recent smart-home incarnation capped by a couple of years of frenzied development. Now that Apple and Google are poised to enter the fray, smart homes may finally be on the verge of taking off in the mainstream market.

And if that happens, there’s little doubt that Staples and its cohorts want to be at the top of consumers’ minds. The question for Staples (along with Best Buy, Lowe’s and Home Depot) is if it is just selling a junky piece of plastic that we don’t really need. Its purported purpose is that it has the ability to connect smart home appliance with a variety of different wireless technologies, but is this something that can be done far more simply with a smartphone and a Wi-Fi router?

What Does Staples Connect Actually Do?

See also: One Connected Home Hub To Rule Them All

One way to keep customers happy is to give them what they want. And, Staples reckons, that means making home command easy and accessible. The Staples Connect system can be managed from the Web, iPhone and Android devices. A Windows 8 app is coming soon. Beyond mobile, the company will also extend control to Samsung smart televisions and remotes, as well as wearable technologies.

Staples’ hub, which allows various sensors and connected home appliances to communicate with each other, comes in two flavors: The existing Staples Connect Hub (made by Linksys) sells for $50, down from its previous $100, and a new D-Link model will debut this fall for $80.

The Linksys unit features support for Wi-Fi and home automation wireless networks Z-Wave and Lutron Clear Connect (for connected lighting), while a D-Link version covers those protocols in addition to ZigBee, another home automation radio technology, and Bluetooth Low Energy.

Future plans include Android Wear smartwatch integration, and possibly even financial incentives—the company wants to negotiate with utilities companies, insurance carriers and other companies to give smart home enthusiasts some extra benefits. 

Future-Proofing By Design

What could be the most compelling feature in Staples Connect is its take on future-proofing.

The issue with hubs, or really any device, is that you can only physically fit in a certain number of wireless radios (antennas that control various wireless signals like cellular data, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth). And anyone who has ever been stuck with old, dusty Internet routers or last-generation Bluetooth gadgets knows what it’s like when sexier tech—such as faster Wi-Fi networks or Bluetooth Low Energy devices—become the norm.

Zonoff told me it found a way around that obsolescence problem. Last spring, I spoke to CEO Mike Harris, and he explained how his Zonoff Distributed Radio Architecture (ZDRA) worked as a way to support new communication protocols and wireless networks over time as they emerge.

“Say the consumer buys a $20 module or accessory that’s basically a bridge between the Wi-Fi and this new radio,” he said. “They take it home, plug it into the wall, and it communicates with the hub.”

Because both the existing and upcoming hubs work with ZDRA, consumers presumably wouldn’t have to worry about their smart homes going obsolete. It’s either the most brilliant concept in smart homes thus far, or a nightmare scenario for simplicity seekers. To be honest, I’m really not sure which it is.

On one hand, a technology that cannot become outdated (at least any time soon) sounds fantastic. But it’s also easy to imagine this modular system adding more complication to already complex systems. Smart home users contend with hubs, appliances, protocols and apps. I shudder to think what happens when you add a slew of wireless adapters and plug-ins to the picture.

ZDRA could be put to the test before long. Staples Connect will eventually support Insteon, another major home automation network. Numerous devices support Insteon, but currently neither of Staples’ hubs work with it. It’s possible that an Insteon plug-in could bring it into the fold someday.

Projections peg the smart home market in the Americas to reach $22.4 billion by 2020. But we’re still a ways off. The current market still hasn’t figured out how to make smart homes accessible for everyday customers. Staples Connect’s broader availability, pricing and product integrations, along with its uniquely modular—and perhaps practical—approach to expansion, could make it an unlikely contender.

That is, if Staples can nail down one more thing: simplicity. 

Images courtesy of Staples.

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